WINSTON COUNTY - An interstate drug operation has been intercepted by local and regional agencies, seizing two containers each containing around eight total pounds of marijuana in air tight bags that were mailed from southern California to the post office in Haleyville.
This same case also marks history in Winston County, in being the first time the medication Fentanyl has been confiscated, authorities said. The drug when abused can create the same affects as heroin, authorities said.
The first container, a metal box seized during a traffic stop of the individual under suspicion, contained three one pound bags of marijuana, with the second seized package containing over $3,000 believed to be cash used to purchase the next shipment of marijuana, noted Winston County Sheriff’s Investigator Brad Curtis.
Another shipment of marijuana arrived at the Haleyville post office but this time was in a five gallon bucket packed in a Home Depot box. Inside the bucket were five air-tight one pound bags of marijuana, Curtis added.
U.S. Postal Inspector John Bailey on Tuesday, March 5, opened the bucket in the presence of law enforcement, including members of the Region E Drug Task Force and removed five air-tight bags which were placed on the floor and photographed by law enforcement.
However, this find was only a drop in the bucket, so to speak, of the massive drug find, which includes the other package as well as a search of the suspect’s residence finding more marijuana, according to Curtis.
These findings led to the arrest of Shavonna Lynn Zoetewey, 29, formerly of Sheffield, currently of 3686 County Road 23, Haleyville, who has been charged with two counts of trafficking marijuana, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, said Curtis.
Law enforcement and postal inspectors seized a suspicious pattern of packages coming into the area, Bailey said.
“There’s been packages coming in for a while,” Bailey pointed out. “Once we found out about the pattern, we called law enforcement and then we started investigating.”
The suspicious packages were all coming to the post office in Haleyville over the past few months, according to Bailey.
When the postal inspector took note of the suspicious packages, he notified law enforcement
This suspicious package was seized by the U.S. Postal Inspector, who turned it over to law enforcement, which included regional efforts from the Region E drug task force, including agencies in Winston, Marion, Walker, Franklin, Colbert counties and agents with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.
Municipalities involved in the task force include police departments in Winfield, Jasper, Russellville, Red Bay as well as Winston, Lawrence and Fayette county district attorney offices.
Winston County Sheriff Tommy Moore noted his office was contacted by ALEA about the pattern of suspicious packages coming into the post office in Haleyville.
“Investigators did some surveillance type work and basically a drug investigation and determined where the packages were going to,” Sheriff Moore stated.
Investigators determined that the suspicious packages were being mailed from California to the Haleyville post office, where Zoetewey, the recipient, received them then most recently attempted to mail to California cash for the next marijuana shipment, law enforcement officials said.
Two packages have so far been intercepted, three total pounds in the metal box shipment and at least five pounds in the latest bucket shipment, Sheriff Moore stated.
The first package that was confiscated, the metal box containing three pounds of marijuana, arrived at the Haleyville post office on Feb. 27, which was picked up by Zoetewey according to video surveillance and was transported to a residence in the Haleyville area, according to Curtis.
“We followed it from the post office to a residence,” he said.
The Colbert County Drug Task Force brought their drug dog Bono, which had reacted to the package being some type of narcotics, according to Curtis.
Zoetewey was allowed to pick up the package under a controlled delivery, but her actions were being closely monitored, investigators said.
This resulted in law enforcement that same day conducting a traffic stop of a maroon Chevrolet Tahoe in the Rabbittown area, finding Zoetewey and the metal box in her possession, Curtis said.
At the time of stop, Zoetewey had active warrants from other agencies, so she was transported to the Winston County Jail by Sheriff’s Deputy Wes Donaldson, Double Springs, he said.
“We obtained a search warrant to open the package,” said Curtis.
In fact, a Priority Mail container had been lined with metal in order to escape detection by X-ray, he noted.
After the search warrant was obtained, the package was opened at the Winston County Courthouse, revealing the three pounds of marijuana in one pound bags, authorities said.
