Operation Speed Racer extended from Mexico to North Dakota

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A man who helped investigators identify key figures in a drug conspiracy that stretched from Mexico to North Dakota has been sentenced to 30 years in prison. Prosecutors called it an exclamation point.
Michael Petzold faced a maximum sentence of life in prison for dealing drugs and helping to kill an East Grand Forks, Minn., man in 2005. Petzold was the first of the five murder suspects to plead guilty.
‘‘Today, you saw the sentencing of one of the last major figures in this drug trafficking organization,’’ U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said Thursday at a news conference to release more details in the case.
Petzold, who had lived in Wahpeton, is one of 66 people indicted in the case that federal authorities dubbed Operation Speed Racer. Authorities said the leader of the operation, Jorge ‘‘Sneaky’’ Arandas, had ties to the violent Arellano Felix drug cartel based in Tijuana, Mexico.
‘‘Sneaky actually was living in a small house in Breckenridge, Minnesota. Imagine that,’’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said after the sentencing hearing. ‘‘Living in Breckenridge, Minnesota, and being tied directly to the Arellano Felix cartel.’’
Myers, the lead prosecutor in the case, said people from the Red River Valley who did business through Arandas spent time at Mexican beach houses with members of the Arellano Felix gang.
‘‘These kids were going down and using drugs and rubbing elbows with some of the most dangerous people in the whole world, thinking that this was a lot of fun, a glamorous lifestyle, and not having a clue how dangerous of a situation they were in,’’ Myers said. ‘‘That’s the scary part about drug trafficking organizations and the effects on our young people.’’
Myers said authorities from California came to North Dakota to interview Petzold and others in their investigation of leaders of the Mexican operation.
The drug trafficking investigation started about 18 months before the June 2005 killing of Lee Avila. The lead investigator, retired West Fargo police officer Brad Berg, 58, donated thousands of hours in the case.
‘‘One of the misconceptions of the drug business is that people make money on it,’’ Berg said. ‘‘The only money that’s made in the drug business is made by people at the top of the pyramid. It’s truly a pyramid scheme.’’
Petzold, 27, was arrested in Omaha, Neb., a month after Avila was killed. Petzold pleaded guilty to four counts, including murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise. Authorities said he got a gun, hooded sweat shirts and gloves that were used the night of the murder.
Defense attorney Alex Reichert recommended a sentence of 18 years in prison, citing Petzold’s ‘‘extraordinary cooperation.’’ U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson said Petzold may deserve more than 30 years.
‘‘Mike was one of the last ones who had a chance to stop this train from leaving, and he didn’t do that,’’ Erickson said.
Petzold apologized to family members of Avila and other victims, and said his family suffers every day from his actions. A former prison inmate with Petzold, James Miller, testified that Petzold recently become a born-again Christian and is trying to turn his life around.
‘‘Unfortunately, some times you’ve got to hit rock bottom before you start looking up,’’ Miller said.
Authorities said Arandas ordered the killing of Avila in a dispute over a 5-pound shipment of methamphetamine. Petzold helped investigators identify the shooter, Gabriel Martinez, and the driver of the getaway car, Alan Wessels.
Martinez was sentenced to life in prison. Arandas was sentenced to 40 years and Wessels to 23 years. Martin Carrillo also pleaded guilty in the Avila’s murder and was sentenced to 20 years.
Afterward, Wrigley held up an Operation Speed Racer tie given to him by investigators.
‘‘I will wear that,’’ he said.