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National drug bust snares 33 locally

An investigation begun in Pinellas County last year led to a drug ring stretching from California to Canada.

By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Thirty-three Tampa Bay area residents were arrested Thursday as part of a national drug investigation that originated more than a year ago in Pinellas County.

Six federal indictments were unsealed in Tampa on Thursday naming 29 defendants. Four face state charges related to the investigation, said Pinellas County Sheriff's Office officials.

Nationwide, law enforcement agencies began arresting 300 people. The investigation resulted in the seizure of 900,000 MDMA pills - commonly known as ecstasy - 1,337 pounds of marijuana and $4.8-million in assets, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

Federal officials said the arrests helped dismantle two international drug transportation rings and 61 distribution groups.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said the investigation has disrupted a significant drug trafficking organization in the Tampa Bay area.

"This all started right here in Pinellas County," he said.

Early in 2004, Pinellas drug officers began making undercover drug purchases from street-level dealers they suspected were connected to a bigger distribution organization.

Local and federal officers discovered through further investigation and background checks that several of their targets appeared to be part of an international drug ring, Coats said.

The investigation, eventually named Operation Sweet Tooth, spread to jurisdictions as far away as California and Canada.

The majority of the defendants arrested in Pinellas County were of Vietnamese descent. Most of them face a federal charge of conspiracy to distribute marijuana, cocaine or MDMA.

Law enforcement officials raided several of their homes and also the Tuyet Cafe at 4421 Park Blvd. in Pinellas Park and Cafe Trang and Breaktime Billiards at 4200 62nd Ave. N in St. Petersburg.

On Thursday alone, Pinellas law enforcement agencies seized more than a pound of cocaine, 3,000 hits of ecstasy, some crack cocaine, 34 illegal gambling machines and $40,000 in cash, Coats said. Previous Tampa Bay area searches related to the investigation had netted more than 60 pounds of cocaine, 55,000 ecstasy pills, two pounds of methamphetamine and $400,000 in cash.

Law enforcement officials have initiated forfeiture proceedings to go after defendants' houses, vehicles and bank accounts.

The investigation led to the arrests of the mother and brother of a St. Petersburg man killed in a controversial deputy shooting earlier this year.

A sheriff's deputy shot and killed Jarrell Walker, who was unarmed, during a drug raid in April. The deputy feared that Walker was reaching for a gun.

Investigators involved in Operation Sweet Tooth saw Jarrell Walker's brother Orin Walker take possession of a large amount of ecstasy at Cafe Trang about three months ago, Coats said. That led to a search last month of the Walker home, where Jarrell Walker was shot.

Investigators reported finding more than four ounces of powder cocaine, 0.91 ounces of crack cocaine, 3.12 ounces of hydrocodone, 0.49 ounces of ecstasy, 0.35 ounces of Percocet and 1.12 ounces of marijuana.

Orin Walker and his mother, Wanda Walker, were arrested on gun and drug charges. A third person in the home, Michael E. Lewis, was charged with possession of crack cocaine.

Coats said his agency did not target the Walkers in retaliation for the controversy that erupted after Jarrell Walker was killed.

"Orin Walker was seen taking possession of a large amount of drugs," he said. "We did some followup investigation and then got a search warrant to search the residence."

Graham Brink can be reached at 727 893-8406 or

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 12:36:51]

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