Cape federal prosecutor receives national award

Thursday, July 22, 2004

LINDA REDEFFER * lredeffer@semissourian.com

Abbie Crites-Leoni, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's office, displays the award she won along with several agents with state, federal and local organizations for putting out of business one of the largest methamphetamine cases ever handled in the Eastern District of Missouri.

By Linda Redeffer ~ Southeast Missourian

The National Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force this week recognized a local investigation that took out one of the largest methamphetamine businesses ever handled in Missouri. The case involved suspects from Canada, Syria, Nevada and Southeast Missouri.

U.S. Attorney Abbie Crites-Leoni of Cape Girardeau was among the participants from agencies at various levels honored at the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., Tuesday for their efforts in taking the sales out of a project dubbed "Yankee Clipper."

For a young prosecutor only six years into her law career, Crites-Leoni, 33, said the award is a once-in-a-lifetime recognition.

"It's probably one of the biggest highlights ever in my career," she said.

The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force is a federal program that focuses its efforts on identifying and dismantling major drug trafficking organizations. It provides a framework for federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to work together to target complex organizations that deal in illegal narcotics trafficking and related crimes.

The organization has contributed to the prosecution and conviction of more than 55,000 members of criminal organizations and resulted in the seizure of cash and property assets totaling more than $8 million.

Crites-Leoni is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University and the Southern Illinois University Law School. She worked for a year in the Cape Girardeau County Prosecutor's office and for a year with the juvenile court before joining the U.S. attorney's office four years ago.

Operation Yankee Clipper yielded the seizure of more than 4 million pseudoephedrine pills, the forfeiture of $1,059,310 and the indictment of the seven people who kept the business afloat. Yankee Clipper got its name from a fictitious business in Canada named Yankee Distributing, operated by Krystina Randles, 36, a Canadian who was arrested early this year and extradited from Great Britain.

According to the federal court, Randles would send pseudoephedrine pills through the mail to customers in the United States. Her customers would also smuggle the pills across the Canada-U.S. border, then ship the pills to themselves and then sold them in convenience stores and tobacco shops they controlled.

Package to Fisk, Mo.

Crites-Leoni said she was first made aware of Randles' activities when an immigration and customs agent was alerted by a border inspector to a shipment of pills bound for a convenience store in Fisk, Mo., owned by Raymond Stewart, 46. Investigators had been monitoring Stewart's activities for a couple of years, she said.

"They asked if I would be interested in doing a controlled delivery, and I said 'you bet,'" Crites-Leoni said.

From that point on, agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Postal Service worked with Crites-Leoni and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other enforcement agencies.

The drug conspiracy began, Crites-Leoni said, when Randles met Dan Frankel of Las Vegas. Frankel bought large quantities of pseudoephedrine from Randles and sold it to meth manufacturers for a large profit.

Randles also developed a business relationship with Stewart who bought pseudoephedrine from her at $12.50 per bottle and sold it to meth makers for as much as $60 a bottle. In October 2002, Randles referred Stewart to Frankel because she was temporarily out of pseudoephedrine. A month before that, Frankel introduced Randles to Fayez Abazid of Syria, who was living in the United States, and sold him 70 cases of pseudoephedrine.

According to the Department of Justice, Yankee Clipper relied on the cooperation of many agencies at many different levels. Through cooperation with the U.S. Attorney's office in Las Vegas, a search warrant executed there yielded 700 pounds of pseudoephedrine. Other investigation tools included controlled drug purchases and deliveries, undercover officers and informants, various types of subpoenas and analysis of bank and phone records, and consensual recording of phone conversations.

Based on the investigations, search warrants were sought an executed at Frankel's storage units in Las Vegas and Niagara Falls, Ontario, where more than 4 million pseudoephedrine pills were seized. He was arrested in late June 2003.

Crites-Leoni said that the agents knew once Randles found out about Frankel's arrest, she would flee, so they planned her arrest to coincide with his.

In order to bring Randles back into the country, Crites-Leoni said she had to go through the Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. When the process began, investigators thought they would have to work with Canadian authorities to execute search warrants and subpoena phone records.

"That worked out great except when we got ready to make an arrest, she was not in Canada," Crites-Leoni said. "We had to start the same type of request for assistance through the United Kingdom. We were able to get the arrest within 24 hours. I was amazed."

Extradition went relatively fast, she said, and Randles entered her guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau on Jan. 3.

Crites-Leoni said she and the agents involved often marveled at how well things fell into place during the investigation.

"After something happened we would all shake our heads and say, 'wow!'" she said. "I told a colleague of mine in D.C. that we got really lucky. He said 'I've found the harder you work the luckier you get.' That's an interesting saying."

In addition to Randles, Frankel, Stewart and Abazid, authorities arrested three Poplar Bluff men also involved in Yankee Clipper: Ronald Lunsford, 44, Kevin Waters, 29 and Peter D. Fister, 44. Information from Yankee Clipper also helped a related case in the Eastern District of Oklahoma which involved pseudoephedrine also distributed by Randles. Five Oklahoma residents were ultimately indicted in Operation First Blood.

Wednesday, when Crites-Leoni went back to work the day following the award ceremony, Frankel was sentenced to 126 months in prison, a $20,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Stewart, Abazid and the three from Poplar Bluff were each sentenced earlier in the year and are serving time. Only Randles remains to be sentenced. She is in the Cape Girardeau County Jail.

In addition to receiving a crystal plaque, Crites-Leoni and her colleagues were feted at a banquet attended by 700 people. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gave the keynote speech.

Taking out a major drug player is something to be proud of in a battle that seems never-ending.

"In any drug trafficking, there's always the question of who's going to be the next budding provider," Crites-Leoni said. "As far as that organization goes, it is gone. The Yankee Clipper is no more."

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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