Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - US Attorney John W. Huber speaks to the media on Monday, March 12, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty-three Norteno street gang members in Utah are facing federal charges for allegedly working closely with a Mexican drug cartel to distribute mass amounts of heroin and methamphetamine in the Salt Lake City area.

"This one is a big deal," U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber said while announcing a federal complaint had been filed against the group on Feb. 7, and was unsealed Wednesday.

A complaint is equivalent to a placeholder, Huber said, with a formal indictment to follow, charging the 33 people with conspiracy to distribute meth and conspiracy to distribute heroin.

The charges are the culmination of an investigation that began in June 2018. But local law enforcers say they have been dealing with some of the individuals named in the complaint — particularly the two leaders of the group — for more than 20 years.

Joe Gomez, 31, who goes by the moniker "Norte Joe," and Denny Duke Kandt, 41, who goes by the moniker "Casper," are the alleged "kingpins" of the group, according to prosecutors. Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera remembers arresting Kandt herself in the late '90s when she was a member of the Metro Gang Unit.

"Even though we’ve put them in jail, put them prison, there’s that revolving door, and they still keep coming back. They never learn their lesson,” the sheriff said.

Huber said the federal charges seek to put an end to that revolving door, and will have a positive impact on the community that "will be felt for years to come."

"The tools that we bring in federal court are swift and sure, and we close that revolving door that the state court, too often, these offenders face. They get out, they reoffend. They get out, they reoffend. We’re going to slow that down big time in this case. And if convicted, Norte Joe faces many years in federal prison,” he said. "This enables us to take out, at one time, over 30 people who we think are responsible for a vast criminal conspiracy.”

Brian Besser, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah, said the two men were "directly plugged into" some of the "upper level" members of a Mexican drug cartel, and had created a "sophisticated" business to distribute mass amounts of drugs.

The drugs, he said, came from the mountains in Sinaloa, Mexico, and were then flown to Tijuana, Mexico, put on a tractor-trailer and driven across a legal port of entry into southern California, and then to Utah.

Besser and Huber said it was a multimillion dollar business, with Besser adding, "This drug trafficking organization is an all-you-can-eat crime buffet." The stakes were so high that the cartel sent people to stay at Gomez's house "to ensure that proceeds were collected and turned over" to them, according to Huber.

"These people don’t play. They’re not in it as a feel-good business. They’re in it to make money,” Besser said.

As Besser explained, the drugs go north and the money goes south. And when the money doesn't make it south of the border, there are debts to be paid, which means violence.

"Self-enrichment through violence is a way of life for these individuals. It’s a hallmark for how they do business,” Besser said.

It's the violence that's associated with drug trafficking that spills over into the public that is one of the biggest concerns for law enforcers. Besser said that was the case with the recent shooting at Fashion Place mall.

A man and woman were shot on Jan. 13 just outside an entrance of the mall, 6191 S. State. The man was shot three times in the abdomen and legs, and the woman was shot once in the leg, according to charging documents. That incident involved Norteno gang members, according to police. The shooting victims were also gang members, according to police.

That's why Besser said even though just 30 pounds of meth, two pounds of heroin, nearly $20,000 and 19 firearms were seized after eight months — a fraction of what officials believe was being shipped into the state — the main focus was getting these men off the street.

On the flip side, law enforcers say there is a problem with Utahns who have a heavy appetite for drugs and a state with a lot of rural areas that makes it easier for traffickers to do business.

"Utah is being aggressively targeted by northern Sinaloa cartels,” Besser said.

Rivera said the Salt Lake County Jail is trying to address the drug problem by offering treatment to those incarcerated for drug-related crimes.

"If we can’t stop the addicts and purchasing this and being addicted, we’re never going to stop this drug trade coming to Utah,” she said.

Police shooting case

Gomez, one of the two purported leaders of the Norteno drug distribution ring in Salt Lake City, was also involved in an officer-involved shooting that was determined by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to be not justified.

On May 13, 2017, Adult Probation and Parole officer Andrew Reed O'Gwin, shot Gomez during a confrontation at the intersection of 4500 S. Main.

O'Gwin contends that while stopped at the light, Gomez got out of his car, walked to O'Gwin's driver's side window and started pounding on it with an object, prompting him to shoot.

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Gomez claimed he was throwing a cigarette out the window, but it landed on his lap, and got out of the car frantically brushing it off him. His attorneys believe O'Gwin may have been startled and overreacted by shooting.

District Attorney Sim Gill determined in his final report that O'Gwin's account of that night "does not appear to be supported by the statements of other witnesses or the physical evidence presently known to us" and charged him with aggravated assault, a second-degree felony.

The judge in the case has since imposed a gag order, preventing attorneys from talking about it.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for April 23-24.