Right Under Their Noses

How did the sheriff's posse commander and his minions miss what is alleged to have been the largest marijuana-smuggling operation ever run by gringos? They were, after all, sharing a warehouse.

The drug-processing operation allegedly was located at the south end of the warehouse, approximately 150 feet from the main entrance to Weide's business, UTE Parts Supply.

The search of the warehouse revealed three large oceangoing shipping containers--one 40-foot-long container and two 20-footers. The containers were screened off from the rest of the cavernous warehouse by a makeshift, eight-foot-high sheetrock wall that did not reach to the ceiling.

"Inside one of the twenty foot containers were numerous items used for the packaging and distribution of large amounts of marijuana," including 20,000 packets of deodorizer sheets, Nesteroff's affidavit says.

Other items found inside the warehouse, according to an Arizona Department of Public Safety report, included an electronic scale that could be used to weigh marijuana, 60 rolls of plastic shrink wrap, 10,000 plastic bags, 120 duffel bags and high-grade tools. Police also found a semitrailer with a false front parked in front of the warehouse doors and a steel roller conveyor system leading to Gregory's cargo containers.

While no marijuana was found during the search of the warehouse, U.S. Customs Special Agent Judy Colter testified during Pauwells' detention hearing that the distinctive odor of marijuana was present inside the shipping containers.

Colter was asked by Michael Gordon, a federal public defender representing 22-year-old Pauwells, whether the operation "was obviously a marijuana processing site to someone like yourself who had dealt with law enforcement and drug enforcement law?"

"Those items are commonly used for processing or handling marijuana, correct," Colter responded.

Colter's assessment and that these materials were found on Weide's property have failed to make much of an impression on Weide, who occasionally wears an Arizona Narcotics Officers Association belt buckle and drives around in a sport utility vehicle equipped with a police radio and sheriff's posse emblems.

In a brief interview before he hung up, Weide told New Times there was no indication that his warehouse was used for marijuana storage and distribution.

"I don't think that there was ever any evidence of that. I know DEA was interested and they didn't find anything," Weide says.

"They didn't find anything?"
"You're saying DEA didn't find anything in the warehouse?"
"There was no evidence of anything found," Weide says.

There was certainly enough evidence, however, for federal agents to arrest Pauwells and for U.S. District Magistrate Morton Sitver to detain Pauwells before transferring him to Waco, where he awaits trial along with Rice, each on seven narcotics and conspiracy charges.

By late November, Otis Thrasher is back on his feet and rambling around his home. He's feeling up to a more detailed interview concerning the search of Marvin Weide's warehouse. He describes the episode as one of the most unusual of his 27-year career as a DPS narcotics officer.

Thrasher says he had no idea who Weide was when he and Colter first entered the warehouse with search warrants. Thrasher says he learned of Weide's connection to the Sheriff's Office from business cards found in Weide's office, which was adjacent to Gregory's.

Weide's initial reaction to the search was one of disappointment and shock, Thrasher recalls.

"He was concerned, worried about the loss of the income," Thrasher says of the $4,100 Weide was receiving monthly from Gregory.

The rental income appears to be a very healthy lease for the seedy warehouse located among a mishmash of apartments and retail strip malls around 40th Street and McDowell Road.

Thrasher says Gregory appeared to use only a relatively small portion of the warehouse for the marijuana packaging and distribution center. Most of the warehouse, Thrasher says, was filled with empty shelves.

Despite the compact area used by Gregory, Thrasher says it took most of the day of February 18 to conduct an inventory of the materials found in and near the three cargo containers. Thrasher's formal interrogation of Weide didn't begin until the next day.

Thrasher says Weide told him that Gregory was running a furniture business and frequently put large numbers of couches in front of his warehouse for sale.

Thrasher says Weide also confirmed that he and other posse members were making Arpaio campaign signs for the November 1996 election in the north end of the warehouse, a stone's throw from Gregory's alleged drug operation. At least one Arpaio campaign sign was posted on a fence outside the warehouse when Thrasher first arrived. It was removed the next day, Thrasher says.

Thrasher says he's amazed that no one ever detected marijuana moving in and out of the warehouse--especially since so many people trained in basic police operations frequented the building.

"You would have to be awfully stupid" not to detect any smell from the amount of marijuana that apparently was being shipped, Thrasher says. Gregory "admitted that they used that warehouse for a number of months to actually do packaging and shipping" of marijuana, Thrasher says.

There is no publicly available estimate, however, of how much marijuana was processed in Weide's warehouse.

Thrasher says he became concerned about some of Weide's responses to questions when he examined the couches Gregory supposedly was selling.

"There were only two or three couches" in the warehouse, Thrasher says. Furthermore, they were of poor quality, "like you find along the streets and in Park 'N' Swap."

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