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Five people arrested in Cortez drug ring investigation

Arrests follow regional task force investigation; charges delayed

Five people were arrested last week on suspicion of drug trafficking in Cortez after a monthslong investigation by multiple law enforcement agencies.

Cortez residents Lyndel and Sherri Clark, 64 and 61, and Zekiel Biard, 26, were arrested May 15 on suspicion of distributing controlled substances including meth and heroin. California residents Jessie Valenzuela, 24, and Rommel Aviles-Reyes, 18, were arrested on suspicion of supplying meth to Cortez after they were pulled over in a traffic stop on May 13.

Their court appearances, originally scheduled for Wednesday, were moved to May 30 at the request of District Attorney Will Furse, who said he is waiting for completed law enforcement reports.

According to a press release from the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, local law enforcement and the Southwest Drug Task Force investigated Biard and the Clarks for several months, suspecting that they were involved with a large-scale drug trafficking operation connected to Mexican cartels.

The county drug task force, which includes the Sheriff’s Office and the Cortez Police Department, started the trafficking investigation in November, according to a statement from Sheriff Steve Nowlin. Starting in February, the agency conducted surveillance and used informants to gather evidence on people, including the Clarks and Biard, suspected of supplying drugs to the Four Corners area. The Southwest Drug Task Force, which includes La Plata County law enforcement, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration also assisted in the investigation.

According to an arrest affidavit, a witness reported to law enforcement in April that Valenzuela and another man would soon be delivering a shipment of meth to the Clarks. A vehicle matching the witness’ description lost a tire near Red Mesa, Arizona, on May 13, and investigators who were tracking the Clarks’ phone usage found that Lyndel Clark had called a tow truck to take the vehicle to Cortez.

Montezuma County Sheriff’s Deputy Victor Galarza stopped the tow truck outside Ute Mountain Casino for a traffic violation and arrested Valenzuela and his passenger, Aviles-Reyes.

Two handguns, including one that had been reported stolen in Montezuma County, and a package of crystal meth were reportedly found in Valenzuela’s vehicle after investigators acquired a search warrant.

On Tuesday, investigators received warrants to arrest the Clarks and Biard, with whom they’d been communicating, and to search their houses in connection with the drugs. According to the press release, a search of the houses and Valenzuela’s vehicle produced 1.9 pounds of heroin, more than a kilogram of meth and 15 guns, several of which had been reported stolen.

The Clarks, Biard, Valenzuela and Aviles-Reyes all face charges of importing and distributing controlled substances. Nowlin said they will be charged as “special offenders,” because of the amounts of drugs and guns involved, which means their sentences will be more severe if they are convicted.

On Monday, Montezuma County Judge JenniLynn Lawrence reduced Sherri Clark’s bond, originally set at $100,000, to $50,000 at the request of defense attorney Rae Randolph, who said Clark is in poor health and requires frequent hospital visits. But as of Tuesday, she was still in custody, along with the other suspects.

All five suspects were scheduled to appear in court Wednesday for the filing of charges, but Lawrence moved their appearances to May 30 after Furse said he was waiting for some law enforcement reports to be completed.

Bond reductions were granted to the other four suspects on Wednesday, with the largest going to Aviles-Reyes. Defense attorney Kelly McCabe said there was little evidence to suggest the 18-year-old was involved in trafficking meth, since he doesn’t own the car where it was found and the arrest affidavit contained no indication he had placed it there.

Furse said he had other information suggesting Aviles-Reyes was a “regular occupant” in suspicious vehicles coming from California to the Clarks’ residence, but he admitted the information in the affidavit was not enough to prove the suspect had committed a crime.

Aviles-Reyes’ bond was reduced to $2,500. The bonds for Valenzuela and Lyndel Clark were reduced to $75,000, and Biard’s bond was reduced to $10,000 because he had no criminal history.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, two other Montezuma County residents have been arrested in connection with the drug investigation since February. Robert Sanchez, 24, was arrested April 9 on suspicion of selling meth and heroin, and 21-year-old Jacob Kotarski was arrested May 1 on suspicion of selling cocaine and ecstasy, although Nowlin said he doesn’t believe Kotarski was working with Biard or the Clarks. He said investigations into local drug trafficking are ongoing, and he expects more arrests soon.

“The most important thing ... is to do our best to stop the importation,” he said. “Cortez has become a distribution hub, and if we can get rid of the distribution, it gives the recovery efforts for substance abusers, programs to treat substance abuse, it gives them an opportunity to succeed.”

Both Nowlin and Cortez Police Lt. Andy Brock said large-scale drug arrests like this one are not uncommon in Montezuma County.

“Sometimes they (the drug task force) will give us six or seven warrants for people to arrest in one day,” Brock said. “It’s pretty regular.”

Nowlin gave “kudos” to county residents who have reported local drug activity to law enforcement over the past few months, saying they made the investigation easier.

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