By Brad Heath and Brett Kelman / USA TODAY
Federal drug agents spent months watching a tiny California jewelry store sandwiched between an auto parts shop and an apartment house with bars on its windows. They secretly recorded its owner’s phone calls and intercepted couriers carrying away boxes full of cash, sometimes stuffed with $100,000 or more. For more than a year, they gathered evidence that the store was laundering millions of dollars for drug traffickers.
Then, in the space of a few minutes in October, their whole case fell apart.
Prosecutors determined that wiretaps the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used as the core of its investigation were illegal and couldn’t be used in court. Four suspects went free, and they want the government to give back nearly $800,000 drug agents seized.
“These people were dealing in drugs, and they are guilty, and because of a procedural issue and a suppression motion, they got away with it,” said Mike Ramos, the district attorney in San Bernardino, Calif., whose office prosecuted the case.
The wiretaps prosecutors concluded were illegal had been approved by officials in Riverside County, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb responsible for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps last year. An investigation last month by USA TODAY and The Desert Sun found that prosecutors there almost certainly violated a federal law that requires the district attorney to personally sign off on wiretap applications. Those tainted wires were used to make arrests and seizures throughout the USA.
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