Chandler police and other law enforcement agencies seized nearly $2 million worth of cocaine and heroin and netted dozens of arrests on Friday as part of an ongoing investigation into a family authorities say was distributing drugs into state prisons and the community.
Law enforcement agencies that also included the Department of Public Safety, investigators from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, the Arizona Department of Corrections and Department of Homeland Security, confiscated 32 pounds of heroin and five pounds of cocaine with a street value of $1.75 million during the investigation, according to Chandler police.
Chandler residents Grace Valencia and her two sons, Ricky and Jonathon Valencia, of 201 S. Dakota Street, were the first to be investigated on suspicion of involvement in illegal drug sales before they were arrested on suspicion of drug-related offenses, according to Detective Seth Tyler, a Chandler police spokesman. Their home is two blocks west of Arizona Avenue and one block north of Frye Road.
The Valencias were buying the drugs directly out of a supplier in Mexico, which is why the Department of Homeland Security became involved, Tyler said.
Ricky Valenica was the kingpin of the operation and prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office will be seeking a minimum prison sentence of 15 years for him, Attorney General spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico told the Tribune on Friday.
“This is a very significant amount of cocaine,” Tyler said. “Our narcotics investigators began this as just being involved in illegal drug sales with these family members, and it grew into a much larger operation. Grace Valencia has nine sons and with six sons in the state prisons, they had some kind of influence in getting the drugs into the prison system. They all are well known to police and all major players in this operation.”
Three of those family members facing drug-related charges who are already in prison include: Vincent Lara, 38; Angel Lara, 35; and Daniel Lara, 31, who all are serving sentences ranging from 10 years to 14 years for a kidnapping conviction, according to prison records.
In addition to the Valencia and Lara families, Chandler police and DPS investigators also discovered that other members of street and prison gangs as well as seasoned drug traffickers were involved in the purchase, sale and distribution of drugs into the state prison system, according to the Chandler Police Department.
Once the Valencias acquired the drugs, they sold them throughout the south East Valley, Tyler said.
The drugs were being smuggled into the prison by people visiting the inmates, and at one point during the investigation, authorities intercepted 10 ounces of “black tar” heroin, from one of the “visitors” attempting to smuggle it inside a sock, Rezzonico said.
As of Friday, 44 people had been arrested on drug- and gang-related offenses from the investigation as indictments were handed down by the Attorney General’s office.
Overall, the law enforcement agencies conducted two sweeps during the course of the investigation. The first sweep conducted throughout the Valley about five weeks ago, netted the bulk of the arrests. About 10 arrests were made on Thursday before the agencies announced the arrests, Tyler said.
It isn’t known at this time if there will be more arrests.
“I didn’t know it was going to be this many when the investigation started,” Tyler said.