A North Carolina man caught twice driving through Flagstaff with large quantities of cocaine has been sentenced to five years in prison.
And Zaid Wakil, 42, faces potentially more time behind bars in a federal prison, accused of being a major drug runner for a man with alleged ties to the notorious Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico.
However, a pending U.S. Supreme Court decision could again spare him from the charges.
Wakil's journey to prison began when Ohio state troopers found $1 million in cash in the trunk of his crashed BMW in January 2011.
He was released -- without the cash.
Months later, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers found more than a dozen kilos of cocaine in the trunk of Wakil's car as he passed through Flagstaff with his 15-year-old daughter asleep on the back seat.
The Coconino County Attorney's Office tried to charge Wakil, as well as the girl, with transportation of narcotics. They lost when the DPS search was deemed illegal by a judge.
In the meantime, Wakil had paid $100,000 to bond out of Coconino County jail and headed back home to North Carolina.
Two months after his first Flagstaff arrest, Wakil was stopped again by DPS on Interstate 40. This time, he didn't have a license plate on the new car he had bought days before in Los Angeles.
Both stops appeared to be random.
An officer cited him for the traffic violation and then asked if he could run a drug-sniffing dog around the car. Wakil agreed and the dog alerted to the driver's side door handle. He did not give the officer permission to search the car's trunk, where officers later found 11.8 kilos of cocaine.
In a tactical move, Wakil waived his right to a jury trial last month and pleaded guilty to one count of possession of a narcotic for sale and one count of transportation of a narcotic drug for sale. He was handed over to the custody of the Arizona Department of Corrections and sentenced to five years in prison with credit for just over a year served.
TIES TO CARTEL
An indictment in U.S. District Court in central California now shows that federal agents had been tracking Wakil and other members of a purported multimillion-dollar drug trafficking organization for years.
The new federal charges accuse Wakil of being a major drug runner for what they call the Krokos drug trafficking organization, a group led by Canadian John Darrell Krokos, who was living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Wakil's Flagstaff attorney, Lee Phillips, said that federal agents accuse Krokos of having ties to the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, which is often considered by law enforcement to be the most powerful drug organization in the world.
Wakil now faces federal charges of possession to distribute a Class II narcotic. If convicted, he could face as much as 40 years in federal prison.
The charges against Wakil's more than a dozen co-conspirators include kidnapping and torturing people who allegedly stole drugs and cash from the organization and then holding them for ransom. The group, which appears to have been based in Los Angeles, stands accused of securing large amounts of cocaine in Mexico and selling it in the United States.
Wakil was allegedly responsible for moving the drug from Los Angeles across the country. He is listed as the owner of several businesses in North Carolina, including a trucking company, a construction company and a pastry business called Piety, Inc., which sells pies directly to mosques.
Phillips said he suspects that the DEA saw Flagstaff as being far enough from Los Angeles for Wakil's stops to appear random.
In reality, the DEA had provided Krokos with encrypted Blackberry phones in 2009 that the group thought would let them communicate undetected. Instead, agents were monitoring every message about the transfer of drugs and money.
COCAINE EVIDENCE TOSSED
Following the first stop in Flagstaff, Phillips had the cocaine from Wakil's car thrown out as evidence against his 15-year-old daughter. The state subsequently dropped the charges against Wakil.
The DPS officer who stopped the car had claimed that he discovered the drugs during a routine inventory after Wakil refused to exit his car during a traffic stop and was arrested.
Ordinarily, DPS officers fill out a Vehicle Removal Report in a traffic stop when a car is impounded to document any valuables before it's towed away. But that report is intended as a way to note things like stereos and suitcases so people can't falsely claim something was stolen.
The version of that report that DPS submitted to lawyers was completely blacked out of what the officer documented.
If something illegal is found in the car, then the officer takes it to a DPS building, where the vehicle is more thoroughly searched.
But the officer broke into a locked toolbox at the scene, where he found the drugs.
Phillips is now attempting to have the cocaine thrown out as evidence in the second stop as well.
The defense attorney claims that the arrest was unconstitutional because when the dog jumped into the vehicle's trunk, it didn't alert to the moving boxes officers later learned contained 11.8 kilos of cocaine.
DRUG DOGS BEFORE SUPREME COURT
Coconino County Superior Court Judge Dan Slayton ruled against Phillip's assertion that the search was illegal.
Phillips hopes that the evidence might be thrown out on appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering two similar cases out of Florida that center on whether police officers can run drug-sniffing dogs around homes and cars without a warrant. Florida's high court ruled that a dog's alert to a car-door handle alone is not enough evidence to search the entire car.
Phillips hopes that if the Supreme Court agrees with the Florida justices, his client can again beat the charges.
It's not clear how soon a decision will be made.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.