Around 11:30 p.m. on April 2 in suburban Vancouver, B.C., Clayton Roueche’s cell phone rang. It was his friend Pam Lee, who was looking for a ride down to Bellingham International Airport, where she hoped to catch a flight to a concert in California.
“I know I can’t ask you,” Lee said.
“Yeah,” replied Roueche, as Canadian federal authorities quietly listened in with recording equipment. “I’ll never come back.”
“Do you know anybody that could?” Lee asked.
“Drive you to the States?” asked Roueche.
“Yeah,” Lee replied.
Well, said Roueche, “I wouldn’t even get down [to Bellingham]; they’d throw me in jail.”
The only region of the U.S. he cared to visit, Roueche indicated, was its airspace. Double-chinned and heavily tattooed, Roueche, 33, correctly assumed that since he was suspected to be one of North America’s top-level drug traders, authorities might be holding a cell for him in Seattle. Six months earlier, U.S. prosecutors had filed a sealed indictment, to be opened upon his arrest. It alleges that Roueche, who tooled around Canada in a sleek Maserati and armor-plated Lincoln Navigator, is the leader of British Columbia’s “United Nations” drug gang, founded by Roueche and some of his high-school buddies in the 1990s. Now comprising as many as 300 white, Asian, and Persian members fond of dragon tattoos and designer hoodies, the gang has its own monogrammed tombstones, jewelry, and kilos of cocaine, as well as its own motto—”Honor, Loyalty, Respect”—and trail of alleged murders.
Canadian court documents describe United Nations members as “involved in marijuana grows and cross-border trafficking, extortion, threatening, and kidnappings and…linked to numerous homicides.” Based in the Fraser River Valley south of Vancouver, the organization is connected to the international Chinese crime syndicate Triad, according to investigators.
With help from local associates, the UN’s money and drugs move through Puget Sound or eastern Washington, then along the West Coast, according to U.S. and Canadian court documents. Cocaine flows north from Mexico, marijuana heads south to California, and cash goes both ways as payment and profit. The gang also deals in Ecstasy—but bud is #1.
On Sept. 21, 2005, one of the gang’s planes flew 1,100 pounds of marijuana from British Columbia to California, the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s office claims, part of an airlift of five flights from June 2005 to March 2006 that ferried 2,761 pounds of B.C. bud and lesser-quality grass to America. These figures were boggling even to seasoned agents. In less than 10 months, the gang had moved more than a ton of marijuana, which was then selling at more than $200 an ounce. Many of the shipments were being carried in small planes used to hop the border, or by vehicles down I-5 or Highway 97 through Okanogan County. (Fittingly, Highway 97 ends in Weed, California.) At the time, the Okanogan pipeline was so frenzied that it was possible to find bud-scented cash lying along the roadway, as the wife of a retired border agent did. (She was later allowed to keep the $507,000 she stumbled upon. See “Jack-Pot,” SW, Oct. 18, 2006.)
Authorities say Roueche’s ton of pot could have easily made him a multimillionaire—if the supply had reached the streets and proceeds had flowed back to Canada. But neither happened: The shipments were intercepted and confiscated as part of a multinational drug sweep launched in 2005.
Called Operation Frozen Timber, the investigation empowered U.S. and Canadian agents to jointly crack down on the flow of drugs through Okanogan and other popular routes, as well as to target major dealers running drugs via plane, helicopter, boat, and backpack through the North Cascades. Among those captured was Frank Tran, a Vancouver dealer and money launderer who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2006. According to court records, Tran was exchanging U.S. and Canadian currency at a rate of $300,000 a day. Also collared was Rob Kesling, a former Seattle car salesman turned ultimate fighter who got 17 years in 2006. One of his Canada-bound Colombian cocaine shipments alone had an estimated street value of more than $30 million, officials said (see “Stonewashed,” SW, Jan. 17, 2007). And the gang’s weapons supplier, 27-year-old Jong Lee, is now doing five years after being arrested in a Vancouver condo filled with explosives, machine guns, and land mines.
