Marlon Matthew Pittman, the last of three defendants operating a cocaine smuggling and money-laundering ring, has been sentenced to federal prison. The men routinely shipped their drugs from Puerto Rico to Atlanta through the U.S. Mail hidden inside children’s toys and cans of powdered milk, and laundered their drug money using a car rental company and an elaborate scheme involving hundreds of money orders. All three men had prior federal drug trafficking convictions. Pittman attempted to flee the country while awaiting trial but was arrested trying to board a flight to Ethiopia using a fake identity.
“These drug smugglers endangered countless people from Puerto Rico to Atlanta and beyond,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Ironically, it was the money laundering scheme they created to hide their criminal enterprise that first caught the attention of investigators and led to their downfall. Criminals regularly believe they have developed a new way to evade detection. However, sophisticated abilities developed by our law enforcement partners help identify the crooks, leading to a successful prosecution like this one.”
Robert J. Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division commented, “Drug distribution networks often take extreme measures in order to hide the poison they peddle, as was the case in this investigation. This is a perfect illustration of the battle DEA and its law enforcement counterparts face when trying to prevent dangerous drugs from hitting the streets of our communities. As a result of DEA’s unwavering commitment and through the strength of its partnerships, these defendants will spend well-deserved time in prison.”
“This sentencing brings to close a lengthy investigation into a complex money laundering scheme in which defendants illegally funneled narcotic proceeds in an effort to avoid detection by law enforcement. By following the money trail, Postal Inspectors were able to identify transactions that were utilized in furtherance of their drug smuggling operation,” said David M. McGinnis, U.S. Postal Inspector in Charge of the Charlotte Division. “The Postal Inspection Service is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to investigate and seek the prosecution of those who attempt to conceal and launder illicit proceeds.”
According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the charges, and other information presented in court: This multi-agency investigation began when federal agents noticed suspicious financial activity by an Atlanta-based car rental business and an unusual pattern of money order purchases dating back to 2012. Realizing the activity was money laundering, they began a series of federally authorized wiretaps on cellular phones used by the owner of the car rental business—Marlon Pittman—and members of his drug trafficking operation (“DTO”) in Atlanta and Puerto Rico.
The general scheme of the DTO was that Vladimir Collozo-Florido imported loads of more than 200 kilograms of cocaine at a time into Puerto Rico using cargo ships from Colombia. He then sent the cocaine through the U.S. Mail to Pittman in Atlanta, usually in parcels containing up to 1.5 kilograms at a time. In order to avoid detection, if the parcels were inspected, the cocaine was hidden inside seemingly innocent items such as children’s toys, cans of powdered milk, or cans of beans. Carlos Gonzalez-Catala was responsible for packaging the drugs using a can sealing machine and other disguising materials, and then mailing the packages. Pittman used a number of associates in Atlanta to receive the parcels on his behalf using fake names, and he would sell the cocaine to customers in Atlanta, South Carolina, Maryland, and New York.
Pittman initially transferred the proceeds of the drug sales back to Puerto Rico by carrying large quantities of cash – including one instance of $90,000 in a duffle bag – as carryon luggage on commercial flights. But to conceal the scheme and deal with increased amounts of cash, he set up a car rental business and funneled the money through the business’s bank accounts. He also purchased money orders in small increments, visiting multiple post offices on the same day, in an effort to avoid detection. He then mailed the money orders to Puerto Rico, where they were cashed by a network of associates.
Collazo-Florido and Gonzalez-Catala pleaded guilty first, with Collazo-Florido ordered to forfeit $1,000,000 as part of his sentence. While Pittman was awaiting trial, he was actually planning to flee the country. He was ultimately caught as he was passing through a TSA checkpoint at an airport to board a flight overseas, using an international travel document in a fake name he obtained by bribing foreign government officials. He also had in his possession eleven pounds of MDMA tablets hidden inside children’s Flinstones vitamins bottles. Upon searching his cell phone, agents realized Pittman had been on a crime spree on his way out of the country, trying to obtain money to take with him through fraudulent loans and fraudulent tax refunds, and also emptying his family’s food stamps account.
Members of the operation who have been sentenced by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg are:
- Marlon Matthew Pittman, 45, of Mableton, Georgia, was sentenced to 17 years in prison, to be followed by eight years of supervised release, and ordered to forfeit the residence he purchased with drug money. Pittman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to commit money laundering on August 27, 2018.
- Vladimir Collazo-Florido, 44, of Carolina, Puerto Rico, was sentenced to 11 years and four months in prison, to be followed by eight years of supervised release, and ordered to forfeit $1,000,000. Collazo-Florido pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine on November 13, 2017, and was sentenced on March 8, 2018.
- Carlos Gonzalez-Catala, 42, of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, was sentenced to three years and three months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release. Gonzalez-Catala pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine on November 13, 2017, and was sentenced on February 8, 2018.