LYNNWOOD — Local and federal drug detectives had James Painter in their sights long before he was arrested last month, allegedly carrying four pounds of heroin intended for the streets of Snohomish County.
At least since 2010, snitches have fed cops Painter’s name, offering him up as a major drug dealer responsible for shoveling pounds of heroin into the community.
Painter, 27, had been careful not to get caught, detectives say. He reportedly buried money, cut off customers if they were arrested and used stash houses in Lynnwood, miles away from his Shoreline house, to avoid arrest. Investigators believe at one point he may have shut down operations when he suspected the cops were getting close.
Last month, detectives caught up with Painter after a month-long, intensive investigation that reportedly caught him selling heroin to a confidential informant working with the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.
Prosecutors on Friday charged Painter with drug dealing and money laundering. The investigation is ongoing, and additional charges are expected.
The task force raided three houses in January and arrested Painter, his sister and several others allegedly connected to the drug-trafficking business.
The cops hauled in about 26 pounds of high-quality heroin with a street value of more than $1 million. Investigators also confiscated more than a half-million dollars in suspected drug money.
Heroin use is on the rise across the country, and Snohomish County isn’t immune.
“We believe the drugs were staying here, supplying Snohomish County,” said sheriff’s Lt. Doug Jeske, the assistant commander of the task force.
The amount of heroin Painter was dealing “is a response to the demand here,” he added.
Prosecutors allege Painter’s supply came directly from Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. The notorious cartel is behind thousands of vicious killings and kidnappings in the bloody battle to stay on top of the multibillion-dollar drug trade.
The money made here was being funneled back to Mexico, likely to help finance the cartel’s operations there, investigators say.
An informant told investigators that Painter once confessed to packaging $3 million to smuggle to Mexico, Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Janice Albert wrote. He made frequent trips to Mexico.
A Mexican national was arrested during the January raid in one of the Lynnwood houses that Painter rented. Efrain Sepulveda identified himself as the boss of the supply operation, making sure the heroin was sold and the proceeds sent to Mexico, court papers said. At the time of his arrest, Sepulveda was wanted on a federal drug charge. He had been deported after a 2012 drug arrest. He also was charged on Friday.
Court papers detail at least three investigations into Painter, including one initiated by agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Painter was identified as a heroin supplier by more than one person who was arrested for drug possession.
The investigations stalled after Painter refused to sell to these people once he learned of their arrests, court papers said.
Painter ended up on the radar again in 2012 after the task force launched an investigation into an Everett drug dealer. The cops were told that Alan Waterman was introduced to his supplier through Painter. Another informant told police that Waterman sold for Painter. Waterman was caught with nearly a pound of heroin and more than $50,000 cash in a north Everett apartment. He was sentenced in March to nearly a decade in prison.
The investigation into Painter went cold after Waterman’s arrest, court papers said.
Detectives picked up his trail again in December after a small-time dealer gave up Painter as a supplier.
Detectives learned that Painter lived in Shoreline. He rented two houses in Lynnwood, reportedly to run his drug business, court papers said.
His grandmother and sister reportedly lived in the house on Lake Road. That’s where the drugs allegedly were sold to lower-level dealers. Sepulveda and two other Mexican nationals lived in a house on Serene Way, where large quantities of heroin were stored and packaged for sales.
Police reportedly confiscated about 19 pounds of heroin from that house. They also found nearly $400,000 inside, including a red shoe box with $55,000 in cash that Painter was seen carrying into the house, court papers said.
Police also said they found three pounds of heroin in a vehicle leaving from the house on Serene Way. The driver was an 11-time felon.
Detectives were told that Painter picked up two to four pounds of heroin a day from the supply house and sold from the basement of his stash house on Lake Road. Painter allegedly stretched the high-quality heroin by cooking, freezing and then blending it with brown sugar, court papers said.
Cops were told that Painter stored his heroin in a freezer and his cash in a safe. An informant told investigators that Painter was careful. He reportedly admitted to burying heroin in the back yard so there wouldn’t be drugs in the stash house in case it was raided by the cops.
Last month, the task force didn’t find any drugs in the house. There were packaging materials and a digital scale with suspected heroin residue. They also found $5,500 cash in a box in Painter’s grandmother’s room. Notes detailing thousands of dollars in heroin sales were found in the house, Albert wrote.
Police also didn’t find any drugs in Painter’s house in Shoreline. Detectives found two large floodlights and a shovel in the crawl space.
Painter bought the house from his grandmother for $50,000 cash. He also claimed to have spent $250,000 to remodel it. Detectives found documents showing that Painter put up $60,000 in cash to purchase a Cadillac Escalade. His tax records show earnings of less than $20,000.
Painter allegedly laundered drug money through a tow company he once owned and also bought gold and stocks to hide his income.
The investigation into his finances is ongoing. Prosecutors have taken steps to seize his cash, car and his house in Shoreline, alleging that they all were the proceeds from drug trafficking.
Painter has previous drug convictions. He was sentenced to a year in prison in 2007 after he was caught on three separate occasions with methamphetamine.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463, firstname.lastname@example.org.