Altogether, federal authorities made 46 arrests and seized $40 million worth of marijuana and cocaine during Frozen Timber. But it wasn’t until this past May, in one of the operation’s lingering spinoff investigations, that they collared Roueche, whom they’d been after for at least three years. Their investigation involved a 10-man surveillance unit that tracked and tapped Roueche’s movements and conversations, and those of his gang, virtually around the clock.
In recent years, authorities have intercepted not only the ton of marijuana but also “loads of cash” linked to Roueche that traveled from Vancouver and Seattle to Los Angeles. In southern California, bud profits would be used to buy cocaine that could then be sold in Canada. The confiscated drug cash alone came to $750,000. In Roueche’s $450,000 condo in Coquitlam, just east of Vancouver, a search warrant turned up a stack of drug “score sheets” recording the buying and selling of nearly $875,000 in cocaine. When he was arrested, Roueche was sporting a UN insignia ring, watch, and chain bracelet valued at $125,000.
Federal prosecutors in Seattle, who handle an extraordinary number of border-related drug cases, won’t comment on the evidence with Roueche facing trial. But in court documents, Andy Richards, an inspector with a Canadian drug task force, says Roueche, the son of a Canadian scrap-metal recycler, lived “an extravagant criminal lifestyle” as head of the gang he formed in 1997, now spread across Canada.
In the endlessly repetitious holding action known as the War on Drugs, in which the same small hill is taken over and over again, the capture of the UN leader was monumental. Investigator Richards says Roueche had “international drug trafficking connections with trusted associates in the United States, Mexico, and South America.”
But if Roueche had been so successful in the past, why can’t he pay for an attorney today? And if he’s smart enough never to come closer than 30,000 feet to U.S. soil, why is he sitting in the SeaTac federal jail? In part, it has to do with “Honor, Loyalty, and Respect”—or the lack thereof, since some of his own gang members have now lined up against him. It also has to do with getting outplayed in court. But ultimately, it’s due to the UN leader’s goodwill jaunt to a buddy’s wedding in Mexico.
According to the stamps on his passport, Clay Roueche has been a frequent flyer to Vietnam, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Dubai, Lebanon, and Bangkok in recent years. But it was a 2008 flight to Mexico City that would be his last foreign stop.
Since filing the sealed indictment last October 11, authorities had been devising ways to arrest Roueche on U.S. soil so he could be brought to Seattle and tried. The indictment, along with a superseding indictment filed in July this year, claims that Roueche and nine other associates conspired to bring Central and South American cocaine to King, Kitsap, Whatcom, and Jefferson Counties, exporting most of it from there to British Columbia by vehicle and aircraft. At the same time, prosecutors allege, the UN was sending Canadian marijuana to Washington and other coastal locales.
One of the busts, in March 2006, led to the arrest of alleged Los Angeles dealer Omar Amaro Gallegos, whom prosecutors say is one of Roueche’s co-conspirators. The seizure netted 107 kilos of cocaine, two pounds of crack, weapons, and $462,000 in cash. About $143,000 of that money came directly through the UN’s Puget Sound pipeline, officials claim. Gallegos’ fingerprints were also found on the plastic film and masking tape used to wrap $217,000 in cash seized in a separate 2006 arrest in southern California, in which 80 kilos of coke were found.
Roueche is charged with being the leader of the conspiracy and with directly arranging the ground and air shipments of 109 kilos of cocaine and the ton of weed from 2005 through 2007. He is also charged with money laundering and using a firearm during the commission of those alleged crimes.
The Economist recently estimated that historically low-crime Canada now has 950 major gangs, with Vancouver as ground zero. This decade, the B.C. drug trade has spiked to a now-estimated $7 billion annually. All that money creates a glitzy gang culture in which, a Vancouver policeman observes, “handguns are as ubiquitous as cell phones.”
The work apparently pays well, but a good medical plan is recommended. In a brief, assistant U.S. attorney Susan Roe says the UN “historically has solved internal conflicts by organized beatings, and they are devotees of the martial arts and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) contests…These beatings are rarely reported to the police. However, in October 2007, Roueche was convicted of assault after police officers witnessed Roueche landing several blows, including one to the face, of a man at a rave party.”
