Alleged drug smuggling ring at Pitchess uncovered in federal probe


An investigation into the Mexican Mafia-affiliated Puente 13 street gang, which led to the arrest of 17 people this week, also uncovered a scheme to smuggle narcotics into the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic.

During the five-month probe led by officers of the U.S. Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration, investigators say they uncovered the drug-smuggling ring at Pitchess.

Their probe led to an indictment alleging Ricky Lee Thornburg, who was an inmate at the Pitchess Detention Center and was identified by U.S. authorities as a Puente 13 gang member, planned to receive smuggled methamphetamine from fellow co-conspirators and distribute the drugs to other inmates, according to a news release issued Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Wednesday’s indictment, which charges the supplier of the drugs and a woman who allegedly attempted to smuggle the methamphetamine into the facility, alleges that more than 2 ounces of methamphetamine and some heroin, all of which was concealed in plastic drinking straws, was intercepted as the woman was preparing to visit inmate Victor Ponce De Leon at Pitchess in May.

The larger probe undertaken by federal authorities saw the arrest this week of alleged gang members.

Federal authorities announced Wednesday that they had arrested 12 defendants on federal narcotics and fraud charges stemming from an investigation into the Puente 13 street gang.

Those arrested Tuesday night and Wednesday morning are among 17 defendants named in a series of indictments returned by a federal grand jury that allege various offenses, including narcotics, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft. The other five charged defendants were already in federal and state custody.

The investigation into the Mexican mafia-affiliated Puente 13 street gang included a series of wiretaps that revealed criminal activity by gang members, gang associates and others, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in its news release.

The 17 defendants are charged in 12 indictments and one criminal complaint that allege a wide range of crimes, including possession with the intent to distribute

methamphetamine and heroin, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, felon in possession of a firearm, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, illegal possession of access devices (credit cards), possession of access device making equipment and possession of stolen mail.

A check of arrests made in the Santa Clarita Valley revealed a woman named in the federal indictment Wednesday was arrested in May by deputies of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station on suspicion of obtaining credit with someone else’s identification.

The larger investigation began for federal authorities when they learned Puente 13 member Victor Ponce De Leon was allegedly involved in drug trafficking, with intercepted communications indicating he was willing to sell methamphetamine.

One of the indictments that names De Leon specifically alleges a drug transaction in which he sold a quarter ounce of methamphetamine while armed with a 9mm handgun.

As the investigation expanded, authorities also uncovered an identity theft ring. While most of the participants are charged in separate cases, stolen credit cards and personal identifying information from numerous common victims were found in the possession of multiple defendants.

If convicted, those facing narcotics offenses general face mandatory minimum sentences of five years in federal prison and maximum possible sentences of 40 years.

Those charged with fraud offenses face a range of penalties, with bank fraud carrying a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and aggravated identity theft carrying a mandatory consecutive two-year sentence.

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