A former Iraqi interpreter for U.S. military forces was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison without parole Thursday for leading a ring that used the dark web to traffic hundreds of thousands of fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl or other dangerous drugs.
After the sentencing of Alaa Mohammed Allawi, authorities revealed that two Marines in North Carolina have also pleaded guilty to distributing fentanyl-tainted oxycodone pills they bought on the dark web from Allawi.
Former Cpl. Marcos Jaime Villegas, 24, and Sgt. Anthony P. Tognietti admitted giving some of the pills to Cpl. Mark M. Mambulao at a party in North Carolina in April 2017. The trio were stationed at Camp Lejeune, and Mambulao died from a fentanyl overdose within hours of consuming the pills. Villegas and Tognietti were kicked out of the Marines.
“Sailors and Marines can succumb to the opioid crisis that is affecting this country, just like anyone else,” Charles Humenansky, special agent in charge of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s field office at Camp Lejeune, said at a news conference outside San Antonio’s federal courthouse after Allawi’s sentencing. “It’s especially disheartening when individuals who helped distribute these pills were fellow Marines.”
Allawi, 30, had served as an interpreter for the U.S. Defense Department in his native Iraq. For his service, he was granted entry to the U.S. in 2012 under an SQ1 visa, which is set aside for immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan who helped U.S. armed forces, U.S. Attorney John F. Bash said at the news conference.
Bash expressed frustration that Allawi chose to “poison” Americans rather than do something productive.
“We bring him here, there’s so many (legal) opportunities in this country, and instead he tries … a scheme that makes money by putting people’s lives at risk,” Bash said. “It’s infuriating and ridiculous.”
In court, Allawi painted himself as a clueless newcomer, saying he came from a country that didn’t even have credit or mail systems. He said he didn’t know about the opioid crisis America was facing when he “met the wrong crowd” and began his illegal venture in 2015.
“I needed money and started selling drugs,” he told Senior U.S. District Judge David Ezra. “I hadn’t heard about the opioid epidemic. After hearing about it, I know I went too deep. … I messed up, and we are human.”
Ezra imposed the 30-year sentence and a judgment of $14.3 million that Allawi had agreed to under a plea deal. Allawi also will be deported when he’s released from prison.
Allawi began by selling the fentanyl-laced oxycodone to students around the University of Texas at San Antonio and expanded his distribution network on the dark net marketplace, AlphaBay, which was shut down by federal authorities in 2017.
An investigation began with leads provided to the Drug Enforcement Administration by UTSA police and the San Antonio Police Department after the agencies noticed a surge of fake prescription pills on and around the campus.
DEA agents worked with U.S. postal inspectors, the IRS and other agencies to dismantle the ring, which distributed 850,000 pills in 38 states, officials said.
It was a sophisticated operation, said Dante Sorianello, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in San Antonio.
“We peeled back the onion, and found more and more things, and about how the distribution was going throughout the United States,” Sorianello said. “As we identified Mr. Allawi … we found out he was preying upon the unfortunate people throughout the United States who are addicted to opioids.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Wannarka told reporters outside the courthouse that Allawi “knew exactly what he was doing.”
“He was calculating, he was thoughtful, he was discerning,” Wannarka said. “He purchased multiple industrial pill presses from China in order to make more pills, to sell them faster and profit faster.”
Allawi pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl resulting in death or serious bodily injury, along with using a gun during a drug crime. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to launder money.
Besides admitting that his pills killed Mambulao, Allawi also acknowledged that they caused overdoses in two people in North Dakota. Those two survived.
Allawi’s ring made the pills at his Northwest Side home and other San Antonio locations using pill presses before moving the lab to suburban Houston, where it was raided by the DEA in May 2017.
As part of his plea deal, Allawi agreed to forfeit to federal authorities several items, including cash, virtual currency, a 2013 Maserati Grand Turismo and other high-end cars, the Northwest Side house valued at $270,000 that served as a pill lab, his franchise in DRNK Coffee + Tea and several guns that were seized from a local stash house.
Besides Allawi, two other members of the ring have been sentenced. Five others await sentencing, while Kunal Kulra aka Shekelmayne, who ran a money-remitting business in suburban Los Angeles that worked with Allawi’s ring, has agreed to plead guilty to money laundering charges in San Antonio and in Los Angeles.
Full Statement By USAO
In what is believed to be the first fentanyl distribution case using the dark web and crypto currency in the Southwest Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) Region, a federal judge in San Antonio today sentenced 30-year-old Alaa Mohammed Allawi to 30 years in federal prison for distributing approximately 245 kilograms of fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone and Xanax. The distribution of fentanyl-laced oxycodone pills, through the use of the dark web and crypto currency, resulted in the overdose death of a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and serious bodily injury to two Grand Forks, North Dakota, residents.
That announcement was made today by U.S. Attorney John F. Bash, DEA Special Agent in Charge Will Glaspy, Houston Division; Inspector in Charge Adrian Gonzalez, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Houston Division; IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Richard D. Goss, Houston Field Office; Naval Criminal Investigative Service Special Agent in Charge Charles Humenansky, Carolinas Field Office; San Antonio Police Chief William McManus; and, University of Texas at San Antonio Police Chief Gerald Lewis, Jr.
In addition to the prison term, Senior U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra entered a $14.32 million money judgment against Allawi based on his online dark net sales profit. Judge Ezra also ordered that Allawi forfeit to the government his San Antonio residence, valued at approximately $270K; five firearms including an AR style assault rifle; approximately $28K in U.S. currency; more than $21K in crypto currency, an assortment of jewelry valued at over $31K, four (4) vehicles including a 2013 Maserati Gran Turismo, and any and all rights in a “DRNK coffee + tea” franchise (in California).