Roueche’s sister-in-law, Noi Chanthapathet, says authorities have the wrong idea about the alleged UN kingpin, who has pled not guilty. “Clay Roueche has always been there for me and my family,” she says. “He is a kind and warmhearted guy to always be around. If there is anything that anyone needed, he would always be there for them.”
But in court records, Canadian investigators say they have linked the UN to murders involving B.C. drug operations, and note that after a series of 2007 shootings in Chilliwack, Roueche’s car was stopped and found to contain illegal handguns, clips, and a photograph of a rival gang member. Just last month, a 32-year-old real-estate agent named Mike Gordon was murdered in Chilliwack; The Vancouver Sun reported that he had bought and sold several properties for Roueche and other members of the UN, and had lately been hanging out with members of a rival gang.
Several UN members have also been killed, including Evan Appell, 29, shot in 2005, and Duane Meyer, 41, gunned down this year in an Abbotsford, B.C., drive-by. Officials say they have evidence that Roueche paid for Meyer’s May 15 funeral, and have a picture of him posing that day with other UN members. Also in attendance, prosecutors say, were a dozen Hells Angels, considered otherwise to be UN rivals in the drug trade, along with another gang called the Independent Soldiers.
But on the day of Meyer’s funeral, a plan was already unfolding to finally arrest Roueche. Through their intelligence units, authorities discovered that UN member Jorge Barreiro was about to be married in Cancún, and that Roueche and about 20 other associates would attend.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told Mexican authorities that Roueche was coming their way, and asked if they could do the U.S. a favor: Turn him around and send him back to Vancouver—by way of Texas.
On May 19, when Roueche arrived on a plane whose passengers included a watchful ICE agent, Mexican immigration officials were waiting at the gate. They told Roueche he was being denied entry as an undesirable alien due to his drug connections, and put him on the next plane to Vancouver with a stopover at Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport. The flight plan set Roueche atwitter.
“Once on the plane and in his seat,” says prosecutor Roe in a court affidavit, “Roueche quickly began sending Blackberry messages, indicating he was concerned about flying through the U.S., saying that perhaps he was being paranoid but he was worried about being arrested. He also Blackberried information about bank accounts and access codes before he had to turn off the device.”
After the plane touched down on U.S. soil, Clayton Roueche, almost seven months to the day after his arrest warrant had been issued, was taken into custody by American authorities. Of course, the U.S. still had to prove its case against Roueche. And under the marvelous American legal system, he had the right to remain silent and hire an attorney.
Neither of those tactics would work out very well for Roueche.
After his arrest, Roueche was held in an Oklahoma federal lockup where, according to officials, he started gabbing away on the phone, making three dozen calls. Authorities listened in, and ended up taking away his phone privilege after they realized he was speaking in code (which the feds may have partially deciphered after confiscating a code book they found in his holding cell).
Brought in shackles to Seattle on May 30 by U.S. marshals, Roueche asked to be released on bond. Prosecutors, however, warily recalled what happened to another alleged UN member, Joe Curry, who was arrested last October in Okanogan County after flying in on a small plane carrying 68 pounds of Ecstasy. The federal court here released him on a $10,000 appearance bond, and he immediately disappeared. One of the last times investigators saw him was at the May 15 funeral for Duane Meyer. In a group photo, Curry is standing next to Roueche.
In bidding for his release, Roueche told the court he was essentially a scrap-metal dealer, like his father. Roueche’s Canadian tax form for 2006 showed he’d earned just $27,000. Hence he claimed he couldn’t afford much in the way of a bond. He also told the court he had “strong ties” to his family and community across the border.
Essentially, Roueche told the court he was nobody important. He graduated high school in 1993, sold appliances and electronics, became a sales manager, and opened—then sold—a restaurant. He married in 2000 and has three children, although he’s now in the process of a divorce. He’d also been active in a Buddhist temple, he said, where he assisted with fund-raising. His father, Rupert, told the court he planned to hand his scrap business, which he claims has annual revenues of $1 million, over to his son.
