SANTA FE, N.M. — At least two generations of the Romero family have been running a successful business in Taos County for years, federal law enforcement officials say, but it all came crashing down in the span of eight months, culminating in arrests in December.
Four members of the family and four others were indicted on federal drug charges, the result of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that started in 2011. A DEA agent says in a court statement the informants say the Romeros may have been dealing drugs for as long as 30 years.
One of the Romeros, the mother or mother-in-law of the other three family members facing charges, has drug convictions dating back to 1984.
Court documents suggest there is cold, hard evidence of just how successful the Romeros have been. The family had access to plenty of ready cash, including $65,000 that was seized in a raid in April 2015.
After that bust, family members showed up at a local bank twice with two additional huge cash sums – $90,000 on one occasion, $150,000 another time – to exchange for bank or cashier’s checks that could be used to make bail for the alleged ringleader, according to the documents.
The $90,000 in bills made bank employees’ eyes “itch and burn,” and they said it smelled funny. Police brought in a drug dog and found traces of illegal drugs.
And, in June, more than $73,000 was found in a safe in a raid on another Romero home.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque says the money seized in the case or put up for bail comes to more than $378,000. Officers also have taken in more than 500 grams of heroin and 7 kilograms of marijuana.
The December indictment specifically alleges that Ivan Romero, 39, and his seven co-conspirators, including three members of Romero’s family, participated in a heroin and methamphetamine trafficking conspiracy that existed from at least June 2012 and continued until December 2015.
The initial charge says they possessed or distributed a kilogram “and more” of heroin or mixtures including heroin, potentially enough for 100,000 doses, depending on purity.
An average dose of heroin from a syringe can be anywhere from 10 to 50 milligrams, according to Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe.
The indictment also alleged that Ivan Romero and the three members of his family participated in a money-laundering conspiracy to conceal and disguise the nature of their drug-trafficking proceeds. The indictment includes forfeiture provisions that seek any property derived, either directly or indirectly, from proceeds obtained from the alleged criminal activity.
The first count of the indictment charges Ivan Romero, Ricco Romero, Wilma Romero, Nicholas Baca, Tyler “Zig-Zag” Baker, Jason “Jurassic” Duran and Juanita Romero with possession of 1 gram of a substance containing heroin with intent to distribute.
Wilma Romero, 65, of Arroyo Hondo, is Ivan and Ricco’s mother. Ivan’s wife, 28-year-old Melissa Romero, is also charged in the indictment, for money laundering. Juanita Romero, 34, of Peñasco, doesn’t appear to be related to the other Romeros.
Court proceedings are continuing in the case, including on whether some of the defendants should be held in prison pending trial, as of now scheduled for March 21.
Years of dealing?
A December press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque said the arrests were the result of a 15-month investigation, But DEA Agent Kevin Mondragon writes in an application to seize money from the Romeros that he has been investigating their drug-trafficking organization since 2011 and that anecdotal evidence suggests the Romero family may have been selling heroin and other drugs in Taos County for 30 years.
A confidential informant told Mondragon that Ivan Romero had been dealing large quantities of heroin around Taos for more than 10 years, while another informant said Ivan has been selling cocaine and heroin for over 15 years. One informant said Ivan and Ricco’s father, Elias Romero, started the family’s drug-trafficking organization 30 years ago, but Elias stopped running it due to failing health. It is believed that Ivan took over in his stead, but neither federal agents nor local law enforcement know exactly when the alleged family business started.
Wilma Romero, mother of Ivan and Ricco, and mother-in-law to Ivan’s wife, Melissa, has a criminal record dating from more than 30 years ago.
She was convicted of drug charges starting in 1984 and again in 1985, 1990 and 2000. Ricco Romero has convictions for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, and Ivan Romero was convicted of conspiracy to commit second-degree murder in 2003 after he was accused of nearly killing someone over a drug debt. Mondragon, in court documents, says he believes the Romeros were trying to monopolize heroin distribution in Taos County.
Police finally took action April 2 of last year. DEA agents and Taos deputies raided Ivan and Melissa’s home and seized more than 300 grams of “chiva” – a slang term for heroin – as well as nearly $65,000 in cash.
A lawyer for Ivan Romero subsequently depicted Ivan as a user instead of a dealer during a court hearing last year, according to a report in the Taos News. But Mondragon reported that Ivan told agents he sold heroin “tripas,” units of 3 grams, and also sold the drug at $1,000 an ounce. Agents found the street value of the seized heroin to be around $13,000. Ivan was booked into the Taos County jail with a bond of $90,000.
