ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates has learned federal money meant to help struggling businesses survive the pandemic was used to help fund local gang operations.
Nearly a year ago, investigative reporter Daralene Jones first reported about a gang war that included drug trafficking and the murders of innocent children in Orange County.
In July, more than two dozen people were arrested on state racketeering and conspiracy charges after a nine-month investigation.
Since then, Jones has been working to find out how the alleged criminal enterprise and gangs operated. That’s how she found out about the federal money these alleged gang members received.
In fact, she waited four weeks to get a copy of an investigative report that is no longer sealed. It’s about 700 pages long.
Jones had to read most of that report to find out that at least four or five gang members allegedly applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program and Small Business Administration loans that may have helped pay for drugs and guns, which were sometimes used to kill or commit other violent crimes.
The state investigation provides the first clear insight into the nine-month investigation.
Undercover Orange County deputies and agents captured every move of dozens of alleged drug dealers and their associates as they flew into Orlando International Airport, dragging suitcases lined with drugs.
They even tracked the suspects back to trap houses throughout Orange County, where the drug operations took place in the middle of neighborhoods.
“They’re putting together the case the whole time, so when it comes time to drop charges on these guys, they’ve got a mountain of evidence,” said Jonathan Rose, a defense attorney who handles federal cases.
More than 30 people have been arrested and charged under the state racketeering and conspiracy statute. That means investigators believe the gangs were running a criminal enterprise.
And the FBI warned in July, federal charges were coming based on information gathered through wire taps. Those surveillance efforts allowed investigators to track phone calls and social media activity.
“You should see several federal indictments coming up targeting the infrastructure that supported the financial part of these gangs,” said Ron Hopper, FBI assistant special agent in charge.
The state records Jones obtained help 9 Investigates piece together some of that.
The report provides documented proof that at least six people allegedly created limited liability companies, or LLCs, solicited people through social media and in some cases stole identities to apply for PPP and SBA loans, which were then approved.
They took screen shots showing proof when the money was deposited into online bank accounts, according to the documents.
“If you’re operating a RICO organization, there’s some degree of complexity and the people who are doing this are not unsophisticated people,” said Rose, the defense attorney.
Investigators believe the money was used to fuel the criminal enterprise that included guns and drugs picked up from a marijuana farm in California and flown back to Orlando.
Agents took photos of the drugs and weighed them before sending them through on the luggage carousel, where the alleged dealers and associates picked them up, without a clue that they were being watched.
All of the surveillance was used to build the state case and now the ongoing federal case.
“Part of the reason they do that is they’ll let the investigation grow and grow and when those people are charged, they’ll say, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to help yourself,’” Rose explained.
Most of the suspects in the state case have pleaded not guilty, and one of them proclaimed his innocence through a jailhouse video call posted on Instagram three weeks ago. In that video, he says, “This RICO (expletive deleted) can’t hold me down for long.”
That suspect was referencing his efforts to beat the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act case against him. Investigators also found a screenshot one man texted to other alleged gang members, threatening to ambush the officer driving in front of him.
The FBI would not comment on its investigation, but 9 Investigates will continue to monitor when and if those charges emerge for alleged SBA and PPP loan fraud.