Mobile ring laundered marijuana profits through casino chips, California cannabis firms
MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Prichard police stopped a car in December 2019, finding thousands of dollars in cash and a driver who offered conflicting explanations for the money.
It wasn’t a fluke. Court records show that federal law enforcement agents had been on the driver and his partners for months, tracking down a sophisticated ring that routinely smuggled marijuana by the kilo from California to the Mobile area. These court documents show that the conspiracy members then laundered the profits in a variety of ways – including casino chips, real estate, cannabis businesses in the Golden State and a shell company set up by one of the conspirators in as a supposed construction company.
The investigation would lead to the indictment of 14 people on federal drug charges, including nine who have already pleaded guilty. This includes Mohammed Zohair Adi, who pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to launder money. Also this week, a judge sentenced the man who was driving in Prichard that day in 2019, Damario Kentel King. The judge dismissed charges of money laundering conspiracy as part of the plea bargain and sentenced him to 6½ years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
Among those named in the indictment is Jervoris Scarbrough, who Mobile Police charged in December with murder in connection with a 2014 shooting. Scarbrough was the first person Mobile County prosecutors sought to jail without bail under Aniah’s Law, which gives judges wider discretion to keep people locked up while awaiting trial for violent offenses. A judge, however, granted bail in the case.
Federal prosecutions for marijuana-related crimes are relatively unusual. And Chase Dearman, a lawyer who represented King, said the network prosecutors alleged here had a level of sophistication more typically found in criminal enterprises that deal in harder drugs.
“Usually you see this sort of thing in cocaine cases where there’s a lot more money involved. … The more complex systems I’ve seen were usually about cocaine,” he said.
Enough marijuana for 3.1 million joints
King, 35, admitted to being responsible for 400 to 700 kilograms of marijuana from January 2018 to May 2021. According to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, one kilogram of the drug is enough for 3,125 joints. This means that the 1,000 kilograms alleged in the indictment could theoretically produce over 3.1 million joints.
Court records indicate that the business was very lucrative for King. According to his plea agreement, he did not file any federal tax returns in 2017 or 2018 and yet he had over $1 million in unexplained cash income.
Prosecutors allege drug couriers allegedly smuggle kilograms of marijuana on commercial flights from California to the Mobile area and then transfer the money to individuals and entities in California.
Court records describe a multi-faceted money laundering operation to process drug profits. Adi’s plea agreement says he and others conducted “structured” financial transactions below the $10,000 threshold at which banks are required to report their activities to the government.
The conspirators also bought and traded casino chips with the drug proceeds and deposited money in California bank accounts and in the mobile zone, the plea agreement says.
Adi and another money launderer used multiple business and personal financial accounts to transfer money from the Mobile Zone to California, according to the plea document. In one example listed in the document, he wrote a check for $20,000 to Investors Inc., which he registered in California in 2012, indicating it was a construction company. But court records show it was used to launder drug proceeds.
Investors Inc. received more than $100,000 in deposits made in Mobile, Pensacola and California from October 2019 to January 2020 – including money that bank employees said literally smelled like marijuana.
Adi admitted that he and other launderers spent the drug proceeds on investments in nine California properties – five in Sacramento and one in Merced, Shingle Springs, Rumsey and Lodi. Prosecutors have asked a judge to order the defendants to confiscate those properties, along with a Mercedes.
In some cases, prosecutors allege that company members deposited the drug proceeds directly into the accounts of legal California-registered cannabis companies. At other times, they paid for the expenses of grow operations with the proceeds of illegal drugs.
Lawyer: Accused runs a legitimate business
One of the defendants named in the indictment, Navjit Bhullar, owns one such business and denies the allegations.
“My guy is a legitimate marijuana grower in California where (in) the state of California, it’s legal what he’s doing,” Bhullar’s attorney Jeff Deen said. “Always against the law, federally, and therein lies the rub.”
Deen told FOX10 News that Bhullar is subject to — and abides by — detailed operating rules under California marijuana laws.
“It’s heavily regulated by the state of California,” he said. “He can grow plants. And they have inspectors who come and tag them, all your plants. And they’ll come back a few months later and tag them, look at them, make sure they can see that you don’t have more than you’re supposed to have. And then the quality is tested.
Court records paint a picture of an extensive investigation that took place over several months and involved multiple seizures of cash and, in some cases, drugs. In addition to that Prichard stop involving King, court records detail seizures at airports in Mobile, Sacramento, San Francisco, New Orleans, Houston and several other cities.
During one of these trips, King and a co-conspirator traveled in September 2020 from Mobile to San Francisco. After he returned two days later, pursuant to his plea agreement, law enforcement arrested him with 125 pounds of loose marijuana packed in multiple vacuum-sealed bags hidden in suitcases.
A subsequent search of King’s cellphones found ample evidence of his involvement in the drug organization.
Investigators tracked tens of thousands of dollars in deposits made by King in 2019 and 2020 using wire and wire transfers to California bank accounts, which the co-conspirators quickly withdrew.
King is eager to put his legal troubles behind him and start a new chapter, according to Dearman, his attorney.
“Mr. King is a client that I really like,” he said. “He’s very smart, very smart. he will undertake.
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