Drug investigation ends with 5 arrested

An officer carries out a search warrant on Wednesday. About 30 officers from both local and federal agencies arrested five people between here and Montrose and seized 15 pounds of cocaine and four firearms. The cocaine was taken during a bust in the Target parking lot in Montrose. The investigation spanned nine months. [Photo by Doug Berry]

A nine-month investigation spanning law enforcement agencies and county lines culminated on Wednesday morning in a Target parking lot in Montrose, where three Telluride locals were arrested at gunpoint and 15 pounds of cocaine seized.

The investigation, which surged into Telluride on Wednesday morning, also turned up four firearms and netted five arrests total. The estimated street value of the cocaine seized was pegged at $1 million.

At about 10:45 on Wednesday morning, some 30 officers executed four search warrants across Telluride at two residences and two businesses. Residences included a unit in Lulu City and another on West Columbia. Businesses included La Tapatia and the newly opened Telluride Pizza Kitchen.

The pocket park encasing La Tapatia and the Telluride Pizza Kitchen was taped off behind police tape by 11 a.m., with taco cart customers sat down on benches outside. Near the taco cart was a makeshift headquarters; officers put cell phones in paper bags and took men from the area away in handcuffs. Police in SUVs rolled through Telluride’s streets, officers spilling from them like bees.

In Montrose, meanwhile, a SWAT team waited for a drug transaction to be completed in the Target parking lot, according to Tom Chinn, the chief of the Montrose Police Department.

Just after the transaction, about 10 officers surrounded a vehicle. The suspects then made an attempt to back out, but when officers lofted a flash-bang grenade into the air, they surrendered at gunpoint. “When all the players were there, the arrest was made,” Chinn said. The seizure marks the largest amount of cocaine taken in Montrose County by police.

Erik Cristobal Sanchez, 34, Marico Antonio Garcia-Garcia, aka Tono, 26, and Maria Vargas Gonzalez, aka Maria Sanchez, 33, were arrested in the Montrose incident and saddled with a litany of charges stemming from cocaine distribution. All are from Telluride.

Sanchez, the well-known part-owner of the taco cart, was charged with distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine, unlawful purchase of firearms and resisting arrest. All are felony charges outside of resisting arrest, which is a misdemeanor. Garcia-Garcia was charged with distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine and unlawful possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Gonzalez, Sanchez’s wife, was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, though other charges are pending. Sanchez and Garcia-Garcia are both being held on $6 million bonds and Gonzalez on $5 million.

In Telluride, police arrested Enrique Hernandez, aka Kiki, 21, and Gilberto Garcia Garcia, 34. Hernandez was charged with distribution of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a school, conspiracy to distribute cocaine, distribution of cocaine, unlawful possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and unlawful purchase of firearms. Gilberto Garcia Garcia was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

They were taken to the San Miguel County jail. Bond is set for both men at $1 million each.

The arrests came as the result of a deep investigation by a laundry list of law agencies. Those included are: Seventh Judicial District Drug Task Force, San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, Telluride Marshal’s Office, Mountain Village Police Department, Montrose Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Durango Police Department, Southwest Drug Task Force and Western Colorado Drug Task Force.

Seventh Judicial District Attorney Myrl Serra called the investigation “far-flung” on Thursday, and indicated it may not be over.

Serra will file charges by next Wednesday, when the suspects in Montrose are due in court.

Affidavits were sealed due to the ongoing investigation. “We’re still moving,” Serra said.

There is a chance the cases will be made federal, he said. Serra plans to consult with the US Attorney’s office, which is already involved in the investigation.

Bill Masters, San Miguel County Sheriff, said the investigation was born of phone calls to police. Masters wouldn’t say how high the investigation could reach into the cocaine echelon. “That remains to be seen,” he said.

The seizure marks the largest in the Masters can recall in the region. The 1970s saw substantial investigations — wire taps and the like — but never yielded such a quantity.

“Physically, getting that much is pretty rare here,” Masters said. “We’ve never done that.”

Telluride Chief Marshal Jim Kolar wasn’t surprised such quantities of drugs were flowing through the area, and neither was Chinn.

“It’s not something that you tap into that frequently, but it doesn’t surprise me that that those type of quantities are flowing through our region,” Kolar said. “This is going to a high profile case.”

A day later in Telluride, “I can’t believe its” and “I’m so sads” hung in the air, a small town rocked by the news. And all was quiet at the taco cart, a popular food stand loved for its cheap, authentic Mexican food, a few leaves on the bar its only customers.