LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As Louisville Metro Police Detective Darrell Hyche stepped toward a white pickup truck to make a traffic stop, a gunman fired bullets into his face and head.
His partner fired back, killing the gunman and another passenger.
Rattled residents and many officers didn’t know at the time of the Feb. 1, 2018, shootout in Buechel, Kentucky, that the men inside the pickup were connected to a much larger drug trafficking organization — one that lured violent gangs from Detroit and ordered millions of dollars of methamphetamine from Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa Cartel.
Investigators suspect that during 2016-2018 drug ring members also were involved in at least four deaths in Michigan, Kentucky and Mississippi.
The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, spent weeks interviewing agents, prosecutors, defense attorneys and local police and sifting through court, police and jail records in four states to piece together details of the criminal enterprise and the destructive swath it cut across the U.S. — culminating in arson, a toxic romance, betrayal and deadly revenge.
The newsroom’s investigation revealed the drug ring’s links to the shooting of Detective Hyche, the killing of a 28-year-old mother and a 27-year-old man in Louisville, the murder of a man in Detroit and the mysterious death of a woman in a casino in Tunica, Mississippi.
The picture that developed depicts how Cuban refugee Jose Manuel Prieto Jr., 56, built a drug ring in California that stretched from the West Coast northeast to Buffalo, New York, and south to Atlanta before leading his son, a U.S. Air Force veteran, on a path to prison.
Tracking the meth pipeline into Louisville
For law enforcement, the case began a few years ago with one key question: Who was behind an influx of meth into Louisville?
Police officials blamed the violent drug trade for a jarring spike in homicides and an overdose rate that averaged nearly a death a day.
Louisville narcotics detectives teamed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and soon zeroed in on drug trafficker Wiley Greenhill, who moved from Detroit to the Derby City to form a drug ring.
Greenhill, 40, teamed with his brother, Jamarr Greenhill, 38, to summon gang members from Detroit to capitalize on Louisville’s addiction crisis, which handed them a solid customer base.
Greenhill associates later told investigators they relocated because they heard Louisville was “chill,” meaning the drug trade was less competitive so they could establish a foothold, said Shawn Morrow, special agent in charge of the ATF’s Louisville Field Division.
Investigators began to see proof of the Detroit link. When ATF agents made an undercover buy from a Greenhill associate in Louisville, they traced a stolen .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Special the Detroit Police Department once issued to one of its officers.
As the case grew more complex and widespread, ATF agents called in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Louisville.
DEA agents led the three-year investigation and dubbed it “Operation Triple Crown,” the pinnacle of thoroughbred racing, as they worked to track the pipeline’s origins from Louisville and Detroit back to the father-and-son suppliers in California.
From 2016-18, the Prieto drug ring dominated the meth trade in Louisville, saturating the city with more than 100 kilograms worth millions of dollars, the lead investigator told The Courier Journal.
The Prieto ring also is suspected of funneling a similar volume to Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Buffalo and cities in New Jersey, according to the DEA agent, who The Courier Journal isn’t naming because of the sensitivity of his work.
Yet, within three years, investigators crippled the drug ring and sent the father and son and two dozen of their associates to federal prison. Others are dead or at large.
Several documents in the case of the Prietos and Greenhills remain sealed and some people linked to the case, including a veteran defense attorney and friends of a homicide victim, declined to be interviewed, citing the volatility of the drug ring.
Still, the story told by agents, defendants and prosecutors in interviews or court records reveals much about the criminal enterprise and its deadly operation in Louisville and across the country.
The birth of a deadly drug ring
As a child in Cuba, Jose Prieto Jr. watched his affluent family tossed into turmoil when Fidel Castro overthrew the government in 1959. Those who were politically connected, including his grandfather, became targets.
Jose Prieto was 11 when his father hurried their family out of his homeland and into the U.S. as refugees.
As an adult, Jose Prieto settled in the California town of Apple Valley, known for its fruit orchards. But agents say he secretly cultivated a different crop — marijuana.
He also started a business buying and selling used cars. But federal prosecutors contended during a bond hearing that he mainly used his auto business to hide his real income from selling drugs.
In Louisville, he became a silent partner for Good Wheels auto repair shop on South Seventh Street, southwest of downtown. The owner, Alaa Al-Jebori, also known as Alan Hanson, repaired cars but also used the shop as a drug drive-thru.
Al-Jebori pleaded guilty in 2018 to distributing meth and is serving a sentence of seven years and eight months in federal prison, court records show.
In California, DEA agents say Jose Prieto ran up a significant gambling debt tied to the Sinaloa Cartel once led by legendary kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
In 2016, the cartel issued Jose Prieto an ultimatum: Work for them selling their drugs or be killed.
He later claimed the cartel torched his marijuana field as a warning and to stop him from making fast money to pay his debt.
Jose Prieto sought out someone with a strong business background to help him earn money to pay off the cartel. He contacted his son, Louis Prieto, though the two hadn’t spoken in more than 15 years because of a dispute.
