Suspecting a Tunnel
In February 2005, Canada's Border Services Agency (BSA) alerted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU) to the possibility that a tunnel was being constructed underneath the U.S.-Canadian border. BSA disclosed that in March 2004, Francis Devandra Raj, age 30, a known drug-trafficker and suspected drug-smuggler, had purchased a disused 10-acre plant-nursery located at 26717 Zero Avenue in Langley, just east of the Lynden-Aldergrove border crossing, for approximately $595,000 Canadian. Buildings on the property consisted of an old farmhouse, greenhouses, and a large corrugated-metal Quonset hut fronting on Zero Avenue, a rural road that runs along a shallow ditch, marking the U.S.-Canadian Border.
The Canadian BSA agents, pursuing the investigation, watched the Zero Avenue property for signs of illegal activity. In late 2004, Raj began to visit the property regularly, along with two accomplices whom they identified as Timothy Woo, age 35, and Jonathan Valenzuela, age 27. Woo had been indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle in November 1999 for conspiracy to import marijuana into the U.S. and was a fugitive. Valenzuela had been arrested in Surrey, B.C. in 2000 for possession of narcotics.
The trio focused their attention on the Quonset hut, ignoring the farmhouse and greenhouses. The men arrived most mornings with tools and a truckload of lumber, rebar, and other building materials, which they immediately loaded into the hut. They worked all day inside the hut, often leaving the property at the end of the day with a truckload of dirt. Although Raj told neighbors they were building an auto-body shop, the BSA agents believed they were digging a tunnel.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police's CFSEU wasn't totally convinced, but the closer investigators looked at the evidence, the better the tunnel theory seemed. A 1,976-square-foot, three-bedroom house sat directly across the border, only 360 feet south of the Quonset hut. According to the Whatcom County Assessors Office, the property, located at 151 East Boundary Road, had been purchased by Raman L. and Kusum B. Patel in October 2003 for $214,700 U.S. The Patels lived in Spokane County and the house appeared to be abandoned and the property totally neglected. Both the Raj and Patel families were from the same ethnic group, Fijian East Indian.
Investigators probed Zero Avenue with ground-penetrating radar, but it failed to show any underground disturbances. As they learned later, the excavation had not yet reached the road. Mere suspicion that the men were digging a tunnel was not enough for a search warrant; the investigators needed probable cause, so they established 24-hour surveillance of the property.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Agent working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Task Force at Blaine, Washington, recorded an undercover conversation with a Canadian drug trafficker about a tunnel being constructed under the U.S.-Canadian Border. He said when the tunnel was finished, it would be used to smuggle large loads of Canadian marijuana and MDMA (3-4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine), known on the street as Ecstasy, into the United States. The trafficker said a toll of $500 per pound would be added to the price of the marijuana and they could deliver 300 pounds at a time. But where was the tunnel and who was financing the project?
Finally in June 2005, Canadian investigators caught a break. A surveillance team on night-watch observed a vehicle drive onto the Zero Avenue property. A woman got out and proceeded to burglarize the Quonset hut, stealing some of the tools. Initially they thought the burglary might compromise their surveillance, but then decided to capitalize on the event.
They had her stopped by the police in Abbotsford and, during questioning, she described the hut's interior. She saw tools, a loading ramp, buckets, a hoist and a large piece of plywood, covering a hole cut in the cement floor, but no lumber or rebar. Investigators surmised that all the lumber and rebar that had been loaded into the hut must be underground, shoring up the tunnel walls.
