Drug ring's peculiarities attracted suspicions

Marijuana was delivered by the ton during the night

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 on 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 to smuggling more than 2 1/2 tons of marijuana -- worth $6.9 million -- to the East Coast from 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 pleaded guilty in the conspiracy.

"This was the largest marijuana seizure I've seen in six years," said Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland.

The defendants will be sentenced in July on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana. A Bowie man is wanted in the case.

Budd, Yahya and Brooks could be sentenced to life terms.

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

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

The house sits vacant and for sale. Basketballs lie in the yard, light fixtures are broken, and the deck's screen is tattered.

Yahya moved there in 1992. Several years ago, neighbors began noticing BMWs and Mercedes without license plates parked in the driveway.

By April 1998, court records show, police began investigating Yahya and Brooks after receiving a tip from an 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 in Jessup. Almost immediately, neighbors began noticing late-night deliveries, sometimes once a month, sometimes more often.

"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 the tip, investigators with local and federal agencies sneaked into the warehouse and installed surveillance cameras. Over a period of weeks, they made 48 tapes with seven hours of footage on each, according to court records.

About 11: 45 p.m. Dec. 7, a tractor-trailer arrived, and two men unloaded pallets of boxes. The truck left an hour later, followed by investigators who lost it north of Baltimore. It was stopped in New Jersey, but 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, Yahya and Brooks returned and moved the boxes to a 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 in all.

Using information from the rental car company, officers tracked Brooks and Yahya to a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

They were carrying more than $56,000 cash. Yahya had her passport and an airline ticket to France.

Pub Date: 4/26/99

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