Roe wasn’t buying any of it; she argued that the business was a front. Canadian law enforcement had surveilled Roueche for thousands of hours in the past three years, she said, and “report never having seen him operate large equipment such as [that] used in a scrap-metal company” or engage in any similar work, Roe told the court. Investigators also could not find any listings for the scrap business, Roueche Enterprises Ltd., that was listed in court papers, And about those community ties, Roe added: “His community is the UN Gang.”
In June, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Alice Theiler ordered the UN leader held without bond. He’s booked into SeaTac until at least December, when his trial is set to begin.
All he needs now is an attorney.
“I find myself in a position where I want to hire a lawyer,” Roueche recently told a Seattle federal magistrate. “My parents have the resources with which to do that, and yet as I understand it, the American government has the ability to prevent that from being done.”
The accused gang leader may be rich, but his wealth has come through drug income, the government suspects. And under U.S. law, any assets the government can link to the drug trade are subject to seizure.
“If someone has made millions of dollars by peddling drugs,” says Emily Langlie, spokesperson for the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office, “it would be inappropriate that the money would then be used to hire legal counsel. I’m not sure a lawyer would want to be paid out of those funds as well.”
The threat of legal asset confiscation has left Roueche unable to hire a full-time attorney—one, anyway, who would be willing to take the case despite the risk of accepting tainted money or not getting paid at all.
Roueche’s parents did hire Seattle criminal defense attorney Irwin Schwartz on a limited basis. But prosecutors then contended the parents’ estate—business, land, and other assets valued at $800,000—could also be tainted by drug money. During the calls he made from Oklahoma, they say, Roueche organized a UN meeting to discuss his fate. The meeting was subsequently held at his parents’ house.
Rupert Roueche declined to comment for this story. But he and his wife told The Vancouver Sun that the meeting was actually a 33rd-birthday party for their boy—even though he was in custody 140 miles away.
“They all went to school together,” the elder Roueche added. “I don’t know anything about [the UN]. It depends—who is the gang? Who’s the gang? You say Clay has made millions and millions of dollars. He doesn’t have any money.”
Once the government raised concerns about the parents’ funds, attorney Schwartz filed a brief, stating: “The undersigned advised Mr. Roueche that he was unable to represent him.” The parents hired another attorney from Los Angeles, but he ultimately backed out as well. Schwartz then made another cameo for Roueche, seeking a court-appointed attorney to represent the defendant at public expense.
Roueche told the court he was facing a tricky situation. He was required to submit a detailed financial form to prove he deserved court-funded representation. But if he did, prosecutors might use the information against him.
If his money came from illegal activity, he said, “Anything I may say about assets I have could be proof that I engaged in those activities.” Even if the court sealed the form, he added, “I fear that may not prevent the Canadian government from obtaining a copy under international judicial procedure”—and perhaps passing the information on to U.S. officials.
“I ask the court,” said the globetrotting Maserati buff, “to find I am financially unable to hire a lawyer and appoint one for me.”
Schwartz says the court has agreed to appoint an attorney, although an official order has yet to be filed. However, Schwartz says, “The net effect is that a person accused of serious crimes is deprived of his right to use his assets, and even his parents are prevented from using their assets, to mount an effective defense.”
In essence, Schwartz indicates that Roueche will go to trial with the deck stacked against him. Several of his alleged co-conspirators have struck plea deals and agreed to help make a case against Roueche, prosecutors say. “Further,” they add in a brief, “Roueche has been intercepted in conversations conducting these activities, thereby confirming the co-conspirators’ statements.”
Roueche himself may have left some incriminating evidence behind: At his residence, Canadian investigators turned up a gun, masks, handcuffs, and night-vision goggles, essentially “a kit for kidnapping or murder,” they say. There was also something of a diary of the UN’s activities. Prosecutors won’t give any details, but refer to the manuscript as Roueche’s “gang musings notebook.”
In that April phone chat with Pam Lee, after Roueche told her he could get thrown in jail just for entering the States, Lee responded: “I know.”
“Yeah,” the UN founder added, “and then you’d never see me for, like, 20 years.”
International man of diplomacy he isn’t. Visionary he may be.