COLUMBUS, Ohio — Federal investigators say three brothers shipped cocaine from Mexico to the United States using dozens of young men and women who stuffed drug packets into their shoes.
As the perpetrators got bolder, the shoes got bigger.
"They have young girls with size 13 shoes who could barely walk in them, and it drew attention," said Robyn Jones Hahnert, an assistant U.S. Attorney.
On Friday, one of the brothers, Duane Seawell, was to be sentenced in federal court in Columbus after pleading guilty in July to money laundering and two counts of shipping cocaine into the United States.
Seawell is the first of the brothers to be convicted in a multimillion dollar plot that prosecutors say extended from Belize through Mexico to cities across the United States, including Columbus, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans and Lakeland, Fla.
Mark Seawell was taken into custody in Belize in February and is awaiting extradition. Gary Seawell is at large.
Prosecutors say the drug dealing began in the mid-1990s when the three brothers were living in the United States, and the trio hired couriers to drive marijuana from Texas to Ohio or would mail it to various addresses in Ohio.
In 1996, the brothers started shipping cocaine into the United States in tennis shoes, according to the government.
In Columbus, Gary Seawell would recruit the couriers, usually young people in their early to mid-20s promised $1,000 and a free trip to Cancun, Mexico, in exchange for transporting the drugs, investigators said.
"Young and naive" was the explanation one defendant, Christopher Lewis of Columbus, gave authorities after his arrest. Lewis was sentenced to seven years in prison earlier this year on charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs and money laundering.
In Belize, Duane Seawell would arrange for accomplices to meet the couriers in Chetamul, Mexico, just across the border from Belize, and provide the cocaine-filled shoes, the government said.
In Houston, Mark Seawell is accused of arranging for chaperones to meet the couriers in Houston and Cancun, Mexico, and make sure they — and their deliveries — made it to Columbus.
Investigators say money from the drug deals were sent to the brothers through wire transfers, carried by hand by couriers or shipped in coolers sent through the mail.
Federal agents documented $1 million in wire transfers alone and estimate millions more based on the cash shipments.
Barney Clark, a criminal investigator with the Internal Revenue Service, stumbled onto the alleged scheme in 1996 while doing routine checks of Western Union money transfers. He started noticing repeat transfers from Columbus to Houston and thought something was up.
The government opened its file in 1996, the first indictments were issued in 1997 and dozens of prosecutions of the couriers followed quickly. But Mark and Gary Seawell fled the country before they could be arrested.
Duane Seawell, 34, faces 14 to 21 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors are pushing for a tough sentence, arguing Seawell was in charge of the Belize end of the operation and oversaw a network of dozens involved in shipping millions of dollars in illegal drugs into the United States.
Seawell maintains he's a first-time offender who deserves a lower sentence because he played a relatively minor role in the scheme.
While Duane Seawell managed a handful of people in Belize, his brothers were the ringleaders who formed the entire conspiracy, his attorney, Diane Menashe, said. Mark and Gary "recruited individuals to further the conspiracy, and one of the individuals they recruited was Duane," she said.