He pitched it as an opportunity.
Together, they could make fast cash, a lot of it.
Louis Prieto didn’t need the money. He joined the U.S. Air Force and served a tour in Iraq, later volunteering to go back in place of a friend who had a family hardship.
During four years of service, he received several medals and commendations and earned the rank of senior airman.
He received an honorable discharge in 2008 and headed to college, earning a master’s degree in accounting.
Louis Prieto had settled in Los Angeles, a two-hour drive southwest of his father in Apple Valley. He worked for the state of California, auditing local municipalities participating in state government welfare programs.
He also later worked in the private sector as an accountant.
He quit his job in 2016 and opted to be a stay-at-home dad to his newborn son while his wife, who worked for L’Oreal cosmetics, supported the family.
That’s when his estranged father came knocking. Louis Prieto missed his father and agreed to help him out of his bind.
Soon the two were tossing dice together at casinos and sharing gourmet meals at upscale restaurants. And the money rolled in.
The cartel routinely sent large shipments of meth across the border into California and from there, the Prietos coordinated the distribution across the country.
But a series of betrayals were coming, dooming the father and son’s joint enterprise.
Building the Louisville drug pipeline
The Prietos established the Louisville pipeline in 2016 after another one of Jose Prieto’s sons befriended Wiley Greenhill while both were inmates at the Roederer Correctional Complex, an Oldham County prison about 23 miles northeast of Louisville.
For Greenhill, a small-time criminal from Detroit, the case agent said, it was a chance to be his own boss.
“His goal was to try and find what we call ‘the plug,’ the source of supply that gets you power and control,” the lead investigator told The Courier Journal. That way “everybody has to come to you.”
When they got out of prison, Greenhill flew to California to meet Jose Prieto. They formed a partnership, discussing drug shipments and prices, the agent said.
Greenhill sent an associate to live with Jose Prieto for six months, working in the marijuana fields and gambling together in Las Vegas.
The men from Detroit established trust and Jose Prieto soon sent them 50-pound shipments of meth from California to Kentucky.
At that time, DEA agents estimate that amount was worth about $150,000 on the West Coast, but could yield as much as $500,000 in Louisville.
The Prietos sent associates to gas stations and other locations in Southern California to pick up drugs, the lead investigator said. That associate would deliver the drugs to a shipper, someone designated to get the drugs to Louisville and other destinations.
They also sent associates to Louisville and put them up in hotels, where they waited for Wiley Greenhill or one of his associates to bring money to their hotel room, the DEA agent said. A trusted shipper would then deliver the drugs and the Prieto associate would leave the hotel with the drug payment.
Wiley Greenhill or his designee would leave with the drugs.
Though it worked for awhile, eventually Wiley Greenhill started to run up a tab with the Prietos, according to court records. He was “fronting” drugs — loaning some traffickers drugs before they paid for them.
In turn, that meant he couldn’t pay the Prietos.
When Greenhill’s tab climbed to $400,000, Jose Prieto cut him off.
At the same time, Greenhill’s brother, Jamarr Greenhill, cut ties and branched out on his own. He established his own pipeline from Kentucky to California, bypassing his older brother.
Agents persuaded judges to let them monitor drug traffickers’ phones and movements.
They were listening when Louis Prieto told an associate that his father was upset and in Louisville and that Wiley Greenhill’s life was in danger, according to a transcript of court testimony.
“My dad’s taking people out right now, man,” Louis Greenhill cautioned in a recorded call, according to court records. “Make sure you’re on the right team.”
Victim’s last words: ‘Help me!’
Amber Lynn Stepp, 28, and a male acquaintance drove to a Louisville home on a sunny day — May 9, 2016 — as men tended the grill during a birthday celebration.
But the mother of a little girl and boy never made it out of her silver Ford Fusion.
Her passenger hopped out of the car, walked around and leaned in to talk to her from the driver’s side window. Brandon A. Williamson, 29, walked up behind him, leaned over and pointed a gun at Stepp.
She screamed, “Help me!”
Witnesses watched Williamson shoot Stepp in the arm, then walk closer and fire a bullet into her face.
She slumped over dead.
A witness told Louisville police Williamson grabbed a Gucci backpack from Stepp’s back seat and ran to the back of the home in the Portland neighborhood, according to a recorded police interview. Partygoers scrambled in another direction toward an alley.
Police eventually tracked down Williamson, who is serving a 10-year sentence in a Kentucky prison for second-degree manslaughter.
The lead agent said drug ring members are suspected of hiring Williamson of Detroit as a hitman to silence Stepp, a drug courier with inside knowledge of the organization.
Less than a month before her death, police stopped Stepp and two men at an airport in Arizona and found more than $20,000 hidden inside the lining of her suitcase.
Stepp later told police the three had flown on one-way tickets to Phoenix to buy meth and possibly heroin to bring back to Louisville, according to an investigatory letter in Kentucky court records.
Stepp also said she was scared of an unnamed drug dealer.
