New court documents raise questions about Colorado marijuana raids

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Dispatches from the Highlands

Marijuana news from contributing authors and staff writers on the latest in marijuana and medical marijuana

June 24, 2018
San Francisco, CA

The Miami jewel fence. The disgruntled former business partner. The shots fired into an upscale Adams County home.

According to new documents in federal court, they all led investigators to the same place: a Denver medical marijuana dispensary that was the focus of the largest-ever federal raids on Colorado's legal cannabis industry.

The documents, which were filed as part of civil forfeiture cases and search warrants and made publicly available in recent weeks, reveal the staggering extent of the investigation into VIP Cannabis and its related operations. Combined with court documents unveiled earlier this week, they accuse VIP's operators of overseeing an international drug-trafficking and money-laundering operation that included close to 30 people and spanned multiple licensed marijuana businesses and unlicensed residential grows.

But the documents also raise questions about why federal authorities, confronted with what they allege was such a widespread conspiracy, have chosen thus far to charge only four people in connection with the investigation. Those four — brothers Gerardo and Luis Uribe, attorney David Furtado and Colombian national Hector Diaz — face a handful of charges related to money-laundering and financial crimes. They could be sentenced to decades in prison.

Despite the new documents' allegations of out-of-state marijuana smuggling, the four have not been charged with drug trafficking. They also have not been accused in court documents of having connections to Colombian drug cartels, something sources told The Denver Post after last year's raids that investigators were looking into.

That lack of additional charges makes supporters of the four question the underlying investigation. One of the crimes charged — attempting to deposit the proceeds of a medical marijuana dispensary in a bank — is common within Colorado's cannabis industry.

"The feds are continuing to prosecute these defendants for a federal crime — money laundering — that every person and institution financially benefiting directly from the Colorado marijuana industry is guilty of," Margaret O'Neill, an attorney at Furtado's law firm, wrote in an e-mail to The Denver Post.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Colorado, said the case isn't yet closed.

"This is a substantial, international ongoing investigation," Dorschner said. "The investigation did not conclude at the filing of the last indictment. To speculate about potential future charges would not be appropriate."

According to the documents, the investigation stretches back at least three years, and federal agents took multiple avenues into it.

One came through a convicted Miami jewel fence who called himself "Tony Montana," after the character from "Scarface." One forfeiture case alleges that Juan Guardarrama — the man's real name — was partners with Gerardo Uribe and a third man in a Denver medical marijuana business called Tender Loving Caregivers. According to the case filing, Guardarrama talked with two different confidential informants about trafficking marijuana grown in Colorado out of state.

Another avenue appears to have come through a woman who once partnered with Furtado on a marijuana grow at a house in Douglas County — then later filed and lost a lawsuit against Furtado related to that enterprise. The woman, Roddess Ekberg, is not named in federal court documents. But Furtado alleged during the lawsuit that Ekberg had claimed in phone calls that she was working as a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Gunshots and a burglary at a home in the Eagle Shadows neighborhood in Adams County in 2012 also gave investigators an entry into the case. Officers responding to the home found a large marijuana cultivation operation in the basement, according to a federal civil forfeiture case. Surveillance soon linked the grow to grows at two other homes in the neighborhood, authorities allege in the case. A DEA agent said his investigation connected the grows to Gerardo Uribe, according to a case filing.

When federal agents raided VIP Cannabis and multiple other locations late last year, 340 law enforcement personnel helped in the search, according to a search warrant. The raids netted more than 13,000 marijuana plants, more than a quarter ton of processed marijuana and 22 firearms.

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