Six defendants, including three from Montana, on Tuesday denied federal drug charges accusing them of trafficking methamphetamine from California to Montana and South Dakota.
The defendants are among at least 11 people arrested in March after an investigation into drug trafficking in the Bakken oil fields.
A multicount indictment filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Billings remains sealed because not all of the defendants have appeared for arraignment.
David Lee Barnard, Jr., 43, of Billings, David Lee Goffena, 45, of Roundup, and his wife, Kirsta Elaine Goffena, 38, of Roundup, all pleaded not guilty during a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby.
Barnard faces six counts, including conspiracy to distribute meth, meth distribution, possessing firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
David Goffena is charged with six counts, including conspiracy to distribute meth, meth distribution and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Kirsta Goffena faces two counts, including conspiracy to distribute meth and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Defendants Mario Albert Villegas, 31, of Los Angeles, Gerardo Lopez Martinez, 35, of Los Angeles and Cody William Simpson, 25, of Taft, Calif., also pleaded not guilty to multiple counts in the indictment.
All of the defendants appeared earlier on charges in a criminal complaint. The case has since been presented to a grand jury for indictment.
If convicted of conspiracy to distribute meth, the defendants face a minimum mandatory 10 years to life in prison and a possible $10 million fine.
FBI affidavits in the case described a defendant shipping more than 2 pounds of meth from California for distribution by others in Billings, Roundup and Rapid City, S.D., earlier this year. While none of those cities are in the Bakken region, authorities say they can serve as staging areas to move drugs into the oil patch.
Dubbed “Operation Pale Mule,” the case is the third major trafficking ring to be targeted by state and federal law enforcement agencies seeking to crack down on drug dealers looking to profit off the oil money flowing into the region. More than 20,000 people have moved into Eastern Montana and western North Dakota since the region’s crude oil production began booming in 2008.
The case is part of a multi-agency effort called, “Project Safe Bakken.” So far, 59 people have been indicted on drug charges, while at least 70 more indictments are expected in the coming year, U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said earlier.
Ostby released the Goffenas on conditions pending trial but ordered custody for the remaining defendants. The case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Susan Watters.