by Mike Donoghue
This story first published in today’s Caledonian-Record.
BURLINGTON — U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in Vermont has arrested a real estate agent from Rhode Island and seized about 27 pounds of cocaine from the would-be smuggler in Franklin County, federal court records show.
Freddy J. Rodriguez, 38, of West Warwick, R.I. was found with more than 12 kilograms of cocaine as he prepared a nighttime load for a kayak to head north from Highgate to meet another vessel coming from Canada early Tuesday, court papers note.
The cocaine seizure in Franklin County near the international border is one of the largest in Vermont in recent memory.
Federal agents said Rodriguez was well-known to them from previous marijuana-smuggling events in northern New Hampshire, just east of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, court records note.
Rodriguez had 55 pounds of marijuana when he was arrested in Stewartstown, N.H. on the Vermont border on July 15, 2021 — and with his two associates they had a total of 243 pounds of marijuana, court records show. Also seized from the group was $4,000 in cash, but the outcome of that case was not disclosed.
“The defendant appears to be an organizer in a transnational narcotics-smuggling organization with operations that have lasted more than a year and a half and that involved well in excess of 25 cross-border events (based on cell-site location information),” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew J. Lasher wrote in his motion seeking the defendant’s detention.
Rodriguez appeared to deposit in excess of $200,000 in a three-month leading up to his New Hampshire arrest in 2021, Lasher wrote.
“Financial investigation of the defendant following that arrest revealed unexplained wealth, given his deposits into multiple bank accounts while agents did not observe the defendant participating in any regular employment or business transactions,” Lasher wrote.
When arrested in Highgate, Rodriguez had 16 credit or debit cards, including four from Capital One and two from Chase, all with his name on them, Lasher said. The defendant also had cards for a couple of businesses, Canela Brothers Transport and Canela Merchandise LLC. The Canela Brothers business has ties to West Warwick, R.I., New Milford, N.J., Edinburg, Texas, and Mission, Texas, Lasher said.
Rodriguez appeared briefly with veteran defense lawyer Richard Bothfeld in U.S. District Court late Wednesday afternoon. The government asked for a continuance on its motion to detain him so it could learn more about the 2021 New Hampshire marijuana case. Magistrate Judge Kevin Doyle said the hearing would resume Monday.
Rodriguez, who previously lived in Massachusetts, indicated that he planned to also retain a Boston lawyer in the case. No plea was requested during the hearing.
The HSI Task Force was conducting surveillance early Tuesday near five houses or camps on Duck Pond Road in Highgate, which is known to be used for short-term rentals by international smugglers, a court affidavit said.
The federal agents spotted a man carrying a bag walking down a path toward the shore about 12:05 a.m. Tuesday. He sat on the beach in the dark and appeared to make and receive several phone calls.
Investigators learned a single maritime vessel also was headed south on Lake Champlain and crossed the international border. It reached the area near the stakeout team off Duke Pond Road about 1:45 a.m., a court affidavit said. The vessel made a sudden left turn toward shore.
The man on the beach began to move items from one bag to another bag and he started to drag a kayak from the beach to the water facing the incoming vessel, HSI said. The federal agents came out of the woods and ordered the man to stop as he loaded the bricks of cocaine into the kayak, but he tried to run, records show. After about 40 feet he tripped, fell and dropped the bag he was carrying as law enforcement moved in, court records show.
Multiple brick-like black packages wrapped in cellophane were visible in the partially torn bag, HSI said in a six-page affidavit. Examination later showed they contained a white powdery substance that tested positive for cocaine, HSI said.
Investigators also found an empty hockey bag and an empty duffel bag in a white Ford F150 that Rodriguez had parked near the short-term rental camp. The bags were consistent with items “commonly used in cross-border drug-smuggling events to transport bulky substances — typically marijuana,” a HSI task force member said in court papers.
Federal agents suspect Rodriguez may have been expecting to receive bulk marijuana from the unknown vessel in the lake. Even with some states approving marijuana possession, it remains a federal crime and can be a lucrative item to smuggle into the United States, officials have said.
The vessel that came out of Canada disappeared into the dark night without a trace, officials said. Due to bad weather, no air surveillance was possible.