During inter-agency intelligence meetings, Canadian and U.S. authorities shared information about the mysterious tunnel and eventually developed enough probable cause to apply for search warrants. On Friday, July 1, 2006, judges on both sides of the border approved delayed notice search warrants -- known as "sneak-and-peek" warrants -- authorizing covert entry into the buildings on the Zero Avenue and East Boundary Road properties.Surveillance Continuing
The search warrants were executed on Saturday, July 2, 2005, during the early morning hours. They found a six-foot-square reinforced-concrete entrance in the floor of the Quonset hut and followed the tunnel south approximately 360 feet to where it surfaced underneath the living room floor of the house at 151 East Boundary Road. The tunnel, approximately four feet square and at a depth ranging from three feet to 10 feet, was equipped with electric lights, a ventilation system, a cement floor and sump pumps to keep it dry. The smugglers had reinforced the ceiling and walls the entire length of the tunnel with iron rebar and more than 1,000 two-by-six wood supports, set on edge for strength. But the south end wasn't quite finished, needing more excavation and construction. Although uncompleted, access to the house was going to be through a hole cut in the living room floor. A decision was made to install surveillance equipment in the house and let the men keep digging and finish the tunnel.
On Wednesday July 6, 2005, DEA received authorization from U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart to install surveillance equipment at the East Boundary Road property, which was installed during the early morning hours of July 7. Technicians mounted two cameras with microphones: one to monitor the tunnel entrance in the living room; the other to observe any activity in the garage. Additional cameras were installed on telephone poles off the property to monitor traffic on East Boundary Road. Agents received permission from a neighbor to park a motor home on nearby property to use as a monitoring station and command post.
The following week, Raj, Woo and Valenzuela finished building the tunnel and south portal. About noon on Thursday, July 14, 2005, a monitor in the command post heard voices and observed Raj and Woo in the living room, having apparently entered the house through the tunnel. Shortly thereafter, Valenzuela arrived at the garage in a GMC Safari van and entered the house. After loading a heavy object into the van, Valenzuela and Woo drove to Seattle. Raj returned to Canada through the tunnel. Late that night, agents entered the house and repositioned the camera to get a better view of the tunnel portal.
At about 9:00 a.m. on Friday, July 15, 2005, Raj, Woo and Valenzuela were observed exiting the tunnel with two large hockey bags, which were loaded into the GMC Safari. Agents tailed the van when it left the house, but lost sight of it in heavy traffic near Seattle. Since hockey bags are frequently used to transport narcotics, the authorities knew the tunnel was open for business.
On Saturday morning, July 16, 2005, Raj and Woo came through the tunnel with two large black trash bags, a gym bag and a large hockey bag. Valenzuela arrived at the garage driving a black Toyota sports utility vehicle bearing Utah license plates. After the bags were loaded into the Toyota, Valenzuela drove away and Raj and Woo returned to Canada through the tunnel. Agents followed Valenzuela to the Bellis Fair Mall in Bellingham where he met with a woman with an 18-month-old child, giving her the keys to the Toyota. Valenzuela returned to the East Boundary Road house in the GMC van, which he had left at the mall earlier. After parking the van in the garage, he returned to Canada through the tunnel.
Meanwhile, surveillance units followed the Toyota to Ellensburg where, at DEA's request, the Washington State Patrol stopped it. Troopers searched the vehicle, found it to contain 93 pounds of marijuana and arrested the courier, Camille McCoy of Twin Falls, Idaho.
On Monday morning, July 18, 2005, Raj, Woo and Valenzuela emerged from the tunnel with two large hockey bags and loaded them into the GMC van. Agents tailed the vehicle to Renton and watched as the bags were delivered to a house. After the GMC van left, agents established 24-hour surveillance on the residence. The next day, Micah Kelly, age 23, was arrested in possession of two hockey bags containing 110 pounds of marijuana during a traffic stop in Enumclaw.
Arrest and Trial
Meantime, DEA obtained arrest warrants for Raj, Woo, and Valenzuela, based on a complaint filed with U.S. Magistrate Philip K. Sweigert in Seattle, charging conspiracy to distribute and conspiracy to import marijuana. The trio was finally captured on Wednesday, July 20, 2005, when they emerged from the tunnel with tools to fix the brakes on the GMC van. They were immediately transported to the Federal Detention Center in Seattle.
