Husband-wife at middle of drug ring investigation

June 2, 2008 2:51:32 PM PDT
According to authorities, the dealer wore Prada - 100 pairs. Her husband wore Rolex; he had 100 of those, too. Together, authorities say, they teamed up to run a $1 million-a-week cocaine smuggling and money laundering operation that moved the drug from Mexico and Colombia to the Jersey Shore, and elsewhere across the country.

Federal and Monmouth County officials announced Monday they had arrested Vicente Esteves, 35, and his wife, Chantal, 30, on conspiracy and money laundering charges. They also described the lavish lifestyle the two led behind the fortress-like gates of their high-tech, multimillion dollar home in New Jersey horse country.

"It's like something out of the movie 'Scarface,"' said Gerard McAleer, special agent in charge of the DEA's New Jersey office. "They had walk-in closets where there were 100 pairs of Prada shoes, still in the boxes. There were so many they had Polaroid photos taped to the boxes to keep track of them.

"There were also 100 Rolex watches," McAleer said. "I'm not sure Donald Trump has 100 Rolex watches. That's the kind of money that was being made by these defendants."

None of the defendants had retained lawyers as of Monday afternoon.

Esteves and his wife could get 30 years each if convicted.

Capping a 14-month investigation, authorities arrested the couple Thursday, and said they were the leaders of an audacious smuggling ring that used members on commercial airplane flights to smuggle drugs into the United States and millions of dollars back to the points of origin.

In addition to New Jersey, some of the cocaine wound up in Florida, Georgia and other states, authorities said.

All told, authorities seized 150 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $2 million, along with an additional $2 million in cash.

The case began in spring 2007 when the DEA got a tip that a large-scale drug ring was operating out of Manalapan, a western Monmouth County enclave of wealthy homeowners, many of whom had fled the urban ills of New York or northern New Jersey.

"The defendants attempted to hide behind the beauty of suburbia," McAleer said.

The first break came on April 2 when a member of the ring was nabbed at a home in Old Bridge with $600,000 in cash. A search of his home in Hackensack turned up another $100,000 in cash.

The individual was not named, and Monmouth County Prosecutor Luis Valentin would not say if he was being used as a cooperating witness in the case.

On Friday, Mark Edwards of Metuchen was arrested on board a commercial flight preparing to depart Newark Liberty International Airport for Miami, and he was found to have $100,000 in cash.

Seven members of the alleged operation have been arrested so far, and the case is ongoing, he added.

Vicente Esteves is being held on $10 million bail, his wife on $5 million. Bail for the other suspects ranges from $1 million to $3 million.

Valentin said Vicente Esteves used two real estate companies he controlled to launder the money. They did little or no legitimate business, he added.

The couple did, however, take elaborate precautions to guard their mansion, including deploying sophisticated electronic surveillance equipment so they could see who was approaching, Valentin said.

It was the couples' walk-in closets that really struck investigators.

"So much money was raised here that it was spent on lavish things," McAleer said.


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