Yakima County’s drug traffickers a main target for FBI task force

An FBI task force comprised of local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement officers is working to reduce violence in Yakima County and on the Yakama Reservation by targeting the biggest drivers of violent crime: drug traffickers and gang members.

“When you take them out of the community, it’s like cutting the head off the snake,” Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said. “It can have a lot of impact — more impact than what you would think.”

Udell said there’s been an active drug corridor in the county for decades, with drugs coming in from the south and then moving through the county to the west side of the state, Oregon and as far east as the Dakotas.

With needing to constantly respond to emergency calls and covering a large area, Udell said his deputies don’t have the time or resources necessary to go after people distributing drugs or committing violence at a higher level.

“Those are the type of people that this task force is going to go after: those people at the top of maybe some criminal food chains, who are affecting enough people that they need to be removed from our county,” Udell said.

The federal-local partnership resulted in more than a half-dozen indictments this week, including five people accused of distributing large quantities of methamphetamines.

  • 33-year-old Nicholas Medelez, of Yakima, was arrested Tuesday and charged with three counts of distributing methamphetamine.
  • 62-year-old Dennis William Chapman, of Toppenish, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.
  • 47-year-old Sergio Hernan Mendoza, of Sunnyside, was arrested Tuesday and charged with two counts of distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.
  • 45-year-old Joseph Wade Clark, of Yakima, is currently being held in the Yakima County jail on unrelated charges, but is now charged with two counts of distributing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.
  • 34-year-old Tiare Aqua Leilani Miller, of Toppenish, was arrested Tuesday and charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
  • 75-year-old Raymond Holt, of Wapato, was arrested Wednesday and charged with abusive sexual contact of an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation.
  • 25-year-old Marcelo Anthony Benson, of Wapato, is currently being held in a state prison on unrelated charges, but is now charged with being a felon in possession with a firearm.

“You’ll see arrests a lot for things that don’t look directly connected to gangs, like drugs or other sorts of things like sex trafficking, but it all comes down to gangs in the end,” Udell said. “Gangs and drugs are so interconnected that you cannot attack one without getting into the other.”

Authorities said the hope is that by taking out the people at the top, it will reduce the amount of drugs being distributed throughout the county and potentially prevent further violence related to drugs.

“If you’re in this county and you are being violent or aggressive or dealing a lot of dope, you’re going to be on the target list,” Udell said.

Kelly Smith, the assistant special agent in charge for the FBI Seattle field office, said they see plenty of cases where drug usage has caused people to engage in criminal activity.

Smith said people struggling with addiction can also end up facing a myriad of negative effects, including job loss or homelessness.

“So our goal in combating the supply of drugs is to keep the community safe and even keep those users from from being negatively affected by their addiction,” Smith said.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington Vanessa Waldref said even a small number of arrests can make a large impact on a community if the people being arrested are the ones responsible for most of the criminal activity in the area.

“People who have been victimized by violent offenders — which includes many missing and murdered indigenous women and people — are going to be served well by our targeted enforcement efforts to remove violent offenders from the community,” Waldref said.

When asked whether gang members could potentially could face violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization law — which was designed to fight organized crime like the mafia — Waldref said:

“That’s a great question and what we’re doing with the safe streets task force is really considering all options to address the specific needs of the Yakima community. And one effort is certainly to focus in on drug trafficking and violent crimes and sometimes those fit within a RICO-type scheme and sometimes they don’t. So what we’re going to do is work very closely with our local and state and tribal counterparts to ensure that we are focusing on the individuals that we know are the biggest drivers of violent crime. And if that’s done in the individual case, that’s going to be our focus and if it’s done in a coordinated effort, then we can look to other conspiracy statutes and other federal tools.”

However, Udell said investigations aimed at finding evidence to support RICO charges are time-consuming and require a lot of resources to be successful:

“It takes a lot of time and I’m not talking about weeks or months: it can take years to really have an effective RICO operation. And I can’t comment on anything that’s going on right now, but understand the task force really has truly been only up for a couple of years and it’s only recently ramped up with more agents, and now the deputies.  In the future, I think you’ll see some of those end up in court.”

Authorities said the FBI task force is currently seeking additional fugitives and will provide more information once they are in custody.

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