Chris Bergin, Deseret Morning News
West Valley Police Chief Buzz Nielson discusses Wednesday's huge drug bust. Most of the defendants were charged in 3rd District Court.

One of the largest drug distribution rings along the Wasatch Front in recent memory was brought down Wednesday by local and federal authorities following an 18-month investigation.

The investigation, dubbed "Operation West Coast," culminated Wednesday when 81 arrest warrants were issued for people believed to be involved in the multimillion-dollar drug operation that stretched from Utah to California to Mexico.

"This will be one of the largest cases, if not the largest, in many years gone by," said West Valley police Chief Buzz Nielsen.

The majority of defendants were charged in 3rd District Court while some will face federal charges. The large majority of charges were for drug distribution. Other charges included money laundering and firearms-related charges.

The defendants were believed to be members of or associated with Florencia 13, a violent street gang whose origins trace back to Surenos 13, another extremely violent gang, said Nielsen.

The people arrested included some of the leaders of the group down to the smallest dealers, Nielsen said.

One of the men charged is an administrative officer with the Federal Public Defenders Office in Salt Lake City. He was charged with four counts of distribution of cocaine.

Steve Killpack, head of the public defenders office, said the man was not involved in the legal affairs of the office and his duties included mostly record-keeping and budgets.

"We're very surprised. He's a good employee here. We're disappointed by the charges. We'll be interested to see how this plays out," Killpack said.

More than 100 officers from Provo to Ogden began rounding up suspects at 5 a.m. Wednesday. Six search warrants were served simultaneously at various homes and businesses, Nielsen said. By Wednesday afternoon about 30 suspects were still on the run. All 81 of the named defendants were from Utah.

The group is believed to be involved in the shipping and distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin in Utah, California, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and Mexico. The investigation may also lead to charges being filed against people in other states by different agencies, Nielsen said.

The investigation began in late 2002 when West Valley police developed information on a group of drug dealers, Nielsen said. Detectives soon realized they had discovered an operation that stretched well beyond the city's borders and called on the Wasatch Range Task Force, which included investigators from several local and federal agencies, for help.

At least five guns and more than $41,000 in drugs were seized over the course of the investigation. But prosecutors said that's just a small sampling of what was really happening within the operation.

The quantity of items seized wasn't what was important in this case, according to prosecutors. The real significance is that 81 drug dealers will taken off the streets in one sweep, said Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Clark Harms. The impact of taking away drug dealers who live next door to families is "incalculable," he said.

"The key here is a distribution network has been dismantled," said U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner. "We're dismantling a drug distribution network that has been integral to the Wasatch Front for a long long time,"

The group was allegedly dealing between 8 to 10 kilos of cocaine per month. Investigators say just 1 kilo of coke can fetch an estimated $1 million on the street.

But drug dealers aren't dumb enough to be carrying around $1.5 million dollars worth of drugs in their car or cash in their pockets, Nielsen said. That's why the amount of drugs seized shouldn't be that surprising or reflect the overall impact of the bust, he said.

"This (bust) is huge for Utah and the surrounding area," said Nielsen who noted the group will soon have new careers "making license plates for a long time."