At their initial appearance, held before U.S. Magistrate James P. Donohue on July 21, 2005, the U.S. Attorney's Office filed a motion for detention, requesting the defendants, being illegal aliens and potential flight-risks, be held without bail pending trial. After a hearing on July 26, 2005, a detention order was granted.
On July 28, 2005, the Federal Grand Jury in Seattle returned an indictment charging Raj, Woo, and Valenzuela with conspiracy to import marijuana, conspiracy to distribute marijuana and maintaining a drug-involved premises. At the arraignment, held before U.S. Magistrate Monica C. Benton on August 4, 2005, the defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges. A jury trial was set for September 26, 2005, before U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour. The trial date was continued twice to March 6, 2006, allowing time for a settlement conference. In the interim, the U.S. Attorney's Office set in motion procedures to forfeit to the U.S. government the properties on Zero Avenue and East Boundary Road, the GMC Safari van and $32,920 in drug money seized from Raj's bedroom by the CFSEU.
On Thursday, August 25, 2005, the Whatcom County Public Works Administration, in conjunction with Canadian road construction crews, began dismantling the 360-foot-long border tunnel. Using heavy excavation equipment, crews tore through Zero Avenue and East Boundary Road above the tunnel and dug out many of the 1,000 two by six wood supports used to shore up the ceiling and walls. The part of the tunnel under the road was filled with gravel and dirt, and then the road was paved over. The following day, the rest of the tunnel was filled with Controlled Density Fill, a liquid foam cement material that expands and hardens like rock.
On Tuesday, February 7, 2006, after six months of negotiations, the three defendants agreed to plead guilty to a felony information, charging one count of conspiracy to import marijuana. Jonathan Valenzuela pleaded guilty on February 16, 2006, the date the information was filed; Francis Devandra Raj pleaded guilty on March 1, 2006; and Timothy Woo pleaded guilty on March 3, 2006. The sentencing date was set for June 16, 2006, before Judge Coughenour.
After three continuances, sentencing was finally held on Friday, July 14, 2006, in a courtroom packed with family members and supporters of the three Canadian prisoners. Judge Coughenour listened to the three defense attorneys plead for lenient sentences and to brief apologies from Raj, Woo, and Valenzuela for their transgressions, thus showing remorse. Then he sentenced each prisoner to nine years incarceration, the maximum allowable under federal sentencing guidelines, and five years of supervised probation upon release from prison. In addition, all seized money and property were forfeited to the U.S. government. Judge Coughenour said he wanted to send a clear message to Canadians and Americans that trafficking in potent "BC Bud" marijuana is a serious crime and violators will be dealt with harshly in U.S. courts.
Tunneling and Smuggling
According to DEA, for years smugglers have built elaborate tunnels to transport narcotics and people across the U.S.-Mexican border. The latest tunnel, discovered in January 2006, was known as "El Grande" and ran a half-mile between a warehouse near the Tijuana airport and a warehouse near San Diego. But out of a total of 35 tunnels going into the United States, the tunnel at Lynden was the first discovered along the U.S.-Canadian border.
Authorities estimated the cost of the tunnel, including the purchase of land, was approximately $1 million, likely financed by one of the Canadian drug syndicates. Between one and two thousand tons of marijuana are grown in Canada annually, most of which ends up in the United States. The RCMP estimates that there are about 20,000 grow-operations in British Columbia. The crop includes a substantial amount of potent hydroponically grown marijuana known as "BC Bud," which sells for up to $6,000 a pound. According to Forbes magazine, the marijuana industry in British Columbia alone has been estimated at $7 billion, tax free, making it Canada's most lucrative agricultural product.
Aside from the drug-smuggling aspect, both the U.S. and Canadian governments are concerned about national security, post September 11, 2001 (terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon), fearing such tunnels could be used to smuggle weapons, explosives, and potential terrorists. At present, smuggling and illegal entry into the U.S. are specific crimes, but not tunneling. On March 1, 2006, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), and Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced a bill that would make financing or constructing a tunnel or subterranean passage across an international border into the U.S. a specific crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison.