Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat TYGus from Courier Journal
HICKORY, N.C. — Roger Dale Franklin and Lisa Dawn Wentworth got tired of waiting on the dope man.
Frustrated by three-hour holdups for a quarter-bag of crystal meth delivered by a man folks called Bones, the couple from Lenoir, North Carolina, started thinking about alternatives in the winter of 2013.
“I joked with Roger that there was a job opening,” Lisa Dawn said. “I’ve known Bones since I was 16, and I got tired of tracking him down. I said, ‘God dang, we can do better than that.’”
Roger Dale told her he had connections.
“I said, ‘Go prove it,’” Lisa Dawn remembered. “And he did.”
What Lisa Dawn didn’t know was that her boyfriend’s connections were deeply rooted in one of the most dangerous drug cartels in the world — a rising power that has saturated the U.S. with ultra-pure methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl from California and Alaska to Mississippi and Virginia.
Less than a decade old, Mexico’s Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, better known as CJNG, has fought its way to take its place among the world’s largest drug networks, led by its ruthless but disciplined leader, Ruben Oseguera Cervantes, better known as “El Mencho.”
Since early 2011, CJNG has smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars of drugs over the border into the U.S., spreading into at least 35 states with a sophisticated network that has used less populated rural areas to quietly move tons of product, a Courier Journal investigation found.
In Charlotte and the nearby mountain counties, other cartels have supplied drugs to the region, but CJNG has been the most dominant.
It sent in at least five “trusted, high-level” cartel members who set up North Carolina stash houses and front businesses in metro Charlotte, Hickory (a suburban town of about 40,000 an hour north of Charlotte) and nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, federal agents say.
Along the way, CJNG relied on residents like Roger Dale and Lisa Dawn to deal its drugs to users — people who would seamlessly blend with the local community without arousing suspicion.
“If it’s coming from a cartel, they could have sold a pound to Asians, black guys, outlaw motorcycle gangs, white trash,” said Ashe County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeremy Williams, whose testimony helped convict a trafficker connected to CJNG in 2014.
“Once the cartel brings a huge load across and throws it out there for everyone to sell, it’s out of their hands. They’ve got their money.”
It was a symbiotic relationship that allowed Roger Dale and Lisa Dawn’s drug business to thrive.
Spurred by his own fierce addiction, Roger Dale used his connections to gain access to mass quantities of nearly pure crystal meth, dispensing kilograms of drugs that had been smuggled into the region from cartel labs in Mexico.
Since 2012, a joint local, state and federal task force known as Operation Dixie Crystal has led to the convictions of more than 266 federal defendants in western North Carolina for meth trafficking, federal officials said.
It’s part of a larger federal enforcement effort to combat the organized drug trade.
“The program is focused on dismantling the largest, most sophisticated drug trafficking organizations, which often are Mexican drug cartels,” said Steven Kaufman, assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
Kaufman, who prosecutes Dixie Crystal cases, told The Courier Journal that he couldn’t discuss specific trafficking organizations, but he said the task force’s efforts have “disrupted the networks” in the region and will “continue to do so.”
Local, state and federal agents in this mountainous region have seized more than 200 kilograms of meth, dozens of guns and more than $1 million in cash and assets, said Chris Healy, special agent in charge of Homeland Security based in Charlotte.
And the investigation isn’t over. Organized drug trafficking still pervades the region.
CJNG’s high-potency meth started making its way into the region post-2011 through Atlanta, the cartel’s Southeast “hub,” Healy said.
CJNG hid drugs on trucks shipping furniture, ceramics and produce into the U.S. through Texas cities such as Brownville, Laredo and McAllen, Healy said.
Once in Charlotte, cartel members would send drugs to other North Carolina counties, as well as Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina, Healy said.
Most of the large quantities of meth in the region come from cartels, but the drugs can change hands so many times that it’s often difficult to trace, Williams said.
And many dealers have no idea they’re connected to a dangerous cartel, he said.
Others, like Martin Martinez Saldana, were longtime residents with deep roots in their communities.
Few knew Saldana and others were living a double life in the drug trade.
For 28 years, Saldana lived at the same North Carolina address on Ervin Houck Drive in West Jefferson, a rural town of about 1,300 roughly 100 miles north of Charlotte.
The single-lane street he lived on was surrounded by woods, with only two houses in view, a single-wide and an abandoned trailer.
The Mexican American worked 40 to 50 hours a week at two well-known construction companies driving a dump truck. He paid taxes, had citizenship and helped raise his three American daughters.
His hardworking guise was just what CJNG wanted: Someone with roots, a house, a job and a clean record.
The cartel would much rather recruit an American with a Hispanic background it can trust to move drugs than a cartel member who might not be as familiar with American culture, said Williams, the lead local law enforcement officer in Saldana’s case.
“When they know English and are familiar with the law, they can communicate with law enforcement to cover up what they’re doing,” he said.
Intelligence from other narcotics cases in Ashe County landed Saldana on authorities’ radar around 2008. It was Williams who started staking out Saldana’s property in 2010, often watching from the woods or taking down vehicle tags coming and going.
In 2012, police started building their case when they found a confidential informant with a connection to one of Saldana’s associates, allowing them to infiltrate the “web” with controlled buys.
Saldana’s operation started to unravel.
While in Mexico in the summer of 2012, Saldana let an associate live in a trailer on his property and run his drug trade. Two women from Brownsville, Texas, would come to the residence every two to three weeks to pick up money and bring it to Saldana in Mexico, Williams said during the trial.
Martin Martinez Saldana is serving a life sentence in federal prison after being convicted of drug trafficking.
Saldana had multiple couriers who moved the money south and the drugs north. He was arrested in December 2012 — two months after being shot several times in Mexico, court records show.
“And he’s very lucky that he didn’t die,” Kaufman, the federal prosecutor who tried the case against Saldana, said in his closing statement. “But he’s in a very dangerous business. And that’s what can happen.”
Police were able to prove to a jury that Saldana smuggled about 20 pounds of meth worth more than $1 million, 1,500 miles to North Carolina and Virginia from Brownsville.
Saldana, now 50, is serving a life sentence in a Kentucky federal prison for conspiracy to distribute meth and possession of an unregistered firearm. He has refused to cooperate with authorities.
“Saldana — we were never able to interview him,” said a North Carolina state law enforcement official who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case.
“That case stopped with him, but he was connected to the CJNG.”
Dealers with connections to cartels typically don’t cooperate because they’ll likely get killed if they talk, Williams said.
“The cartel doesn’t care if they live or die,” he explained. “Maybe about a quarter of the time, (the dealer) will talk to us and tell us how it is. The other 75%, they usually don’t.
“They don’t want to die. They take their sentence on the chin.”
As Saldana’s small empire crumbled toward the end of 2012, another already was well underway.
Kenneth Bennett and Jeremy Nunnenkamp forged another “main” connection to the border that linked CJNG meth to the region in 2012 and 2013 before they got busted, according to law enforcement.
“If you understand the drug business, they’re like cockroaches. If you squash one, two more take its place,” said Lt. Williams, who worked both Saldana’s and Bennett’s cases.
Bennett and Nunnenkamp were among several major meth traffickers who operated out of this cluster of North Carolina counties, driven by the explosion of meth into the region from CJNG and other cartels.
Across the country, the trend was similar. Meth seizures along the Mexican border increased 255% from about 8,400 kilos in 2012 to 30,000 in 2017, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data.
Deaths caused by methamphetamine use tripled from 1,887 in 2011 to 6,762 in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Nunnenkamp and Bennett joined forces after realizing they had the same CJNG connection, according to law enforcement. Bennett made his connection to the cartel while he was locked up in Louisiana.
Their supply chain worked like this:
A vehicle from Texas parked at the Walmart in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Williams said. Bennett took the car to his auto shop.
His connection gave him a code to open a hidden safe full of drugs inside the vehicle, Williams said.
Bennett and Nunnenkamp bought at least 10 pounds of crystal meth every month, he said.
The arrangement unraveled after Nunnenkamp, Bennett, his girlfriend and roommate were all arrested in April 2013.
Bennett’s girlfriend, Tammy Wynette Woody, did not stand by her man. Instead, she took a plea.