In a photo posted on her Facebook page, she is smiling with her young son and daughter. Her relatives told reporters she was a loving mom who struggled with addiction, and they had tried to get her help.
Homicide suspect netted in Oklahoma
Seven months later, a drug ring associate was accused of killing a man in Louisville.
Quenton Hall, an alleged Greenhill drug courier known as “Q-Tip,” gunned down 27-year-old Fernandez Bowman on Dec. 2, 2016, near Algonquin Park.
Hall peppered Bowman’s silver sedan with bullets in the 1600 block of South 25th Street. After several shots hit into Bowman’s chest, his car struck a telephone pole and fence before coming to rest against a house near South 25th Street and Burwell Avenue.
Five days later, Hall was arrested in Vinita, Oklahoma, after police found 15 pounds of meth in his rental car, according to a criminal complaint filed against him in federal court.
He was released on bond and fled.
Hall had been on the run for several weeks when Louisville Metro Police say they caught up to him on Jan. 31, 2017, in his white Dodge Durango and tried to stop him in the 4700 block of Dixie Highway.
Hall pumped the gas and struck a police car.
When officers finally stopped him, they found marijuana and pills in his pockets, large amounts of meth and heroin in the center console and a loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun in the driver’s seat.
He is serving a 15-year prison sentence in a state prison for first-degree manslaughter in Bowman’s death, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
A possible revenge killing in Detroit
Two months after Bowman’s slaying, the drug ring was suspected of a revenge killing in Detroit.
Courtney Willis, 26, a Greenhill drug ring associate, allegedly stole meth from the organization and returned to his home state of Michigan to visit family in Muskegon Heights, a three-hour drive northwest of Detroit near Lake Michigan.
Someone fired 13 rounds at him inside a relative’s house on Feb. 1, 2017, striking Willis nine times.
Muskegon police told reporters the number of gunshots indicated someone wanted to send a message. However, investigators haven’t found enough evidence to file charges.
Tailing a meth package to a deadly end
A year later, drug ring member Roger Dale Goodman, 37, and his buddies headed to pick up a box with 2 pounds of meth for the organization.
He didn’t know Louisville police had intercepted the package, mailed through a private parcel service, and watched as Goodman picked it up from a porch in Buechel, then drove off in his white Chevy pickup truck.
Narcotics detectives soon stopped the truck near Derby and Carey avenues, seven miles northwest of the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.
As Detective Hyche stepped toward it to arrest Goodman, a backseat passenger opened fire. Hyche’s partner returned fire, killing two passengers.
Goodman pleaded guilty in 2019 in federal court to meth trafficking and is serving a 10-year sentence. Hyche recovered and returned to work.
With Goodman in jail, Laura Dawn Pack, 36, stepped in to pick up drug shipments for the organization.
Agents who monitored Jose Prieto’s movements and phone say Pack became entwined in a romantic relationship with him.
Her friends saw her as a doting mother of a young son who loved to dance and act goofy. Agents believed Jose Prieto began to see her as a liability.
Investigators caught her with seven pounds of meth and more than $44,000 in drug proceeds.
She told agents she got 10 pounds of meth weekly from Jose Prieto and would meet him or Louis Prieto at area hotels for money drops, including one involving $75,000.
If Jose Prieto worried she might spill secrets to police, he was right.
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A mysterious death in Mississippi
Investigators were listening when Pack called boyfriend Jose Prieto. She worried she now owed the drug-ring money after police intercepted the meth and money, according to court records.
He refused to send her money and cautioned: “You need to lay low. You need to take that rock that I gave you on your finger and go pawn it if you need money for your kids.”
The agent said: “After her arrest, she’s scared to death of Jose Prieto.”
She put her affairs in order, including signing over custody of her son, and headed to a Tunica casino.
Her body was found July 5, 2018, on the floor of her casino hotel room with a gunshot to the head. Months before her death, Jose Prieto had visited the same casino.
During a bond hearing for Jose Prieto, federal prosecutors in Louisville cited Pack’s suspicious death as one of the reasons he posed a danger to potential government witnesses and others. The judge agreed to deny bond.
Tunica police ruled Pack’s death a suicide. But the lead agent told The Courier Journal: “We’re not fully convinced. I think she may have been given an ultimatum,” to take her own life or the drug ring would kill her or someone she loved.
After all the damage they levied personally or indirectly, Jose Prieto and his son quietly surrendered to police outside their West Coast homes on Aug. 13, 2019.
Both pleaded guilty in Louisville last year to trafficking more than 50 grams of meth. They also admitted to money laundering due to the evidence unearthed by the DEA and Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation.
In December, a judge sentenced Jose Prieto to serve eight years and one month in federal prison. His son is serving a sentence of seven years and three months.
The case isn’t over. More suspected crimes linked to the ring remain under investigation.
Agents wouldn’t give names of suspects or reveal the states involved.
Reporter Beth Warren: [email protected]; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Sinaloa Cartel tied to string of Louisville, Kentucky crimes