Another search warrant was obtained for Zoetewey’s residence on CR 23, where other members of the task force secured the residence.
Non forcible entry was made, not finding anyone home, but more drugs as well as paraphernalia were discovered, according to investigators.
“When we got back to the residence with the search warrant, you could smell the strong odor of marijuana coming from the residence,” Curtis said.
A search of the residence found such drug paraphernalia as a grinder and marijuana pipe in plain view in the living room, said Curtis.
Also found were 1 1/2 pounds of marijuana in a plastic container as well as electronic scales in the bathroom closet, he said.
Pills found in a small bag were determined to be the dangerous and deadly drug Fentanyl, and a children’s back on the bathroom counter was found to contain loose marijuana, Curtis added.
In the master bedroom a small amount of marijuana was found along with a loaded 40 caliber handgun and an AK 47 rifle with loaded magazine, Curtis continued.
After Zoetewey received the metal box of marijuana on Feb. 27, she reportedly went to the Haleyville post office where she attempted to send out a package intended to go to California, investigators said.
The package, which contained $3,480 she was intended to be used to purchase more narcotics from California, was intercepted by law enforcement, Curtis said.
On Friday, March 1, law enforcement were notified another package from California had arrived at the post office, he said.
“They stopped her package from going out and accepted the incoming package for (inventory) reasons,” Curtis said.
The post al inspector obtained a federal search warrant for the Home Depot box which contained the five gallon bucket of five one-pound bags of marijuana, which was opened Tuesday, March 5, in the presence of other law enforcement.
Zoetewey reportedly made $51,000 bond on her initial charges in Winston County but was transferred to answer charges she faces at the Lauderdale County Jail, authorities said.
After she answers charges there, she will be transferred back to Winston County to face the additional charges of trafficking she received due to the latest bucket of marijuana, authorities said.
Warrants have been signed charging Brandon Charles Benge of Haleyville with two counts of trafficking marijuana, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and trafficking in a controlled substance, Curtis said.
“This is a huge win for Winston County,” he said. “This is the first time for me that I have had this much marijuana seized in one (case), especially with the Fentanyl. That is dangerous stuff.
“It’s very harmful, especially for how this looked. This looked like a kid’s multi vitamin.
“This was in a drawer in the bathroom that was accessible to children,” Curtis pointed out. “There were no children there at the time of the search, but we know that children live in this house, and it is very irresponsible to do what they did.”
Now that these marijuana packages have been seized and an arrest made locally, authorities are turning the case over to authorities in California, where these series of shipments originated, Sheriff Moore stated.
This case shows that these agencies will never stop in trying to clean up drugs, according to Sheriff Moore.
“We are going to follow every avenue that is available to us,” Moore noted.
“The postal inspector sees this quite regularly in his job in a lot of different counties, but this is rare for Winston County,” he pointed out.
“This is just another fine example of how the drug task force is working throughout the state,” Moore said.
About a year ago, $200,000 in ADECA funds were received to start a statewide task force, which was divided into seven regions, with Winston being listed in Region E with $17,000 going to fund each region, officials said.
“Then our hopes and goals were that we would move to a much higher level than what we had ever been able to move to in the county,” Moore said.
Brett Burleson, chief of the Winfield Police Department, also a member of the drug task force, noted these types of interstate drug trafficking operations are becoming more numerous.
“These guys (in the task force) are doing an exceptional job, getting out, working hard,” Burleson said. “They are using means and measures we haven’t used before.
“Anytime that you get a group of folks together and you start sharing information, that is the heart of getting cases like this,” Burleson added.
“When this drug task force got together, it put money to the works and it put these guys together and gave them resources that we didn’t normally have,” Burleson continued.
“No pun intended, but this is just a drop in the bucket of what’s coming through the mail, what’s coming down the interstates,” he concluded.
Agencies working with the ADECA task force included sheriff’s offices in Winston, Marion and Franklin counties as well as Winfield PD.
*When a defendant is charged with a crime, the charge is merely an accusation until or unless proven guilty in a court of law.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.