An investigation of several months by the Southwest Drug Task Force has taken $450,000 worth of methamphetamines off the street and resulted in the arrest of 14 people,
La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard and Task Force Director Pat Downs announced the result of the operation Tuesday. It’s not a closed case, they said, as the investigation will continue in other places.
In fact, the case took investigators to California and Las Vegas. Of the 11 men and three women arrested, nine are from Durango or Bayfield.
More arrests are anticipated in the case, which involved an organization that moves large quantities of methamphetamines manufactured in Mexico through Southwestern U.S. cities to Durango.
The arrests were made during a 45-day period.
In addition to the 10 pounds of meth that were confiscated, investigators turned up $10,000 in cash and storage units full of stolen goods, including firearms with the serial numbers removed.
Among the group are two brothers, a mother and daughter as well as a boyfriend and girlfriend. Some suspects bonded out while other remain in custody. The suspects range in age from 19 to 58.
The suspected central actor, Joseph Fitapelli, was arrested after a traffic stop. He had between $8,000 and $10,000 in cash in the vehicle.
Fitapelli suffered a health crisis that required sending him to Denver for treatment, Schirard said. Fitapelli, known also as “Italian Joe,” is from Bayfield.
“This is one of the largest operations we’ve had in quite a while,” Schirard said. “I’m real proud of the work (investigators) did.
“We made a pretty good hit on the meth trade,” he said. “This operation will slow up business in the area.”
But Schirard and Downs said the calm won’t last forever. New dealers will step up to fill the void, they said. Meanwhile, meth users hard up for a hit will buy over-the-counter drugs such as Sudafed, iodine from feed stores and pounds of matches from which they will strip the phosphorus to concoct their own meth at home, Schirard said.
The group to which the suspects belonged, Schirard said, has confirmed connections in Nevada and California and into high levels of Mexican drug cartels.
The breather also will be reflected in a corresponding drop in property crimes, theft and robbery that provide the easy money to buy drugs, Schirard said.
The task force has three agents from the Sheriff’s Office; one each from the Durango and Ignacio police departments, the Bayfield Marshal’s Office and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We started the task force 18 years ago,” Schirard said. “Since then, it has become the highest-funded unit by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in the Rocky Mountains.”
There are regional HIDTA offices across the country, funded by the federal government, Downs said.
Besides Fitapelli, 55, of Bayfield, those arrested were: Danielle Burton, 38, Bayfield; Pamela Chandler, 50, Durango; Jose Garcia-Ochoa, 19, Las Vegas; Daniel Gastelo-Ochoa, 24, Las Vegas; Loyd Groomer, 58, Farmington; Ronnie Gunkel, 41, Bayfield; Milton Korthank, 38, Durango; Cristain Lopez, 22, Las Vegas; Derrik Martinez, 28, Durango; Aaron McMinn, 41, Bayfield; Miguel Miranda-Sanchez, 23, Las Vegas; Travis Schield, 49, Durango; and Peyton St. Germain, 21, Durango.