SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - An alleged international money laundering, drug trafficking, and illegal wildlife trade operation have been shut down by federal, state and local investigators.
The announcement came from the Department of Justice at a news conference Thursday morning in Savannah, detailing the case called Operation APEX. A special agent in charge of the DEA said the details of the indictment read like a movie script.
“We have a Mexican drug cartel who initially came to our attention through U.S. Fish and Wildlife when they smuggled over 900 kilos of cocaine with frozen sharks,” said Robert Murphy - DEA, Special Agent in Charge, Atlanta Field Division.
That, in addition to the capture of alleged Chinese money launderers using the illegal wildlife trade to launder money for the cartel, seized gold bars, diamonds, and $4 million in cash, have made Operation APEX a huge success.
“If you want to have a global impact you integrate like this. And the leadership from the Fish and Wildlife Service and DEA made all of this possible,” said U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine - Southern District of Georgia.
Operation APEX’s roots go back to 2015 when Fish and Wildlife suspected trade of illegally harvested wildlife, which includes shark fins and bladders from endangered fish.
Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division set up an undercover seafood business in Georgia.
“We were specifically looking at the shark fin trade. It was set up here in Georgia. There were illegal fins that came to Georgia and left Georgia,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Law Enforcement spokesperson.
The DOJ says during the arrests of the defendants and searches of their homes and workplaces, agents seized more than $3.9 million in multiple bank accounts; approximately $3 million in gold, silver, and other precious metals, along with $1 million in diamonds; approximately 18,000 marijuana plants and 34.5 pounds of processed marijuana; multiple firearms; and documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins. Agents also seized 18 totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy in Asia harvested illegally from an endangered species.
Here’s a quote from Oceana’s Federal Policy Manager Ariana Spawn regarding the outcome of Operation Apex.
“This is yet another example of how the illegal wildlife trade plays a part in organized crime. This case also makes clear that statewide bans on the sale and trade of shark fins, while a step in the right direction, leave holes in the system that perpetrators can and do exploit. That’s why we need to put an end to the shark fin trade in the United States once and for all by passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act in the Senate.”
The following 12 defendants are charged in the case, according to U.S. Attorney’s Office – Southern District of Georgia:
- Serendipity Solutions LLC, of San Bruno, Calif.
- Phoenix Fisheries LLC, of Southport, Fla.
- Terry Xing Zhao Wu, 45, of Burlingame, Calif.
- Natalie Ye Man Chan Wu, 38, of Burlingame, Calif.
- Woonjin Lam, 43, of San Francisco
- Anthony Wu, 24, of San Francisco
- Billy Chen, 61, of Walnut, Calif.
- Ying Le Pang, 47, of San Lorenzo, Calif.
- Mark Leon Harrison, 59, of Southport, Fla.
- Heather Huong Ngoc Luu, 46, of Westminster, Calif.
- Kevin Chinh Nguyen, 40, of Tucker, Ga.
- Elias Samuel Castellanos, 54, of Scottsdale, Ariz.
- Terry Louis Shook, 56, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich.
The case will be prosecuted in Savannah, Ga.
Rewatch Thursday’s news conference: