The drugs were smuggled through Dulles International Airport through a variety of methods: special compartments built into carry-on luggage, attached to underwear. In one case, the smugglers had sewn two pounds of heroin into a courier's wig.
The ring smuggled more than 10 pounds of heroin -- worth more than $800,000 -- from Ghana into the U.S. before it was shut down. On Friday, Edward Macauley, 62, of Ghana, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in the scheme.
The case demonstrates the creativity of those who try to smuggle drugs into the country, as well as the efforts that federal authorities to extend enforcement of U.S. laws on an international basis.
Many of the dozen people charged in this scheme were arrested in Ghana and extradited to face trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Sentences handed down so far have ranged from 2 years for one of the low-level couriers to Macauley, who prosecutors said was a ringleader.
U.S. District Judge James Cacheris imposed the term prosecutors requested. Macauley's court-appointed attorney, William Cummings, had asked for the mandatory minimum of 10 years, citing Macauley's age and disputing the government's portrayal of Macauley as a ringleader.
Prosecutor James P. Gillis said the evidence showed Macauley was indeed a leader -- his co-conspirators even called him “Boss.”
“Mr. Macauley was at the top of this food chain,” Gillis told the judge. “He's not just referred to as ‘boss.’ He is the boss.”
Also Friday, Fred Brobbery was sentenced to almost seven years for his role. On several smuggling runs, he built special compartments into the lining of the smugglers' carry-on luggage. Other smugglers hid the drugs in their underwear or wigs.
When the charges in this case were announced last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration said it reflects the current strategy of targeting smugglers in their home countries. The DEA has agents in more than 60 countries working international cases; the DEA said it received strong cooperation from Ghanaian authorities on this investigation. The ring was in operation for only about a year before the charges were filed.
The organization recruited Ghanaian citizens living legally in the U.S. to act as couriers, who were paid up to $15,000 per trip. Airport officials in Ghana received bribes of $2,000 or more to look the other way.
Customs agents at Dulles are accustomed to finding drugs in unusual places. In cases unrelated to the Macauley ring, a Nigerian man was arrested earlier this year after setting an apparent record at Dulles when he ingested 180 pellets filled with nearly five pounds of heroin in a failed smuggling attempt. Officers have found heroin in juice boxes and cocaine stuffed inside whole roasted chickens.