They all did.
In exchange for her testimony against Bennett, Woody pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute meth. She was sentenced to 2½ years and released in June 2015.
Jeffrey Dale Watson, Bennett’s roommate, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and released in September 2014.
Nunnenkamp, now 46, told police he helped distribute nearly 8 pounds of meth — at $20,000 a pound — at Bennett’s direction and helped count and package $120,000 to pay for more shipments from the Texas supplier.
Nunnenkamp and Bennett each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
Nunnenkamp was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison and is expected to be released in 2022. Bennett received 15 years and 8 months and will be released in December 2026.
Their fate came only a few months before time ran out as well for Lisa Dawn and Roger Dale.
Lisa Dawn said she knew one source of their drugs was “the Mexicans,” but she’d never heard of CJNG.
She didn’t know Roger Dale was dealing with a cartel.
It was the power and money associated with selling meth that kept her by Roger Dale’s side.
“We would go to McDonald’s. We would get out of the car and the Mexican guys that we never met put the drugs in the car and picked up the money and walked away,” Lisa Dawn said. “We never met nobody.”
The couple got their meth from different places.
Roger Dale took information about his connections to the grave when he died of a heart attack in federal prison in 2017.
After spending more than two years in federal prison, Lisa Dawn recalled the absurd lifestyle she and Roger Dale had while running their small-town empire.
Everyone went crazy over the Mexican meth they sold. It didn’t make users sick like homemade “shake and bake” meth did, Lisa Dawn remembered.
“When I started doing it and people were, like, giving me the clothes off their back, (I realized) I’m more addicted to selling the drugs than I am to the drugs themselves,” she said.
“It wasn’t even the money. It was the power. ‘What do you want? I will get it for you.’”
They lived in Roger Dale’s father’s house among hundreds of miscellaneous items they’d obtained by bartering with their drug-addicted customers, who would give up anything for a bag of dope.
The couple had four-wheelers, mopeds, a pool table, a boat, vehicles, guns, lawnmowers and any tool you can imagine, Lisa Dawn said.
“It wasn’t always cash we got,” she said. “That was part of the problem. Somebody would tell me, ‘I got a hot water heater out here that’s about brand new, can I trade it for a bag of dope?’ OK. Redneck drug dealing, I guess.”
A gunsmith who “liked cocaine” would handmake their bullets, Lisa Dawn said. Another man, who also “liked drugs,” was the in-house cook and Roger Dale’s all-night pool partner. They had folks to clean their house and drive them around, Lisa Dawn said.
“People liked what we had. It wasn’t hard to sell,” she said.
Lisa Dawn recalled the night she and Roger Dale got arrested. She was driving around with a drunk, passed out Roger Dale in the red Mustang that someone had traded them for $2,000 and some dope.
Police pulled them over after an illegal U-turn.
When Roger Dale woke up and was escorted by police to a nearby tree line to relieve himself, one of the officers observed that a “large amount” of crystal meth fell out of his pants.
A federal jury convicted Roger Dale in July 2015 for drug trafficking and possession of firearms. He received a 40-year sentence because of his prior record.
Lisa Dawn pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute meth in exchange for her testimony against Roger Dale.
Looking back, Lisa Dawn said selling meth where the addiction is rampant was easy. It was a no-brainer, especially given that she didn’t know her boyfriend’s connections included the powerful CJNG cartel.
Now 50 years old, Lisa Dawn has been clean since she was released from a halfway house in July 2017 following her prison sentence, and reports to a parole officer. She works as a peer support counselor with people who struggle with addiction and mental health issues.
She realizes how lucky she was to get out of the drug trade alive, remembering the night an addict held a gun to her head, for fun, joking that the safety was on.
She understands the hold the cartel’s super drugs have on the region, and a surplus of would-be dealers eager to follow in her footsteps — no matter the danger.
And CJNG will be there with their endless supply.
Investigative reporter Kala Kachmar and photographer Alton Strupp traveled to Charlotte and rural counties in North Carolina to find out more about drug rings connected CJNG. Kachmar reviewed hundreds of pages of court records and interviewed law enforcement, attorneys and a woman convicted in one of those conspiracies.