Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Federal Air Marshals Caught Smuggling Cocaine

This should come as no surprise...

Drug sting led to arrest here of two federal air marshals
By HARVEY RICE
Copyright 2006
Houston Chronicle

Air marshal Shawn Ray Nguyen was consorting with the dark side of the law long before he and another federal air marshal were arrested on drug charges, according to a criminal complaint made public Monday.

Nguyen, 38, of Houston, began hanging out with a person he knew associated with a drug trafficker and had been involved in credit card fraud, twice giving the person thousands of dollars to invest in drug trafficking, the complaint says.

His confidence turned out to be misplaced. The person, identified only as a cooperating witness, or "CW," in the complaint, recorded Nguyen's conversations and helped set up a fake cocaine deal that ended in the arrest of Nguyen and air marshal Burlie L. Sholar III, 32, of Houston, last week.

"I ain't greedy, I've done this ... before," he said at one point in a taped conversation with the informant, the complaint says.

As he and Sholar were preparing to transport 15 kilograms, or 33 pounds, of cocaine, "Nguyen told Sholar that he has done this many times and there are things that need to be done," the complaint says.

Nguyen also suggested that Sholar might have been involved in other questionable dealings in his official capacity, saying in a recorded conversation that Sholar was involved in a Hawaii money laundering transaction, the complaint says.

Federal officials said this is the first time an air marshal has been accused of using his official capacity to smuggle drugs.

Hearing set for Thursday

Nguyen and Sholar made an initial appearance Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith on drug conspiracy charges. Smith scheduled a arraignment and detention hearing for Thursday.

Nguyen's attorney, Kent Schaffer, said, "It's premature to be slamming the prison door shut." He said new information would shed "a whole different light on what is being portrayed today."
Sholar appeared without an attorney.

A federal official said both had been suspended without pay.

Little information was available about Sholar's background, but the complaint said Nguyen was an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1997 to 2002.

They are accused of conspiring to smuggle 15 kilograms of cocaine supplied by federal investigators for $4,500 per kilogram.

Harris County Sheriff's deputies arrested Nguyen and Sholar on Thursday shortly after they left Nguyen's Houston home, where the informant had delivered the cocaine in two black pieces of carry-on luggage with $15,000 in "up front" money, according to the complaint.
Probe started in November

The complaint says deputies found $5,000 in marked bills on Sholar and a firearm and methamphetamine in his pickup. The cocaine and $9,342 were found at Nguyen's residence.
Nguyen and Sholar are charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, which carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison and a maximum fine of $4 million.

The complaint says the two air marshals had agreed with the informant to bypass airport security at Bush Intercontinental Airport to smuggle the cocaine on board a flight bound for Las Vegas, Nev.

The Office of Inspector General for the Homeland Security Department and the FBI began an investigation in November after learning that Nguyen had been involved in narcotics sales, the complaint said.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle declined to discuss how officials first became suspicious of Nguyen.

The complaint said that after twice giving the informant cash to invest in drug trafficking, Nguyen told the informant he wanted to help smuggle drugs.

Before the sting operation that led to his arrest, Nguyen smuggled cash from drug sales and forged documents through airport security and on another occasion smuggled 2 kilograms, 4.4 pounds, of cocaine, according to the complaint.

Nguyen is accused of accepting $10,000 in cash Dec. 21 to bypass airport security with a package containing $25,000 in drug proceeds and fraudulent government documents.
On his second effort, he bypassed security with 2 kilograms of cocaine supplied to the informant by law enforcement.

Later Nguyen discussed smuggling larger loads of cocaine with the informant and the need to bring in others to assist, according to the criminal complaint. Sholar, whom Nguyen referred to in recordings as "my boy," is accused of joining in the plan to smuggle the 15 kilograms of cocaine, making hotel and airline reservations for himself and Nguyen.

harvey.rice@chron.com

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