LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of law enforcement officers on Friday raided Southern California auto parts shops and other businesses suspected of illegally selling nitrous oxide for use as a recreational drug, in what federal authorities said was the nation's largest such raid ever.
Authorities served search warrants on 17 businesses and nine delivery vehicles during the simultaneous raids in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.
Edward Valencia, 51, Federico Valencia, 58, and Rose Marie Cuellar, 20, were arrested on misdemeanor charges of misbranding a drug in violation of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The Valencia brothers work at Victor Welding Supply in South Los Angeles, and Cuellar is an employee of LA Rush, an auto parts store.
"I'm innocent. I haven't done anything wrong," Federico Valencia said as he was led out of his shop in handcuffs. "We only sell gases for cars."
It was the second time the shop had been raided. In 2009, authorities spoke with the Valencia brothers and owner William Victor about their sales of nitrous oxide and its popular use as a party drug, according to a federal affidavit.
Victor, 65, also was named in an arrest warrant and was being sought by authorities Friday.
The raids were the result of a year-and-a-half-long joint investigation dubbed "No Laughing Matter" by the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
During the operation, federal agents seized 367 tanks or 36,000 pounds of nitrous oxide with a street value of $20 million, said Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.