The crystal methamphetamine was made in a Mexican drug cartel’s “super lab” and made it to the streets of Buffalo.
Friday, federal agents and local police said they “obliterated” the drug ring responsible for importing the highly addictive drug in a swiftly executed operation.
Steven “Steve-O” Bennett, who split his time between Los Angeles and Buffalo, was identified as the kingpin, buying and shipping “99 percent pure” crystal meth by mail to Western New York where he encouraged his network of dealers to get as many of their customers addicted as possible.
There was a big incentive. Profit levels were astronomical compared with the cocaine he sold. Because the cocaine originated in South America, money had to be shared with the different criminals along the northbound pipeline to the United States. With the crystal meth, Bennett’s partners were fewer – the cartel, dealers and gang associates, the LA Crips and Rolling Sixties.
“This type of methamphetamine has not been seen here in Western New York. We’ve been fortunate,” said Dale M. Kasprzyk, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Buffalo office. “Bennett was trying to establish a market here for this extremely pure methamphetamine, so pure the crystals looked like glass.”
Methamphetamine produced in illegal New York State drug labs is 20 percent pure and in low-quality powder form.
At a news conference Friday afternoon, several ounces of the glasslike chunks were on display with cocaine, what the DEA described as three assault weapons, a shotgun, ammunition and a two-inch thick wad of $100 bills confiscated during the last of several raids.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. lavished praise on DEA agents, Erie County Sheriff’s Office investigators and other police for their collaborative effort in moving quickly to dismantle the drug ring before large numbers of drug users became hooked on the methamphetamine.
Hochul also pointed out that with the help of the Internal Revenue Service, a local Bank of America employee was identified and arrested for assisting Bennett in setting up fake bank accounts “that he used for the movement of money out of Western New York” to Los Angeles, where he or an associate would purchase the methamphetamine. Bennett, 42, allegedly recruited bank teller Jessica Lopez, 32, of Buffalo, who faces up to 40 years in jail if convicted of the charges she faces.
The most dramatic arrest Friday turned out to be the last, at 1:20 p.m. when a SWAT team tossed a flash-bang grenade into a second floor window above the Brother Halal deli, 580 Niagara St. The bang echoed throughout the neighborhood.
Moments later, DEA agents were leading Phillip “Chino” Keomongkoun, 24, out of the apartment in a T-shirt and jeans.
“Even with a flash-bang grenade and a SWAT team heading upstairs, Keomongkoun was able to make his way to the toilet and try to destroy drug evidence,” Kasprzyk said. “These guys are in urban warfare mode.”
Bennett had been arrested shortly after 6 a.m. in the apartment of his girlfriend on Dexter Street in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood, while DEA agents in Los Angeles simultaneously arrested Chandra Woods, 29, who allegedly carried out drug purchases and shipments for Bennett when he was here supervising his drug dealers. Four handguns were seized in Los Angeles.
Though a native of the West Coast, Bennett was known to local authorities from his affiliation with a West Side drug gang that called itself Taliban, though it had no connection to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2005, law enforcement agencies arrested Bennett, the gang’s supplier, and its other members, who were sentenced to federal prison.
At some point after Bennett completed parole in 2011, he returned here and resumed drug dealing, Kasprzyk said.
A few months ago, Bennett began to distribute the high-quality Mexican meth in Western New York. But the operation was doomed from nearly the start, Sheriff Timothy Howard said, because his investigators received a tip and passed it on to the DEA. There was no doubt, though, that the drug had the potential to catch on in a big way. Those who had purchased it were demanding more, according to law enforcement officials who listened in on wiretaps of Bennett’s phone calls.
Another frightening prospect was that the Mexican cartel’s “super lab” had the ability to churn out 50 pounds of the methamphetamine in one production cycle, compared with local “one pot” cooking labs that produce a few grams of far inferior methamphetamine, according to Michelle Spahn, DEA supervisory agent.
Mayor Byron W. Brown and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda expressed gratitude for this latest drug bust – the second in the city this week.
Others arrested Friday included: Malcolm Bull, 21, of Jamestown, who specialized in selling heroin for Bennett; Nikki Lillard, 49, of Buffalo; and Guy “Lamar” Burt, age unavailable, of Buffalo, according to an indictment released by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel L. Violanti. Cheektowaga police also assisted in the arrests.