On April 3, Ricco, Wilma and Melissa walked into the People’s Bank in Taos with a black bag containing $90,000 in cash to exchange for a bank check or cashier’s check.
Bank employees said the cash smelled funny, and made their eyes “itch and burn,” according to the federal documents, and they called police. Mondragon and the State Police inspected the money using a drug dog, Arras, a week later and found that it had traces of illegal drugs.
Ivan was released the same day the money was taken to the bank. Ivan, Melissa and Wilma were sought for an interview regarding the money’s source a week later, but they could not be located. Mondragon instead spoke with Abby Martinez, mother of Ivan’s wife Melissa.
Martinez told Mondragon that she contributed $75,000 from savings and put up her house as collateral but, when asked where she kept the money, she started crying and admitted she was lying.
She said that she, along with Ricco, Melissa and Wilma, met the day after Ivan was arrested and agreed that Martinez would say she provided the money. Martinez said the money belonged to Ivan and was kept in a safe at Wilma’s house.
Mondragon spoke with Wilma via telephone April 20. She said she and some friends put up the money, but she hung up as Mondragon pressed her about it. Ricco, 28, was interviewed by phone that day, too, and he said 10 different family members and friends contributed to the fund, but he didn’t say who.
Another, bigger bond
Ivan violated conditions of his release and was booked into the Santa Fe County jail May 1 with a bond of $150,000. While in jail, Ivan talked to Wilma by phone and discussed how they were going to get him out. Mondragon notes in a report that there is a recorded message before every jail phone call that says the conversation is going to be recorded. But that didn’t stop the two Romeros from discussing how federal agents were asking family members where the $90,000 to bail him out the first time came from, Mondragon’s report says.
Ricco, Melissa and Wilma walked into the same People’s Bank with $150,000 in cash on May 17 and Ivan was released from jail later that day.
Mondragon says Ivan, Wilma, Melissa or Ricco don’t make enough lawful income to keep coming up with so much cash. When Ivan was arraigned in Taos County Magistrate Court in April, he provided documents that showed he hadn’t had substantial employment for the past several years. He said he was a self-employed dog breeder, but he doesn’t have a breeder’s license from Taos County or the state, Mondragon reported.
Mondragon also notes that neither Ivan nor Ricco have filed personal tax returns since 2009. He surmised that nearly $120,000 deposited into Ivan and Melissa’s joint bank account from 2010 to 2014 does not appear to be from lawful income.
On June 29, agents conducted another raid, this one at Wilma’s home in Arroyo Hondo, and seized 97.5 grams of heroin from a safe and $73,288 in cash, making a total of $378,208 seized from the Romeros during the course of the investigation, but agents believe they didn’t act alone.
“Jurassic” Duran, 41, is believed to be the organization’s courier and he may have moved 1 to 2 pounds of heroin at a time from a supplier in Albuquerque, the documents say. On Oct. 13, Mondragon conducted surveillance on Duran in Albuquerque. Duran left the city that night in a 2002 Ford Mustang and headed north on Interstate 25. He was pulled over at 10:14 p.m. for speeding by State Police officer Ron Wood after Mondragon informed the officer that Duran was on the highway.
The driver, Pamela Valdez, told Wood that she and Duran were going to Taos to pick piñon and scout for elk, but Wood didn’t notice any luggage in the car. Wood brought out Arras, the dog, to inspect the car, and the dog led him to 131 grams of heroin in the glove box and another 10 grams in a black purse.
Duran later told DEA agents that Ricco was supposed to pay him $800 for delivering that heroin. He continued to cooperate with investigators and told them that Ivan continued to run the organization even after his arrests and he gave names of dealers who sold drugs for the Romeros in Taos. Mondragon later set up controlled buys with Ricco and his 2008 Dodge Charger was searched as part of the investigation.
While family members and the rest of the organization await trial, Taos County is said to be noticeably cleaner Although he couldn’t give specific numbers due to medical records laws, Sheriff Hogrefe said local clinics saw a rise in patients seeking methadone and other treatment for drug withdrawals after Ivan was arrested in April and again when the rest of the gang was rounded up in December.
“Back in April, I contacted the local hospital and said that I think one of the big players is out of the region, so I want you to be prepared for patients going in with withdrawals, and they did for about three weeks after that,” Hogrefe said.