by Paige Phelps
Over several hours in groups of twos and threes shackled in chain link, defendants in a massive Big Bend interagency cocaine takedown were escorted into the Alpine Federal Courthouse to hear the counts read against them by U.S. Magistrate Judge Dwight Goains.
Nineteen Alpine residents, three whom were still on the run at press time, two Sanderson residents, and one Fort Stockton resident were all indicted by a federal grand jury from Pecos January 12 in connection with a drug distribution operation that, law enforcement officials say, conducted most their business around public schools and city parks and playgrounds.
Several defendants were charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute less than five kilograms of cocaine within 1,000 feet of Alpine Middle School, as well as Medina Park and Baines Park, also in Alpine. Among the charged are also John and Katheryn Staessens, managers of the Pecan Grove RV Park in Alpine, who are alleged to have knowingly allowed drug distribution on their property.
“We’d like to think this will be bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of life [in Alpine],” said Joseph M. Arabit, DEA special agent in charge, who said the arrests were made in an investigation called Operation West Texas Enterprise.
In addition to DEA, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force, Brewster County Sheriff’s Office, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives-El Paso, Alpine Police Department, U.S. Border Patrol-Marfa Sector, Texas Department of Public Safety Narcotics- Alpine, Homeland Security and Customs Enforcement (HSI ICE)-Alpine and Presidio, and several other law enforcement agencies, including the Sul Ross State University Public Safety Department, assisted in this investigation.
Officials say the alleged ringleaders John Michael Guadarrama, 29, of Sanderson and Oscar Fierro, 43, of Alpine, are not at this time connected to any cartels.
“This is just retail and mid-level distribution that supplied the user population,” said Arabit at the press conference held on January 31. “But we want you know that the level that was distributed was significant.”
To illustrate, Jay Miler, assistant U.S. attorney, said that the operation encompasses over a half-kilo of cocaine in this operation, “and this was distributed in a town the size of Alpine.”
Other than cocaine, the operation picked up ten firearms, several vehicles and an undisclosed amount of cash. The defendants will be held in both the Brewster County jail and the newly-reopened Presidio County jail.
Arabit said, while he was not at liberty to disclose all the methods used to indict the defendants, this particular sting used the assistance of both confidential informants and anonymous tips. Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said the information his office receives from the public is essential to these types of cases.
“Weekly we have people coming to the sheriff’s office telling us they’re seeing people coming up to cars, people buying from houses—people parking and staying only five or six minutes, and we want to tell those people that we want that kind of information to still come to us,” said Sheriff Dodson.
Dodson said his office and the Alpine Police Department both have officers who liaise with the agents at the DEA and it’s common for the officers to bring cases like this one to the attention of the federal government, who then take the case from there.
“We’d like to thank the DEA for coming out full-force to help us,” he said. Adding, “It’s not over.”
Three fugitives (pictured below) are still on the run from Alpine. “A lot of local people are happy about this [operation],” said Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson. “And we’re pretty sure once we get their names and photos out there, they’ll be giving themselves up pretty quick.”