May 6, 2008 / 5:48 PM / 11 years ago

Massive drug ring smashed at California university

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Nearly 100 people were arrested in an undercover investigation of a massive drug ring at San Diego State University in Southern California that authorities said on Tuesday was run largely by students and was “stunning” in its size and sophistication.

A Drug Enforcement Agency agent displays marijuana and cash confiscated during part of a five-month undercover drug investigation at the San Diego State University campus, in this undated handout photo from the DEA released May 6, 2008. REUTERS/DEA/Handout

A total of 96 people, 75 of them students, were taken into custody on drug-related charges at the 30,000-student campus during “Operation Sudden Fall,” which began one year ago with the death of a female student from a cocaine overdose.

Police arrested 18 of the students on Tuesday morning and said raids had recovered 50 pounds (23 kg) of marijuana, 48 marijuana plants, 350 Ecstasy pills and 30 vials of hash oil, as well as cocaine, psychedelic mushrooms, methamphetamine and illicit prescription drugs.

Also seized in the operation, spearheaded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local authorities, were a shotgun, three semi-automatic pistols, brass knuckles and $60,000 in cash.

“The stunning thing is that it was on the college campus itself and really catering to the campus crowd,” DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney said. “To actually have people in college this sophisticated and operating on this level is really unusual. I would call it a light cartel without the violence.”

Prosecutors said one of the students accused of dealing cocaine was one month away from being awarded a master’s degree in homeland security and worked as a community service officer for the campus police department.

Another student, a criminal justice major, was arrested for possessing 500 grams (18 ounces) of cocaine and two guns.

DEALERS ‘PREYED ON STUDENTS’

Campus police opened the investigation after 19-year-old student Shirley Jennifer Poliakoff was found dead in her bedroom on May 6, 2007, of what medical examiners ruled was an accidental overdose of cocaine and alcohol.

A second student, who was 22, died of an accidental cocaine overdose at a fraternity house on February 26, while the undercover operation was already under way.

San Diego State is often ranked as one of California’s top “party schools” and is less than 20 miles from the Mexican border.

“I think you just had all the right elements. Savvy people, products coming in across the border and from other areas,” Courtney said.

Stephen Webber, the university’s president, said implicated students were immediately suspended from classes and evicted from campus housing.

“If proven guilty, these individuals have preyed on students and have ruined hundreds of lives,” Webber said. “We’re talking about people trafficking in drugs, and that’s something we’re not prepared to turn our backs on.”

Authorities said that during the investigation they infiltrated seven campus fraternities and found that in some of them most members were aware of organized drug dealing.

In one case, prosecutors said, a member of the Theta Chi fraternity sent out a mass text message to his “faithful customers” announcing he was traveling to Las Vegas for the weekend and would not be available to make drug deals but that he would be having a “sale” on cocaine prices.

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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