“The United States welcomed Allawi into our country from war-torn Iraq in 2012. But instead of taking advantage of the many opportunities this country affords, he decided to make money by peddling a deadly narcotic to Americans in the grips of addiction,” said U.S. Attorney Bash. “This case illustrates many of the emerging threats that law enforcement is confronting. Allawi and his co-conspirators manufactured and distributed oxycodone laced with deadly fentanyl – over 350,000 such pills – to people suffering from opioid addiction, targeting a college campus here in San Antonio. At least one victim – a United States Marine – died from a fentanyl overdose, and at least two others suffered non-fatal overdoses. The co-conspirators attempted to conceal their activities by operating through the dark web and using seven different crypto-currencies. I am proud of our office and the law enforcement partners who uncovered and destroyed this conspiracy. Thirty years in federal prison is a just sentence for this despicable conduct.”
On June 21, 2019, Allawi pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute fentanyl resulting in death and serious bodily injury, one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to records, Allawi arrived in the U.S. from Iraq in 2012 on a SQ1 visa granted to him based on his service as an interpreter for the Department of Defense while in Iraq.
This investigation began in 2015, when the San Antonio Police Department and the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Police Department began looking into a surge in various prescription pills found on the campus and in the student housing of UTSA. Allawi was subsequently identified as the manufacturer and supplier of the pills. By pleading guilty, Allawi admitted that beginning in 2015, he purchased fentanyl and industrial size pill presses from the dark net website called AlphaBay. Allawi also used AlphaBay to sell his pills which were laced with fentanyl or methamphetamine. Allawi accepted seven different crypto currencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, as payment for the pills. AlphaBay has been subsequently shut down by law enforcement.
There are a total of eight (8) defendants in this federal indictment. Three, including Allawi, have been sentenced. Five have entered guilty pleas and are awaiting sentencing. A 9th defendant, Kunal Kalra, age 25 of Los Angeles, is charged by an Information pending in the Central District of California with conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. Allawi laundered his digital currency through Kalra. Kalra and Allawi both set up sham businesses as fronts to transfer the digital currency into U.S. currency, and vice versa. In so doing, Allawi used his illegal proceeds to purchase interest in a business, vehicles, residences, and jewelry.
On May 17, 2017, authorities executed a search warrant at Allawi’s stash house in Fort Bend County and seized ½ kilogram of fentanyl powder, ½ kilogram of crystal methamphetamine, ½ kilogram of powder cocaine, 10 kilograms of Hydrocodone pills laced with fentanyl, four kilograms of Adderall pills laced with methamphetamine, five kilograms of Xanax tablets, multiple industrial-size pill presses and four firearms. The total number of pills distributed on the dark web by Allawi during his scheme is estimated to be around 850,000, including:
Oxycodone laced with fentanyl 359,553 pills Weight 35.9 kilograms
Adderall laced with methamphetamine 342,551 pills Weight 173.6 kilograms
Xanax 45,395 pills Weight 32.36 kilograms
“Today’s sentencing of Allawi is an indication of the sophistication and callousness with which Allawi conducted his illegal drug activities. From his use of the dark web, to his clandestine manufacturing of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl, to his drug sales targeting college students, Allawi operated with little concern for the people in our communities,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Glaspy.
Regarding the overdose death, NCIS Special Agent in Charge Humenansky noted that fentanyl-laced pills sold by Allawi were purchased using the dark web by Marine Sergeant Anthony P. Tognietti, in coordination with Marine Corporal Marcos Jamie Villegas; both of whom were stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. During a party in 2017, Villegas gave a fentanyl-laced pill to 20-year-old Corporal Mark M. Mambulao, who died shortly after consuming it. Villegas was kicked out of the Marine Corps on Tuesday and was arraigned yesterday in federal court in the Raleigh Division of the Eastern District North Carolina, for distributing a quantity of pills containing oxycodone and fentanyl, and aiding and abetting. Sgt. Tognietti was arraigned on the same charges in April of this year.
“This case underscores the value of law enforcement agencies working together. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were actively investigating Allawi when NCIS made them aware of the death of Corporal Mambulao. The subsequent joint investigation by DEA, USPIS and NCIS linked the pills purchased by Villegas to Allawi, which ultimately resulted in the charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 400 grams or more of fentanyl resulting in death or serious bodily injury, and today’s stiff 30-year sentence for Allawi,” stated NCIS Special Agent in Charge Humenansky.
“Opioids such as fentanyl are a public health crisis that have taken countless lives and destroyed many more,” said U.S. Postal Inspector in Charge Gonzalez. “Postal Inspectors have always made it their mission to protect the public and the U.S. Postal Service from drug traffickers who try to use the mail to distribute their poison. The sentence handed down today should serve as a reminder to other perpetrators engaged in this type of criminal activity that we will continue to work closely with all of our law enforcement partners to ensure they are brought to justice.”
“Today’s sentencing of Alaa Allawi for his role in the distribution of illegal drugs laced with deadly fentanyl and money laundering of the illegal proceeds from his operation is a victory for the American public and a defeat to drug traffickers everywhere,” said IRS Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Goss. “The Special Agents of IRS Criminal Investigation continue in their mission to disrupt the flow of ill-gotten gains that is the life-blood for these criminals.”
Agents and officers with the DEA, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, IRS Criminal Investigation, Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS), San Antonio Police Department and the University of Texas at San Antonio Police Department conducted this OCDETF investigation. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Wannarka is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government. Mr. Bash extends his appreciation to the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the Eastern District of North Carolina, District of North Dakota and the Central District of California for their cooperation with this prosecution.
The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering operations, and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply.
Federal charges are not considered as evidence of guilt. The defendants are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
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