Drug ring attracted suspicions

Neighbors noticed late-night deliveries at Jessup warehouse

`It just wasn't right'

3 who pleaded guilty to marijuana charges to be sentenced in July

April 26, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Late at night, tractor-trailers rumbled in behind a row of warehouses in Jessup and delivered mysterious cargo that was quickly spirited into Ace International.

That caught the attention of neighbors perplexed by irregular deliveries and secretive handling of supposed perfume shipments.

"We really thought they were running guns or drugs," said Rob Wilson, president of Benchmark Industries, a neighboring business. "It just wasn't right."

He was close to the mark. It was marijuana -- by the ton.

On Tuesday, the last of three suspects arrested in December by a federal-led task force in connection with the fictitious Ace International pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to conspiracy charges stemming from one of the largest marijuana rings busted in Maryland.

Norah E. Yahya, 33, of Columbia and a California man, Devon Brooks, 31, admitted in recent weeks to smuggling more than 2 1/2 tons of marijuana -- worth $6.9 million -- to the East Coast from their suppliers in Southern California since late 1996.

The other defendant, Keith A. Budd, 25, of Prince George's County, was arrested after leaving the Jessup warehouse in a dump truck. Inside, authorities found 3,000 pounds of marijuana. On Tuesday, Budd added his guilty plea, admitting to taking part in the conspiracy last year.

"This was the largest marijuana seizure I've seen in six years," said Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland. "We're talking about the size of a dump truck."

The defendants are scheduled for sentencing in July on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana. A Bowie man is wanted in the case. Defense attorneys declined to comment.

Budd, Yahya and Brooks could be sentenced to life in prison. They will probably serve more than 10 years each, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Zimmerman, the prosecutor.

"I want to apologize to my family, wife, daughter," Budd said in brief remarks in court.

Authorities would say little about the case. But court records, plea agreements and interviews with neighbors reveal a criminal organization that was trying to hide behind a facade of suburban living.

`Didn't seem to fit in'

In Yahya's quiet Columbia neighborhood on Spring Water Path, where she and four children lived in a two-story white house with black shutters and a spacious backyard deck, neighbors reacted with surprise tempered by lingering suspicions.

"They just didn't seem to fit," said John Martin, a neighbor. "They were nice, but something was off."

The house is vacant and for sale. A few basketballs sit in the yard, light fixtures are broken, and the deck's screen is tattered and torn.

Yahya moved there in 1992. Several years ago, neighbors began noticing more expensive cars, BMWs and Mercedes, parked without license plates in the driveway. Taxis would arrive, honk, then leave.

Authorities would not say whether the Columbia home had any connection to the drug operation.

Tip from informant

By April 1998, court records show, police began investigating Yahya and Brooks after receiving a tip from a confidential informant, who said Budd was buying marijuana from a woman named Norah, later identified as Yahya.

The informant told police that Budd once paid $72,000 for a shipment.

About a year ago, Ace began leasing space at the warehouse on Bristol Court in Jessup, a five-minute drive from Yahya's home. Almost immediately, neighbors began noticing late-night deliveries, sometimes once a month, sometimes more frequently.

"They were a real strange group," Wilson said. "No one was ever there. We'd just see them once in awhile at strange times. They didn't want anyone to know what they were doing."

Yahya told Wilson she was running a perfume business, but other employees thought Ace might be involved in distributing furniture -- after the nighttime deliveries, people would arrive and leave with chairs, desks, sofas.

Six months after receiving their tip, investigators with local and federal agencies sneaked into the warehouse and installed surveillance cameras that filmed several deliveries by tractor-trailers. Over a period of weeks, they made 48 tapes with seven hours of footage on each, according to court records.

Suspects arrested

About 11: 45 p.m. Dec. 7, a tractor-trailer arrived, and two men began unloading four pallets of boxes. An hour later, the truck left, followed by investigators who lost it north of Baltimore. It was stopped in New Jersey. No drugs were found.

That evening, Yahya arrived at the warehouse in a van and Brooks in a rental car. Yahya used a forklift to load a pallet of boxes into the van. They drove away.

Shortly after midnight, officials said, Yahya and Brooks returned and moved the boxes to a large dump truck, which Budd then drove along U.S. 1 toward Washington. He was stopped by Prince George's County police. Inside, authorities found 97 boxes, each containing 33 pounds of marijuana -- about 3,240 pounds of marijuana in all.

Using information from the rental car company, agents began tracking Brooks and Yahya. Authorities found them that evening at a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport with more than $56,000 cash.

Yahya had her passport and an airline ticket to France.

"You'll have to draw your own conclusions on that," Zimmerman said.

Pub Date: 4/26/99

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