Jessamine County

They drove bales of marijuana from Arizona to Kentucky. See where they got caught.

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Four men face federal charges after they were arrested Thursday for bringing 240 pounds of marijuana from Arizona to Nicholasville.

Fabian Zavala-Romero, Jonathan Mendoza-Ricardo, Jesus Sabino Castro-Quinones and Fabian Noperi were each charged with possession with intent to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to distribute. The four have not been indicted but criminal complaints that typically precede indictments have been filed in U.S. District Court in Lexington.

As Homeland Security agents conducted surveillance last week at a shopping center in Phoenix, Ariz., they saw suspected bales of marijuana being loaded into the rear cargo area of a silver Toyota Highlander with a Kentucky license plate.

The vehicle left Phoenix and headed east, and agents conducted surveillance of it as it traveled through New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and into Kentucky, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Lexington..

The Highlander avoided major interstate highways until Illinois, the affidavit said.

During this surveillance, agents identified Noperi as a passenger in the Highlander. Agents knew him from previous investigations as a drug smuggler who travels from Arizona to Kentucky.

On Thursday, the Highlander arrived at a duplex on Green Street in Nicholasville, where the vehicle backed onto the property. Two men left the duplex in a white work truck and agents later stopped the truck. The two men in the truck were Zavala-Romero and Mendoza-Ricardo.

Meanwhile, at the Green Street residence, agents saw two men move the suspected bales of marijuana from the Highlander into the duplex. The two men detained by agents were Noperi and Castro-Quinones.

After he was read his rights, Noperi told agents that there were about 10 bales of marijuana inside the Highlander and three to four more inside the duplex. Noperi said he and Castro-Quinones, also known as “Chuy,” were hired to transport the marijuana from Phoenix to Lexington, and to give them to a guy who was later identified as Zavala-Romero.

Noperi said he expected to be paid $5,000 to $6,000 for transporting the bales. Mendoza-Ricardo said the Green Street residence was Zavala-Romero’s office and was used for storing drugs and for drug transactions.

A search warrant executed at Green Street yielded 109 kilograms or 240 pounds of marijuana. A field test on one of the bales indicated that it tested positive for marijuana.

The affidavit did not give a dollar value for the seized marijuana. But a 2016 bust of 247 pounds of marijuana in Pennsylvania was said by law enforcement there to have a street value of $2 million, a figure that critics said was inflated.

The four men who were arrested in Nicholasville appeared Friday in federal court before Magistrate Judge Matthew Stinnett.

Greg Kocher has been at the Lexington Herald-Leader since 1997. He covers state and federal courts, and some breaking news. From 1997 to 2016, he was a regional reporter who covered counties adjacent to Fayette County.