For more than a day, the plastic orange toolbox sat on the lawn under a cherry tree, a few paces from the sidewalk.
No one passing the Canby home took notice. Not the runners. Not the dog walkers. Not the kids riding by on bicycles.
Then curiosity drew a 31-year-old landscaper who had come to the home just after sunset to help a friend move. Ivan Velasco Rodriguez poked the toolbox with a wooden rake handle.
The pipe bomb lurking inside exploded. Metal shards flying at bullet speed fatally injured Velasco Rodriguez and slammed into surrounding homes. Pieces fell on roofs two blocks away.
Canby police and federal agents swarmed the scene that night in December 2011. Who planted the booby trap that killed Velasco Rodriguez, a married father of four? And who was the intended target?
Police made no arrests, and the crime faded from public view.
But behind the scenes, federal law enforcement sources say, investigators reached a chilling conclusion: A Mexican drug cartel most likely commissioned the bomb to kill a witness who once listed the address as his own. Their suspicions deepened when they discovered the bombing was eerily similar to twin explosions in central Washington, where rigged devices killed two men hours apart in 2008.
The findings, never before disclosed to the public, were uncovered by The Oregonian as part of a nine-month investigation into the astonishing reach of Mexican drug cartels in the Northwest.
The Oregonian has learned that Mexican cartels, including the powerful Sinaloa and the brutal Los Zetas, have infiltrated almost every corner of Oregon. At last count, authorities were aware of no fewer than 69 drug trafficking organizations selling drugs in the state, nearly all supplied by cartels.
Police have taken down drug operations cloaked as a restaurant in Bend and a grocery in Hillsboro. They’ve busted traffickers in Gresham, Pendleton and, in a takedown last month involving 300 officers, in Klamath County. They’ve intercepted shipments from Oregon traffickers as far away as Texas, Minnesota and Florida.
Cartels and their allies control nearly every ounce of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine flowing into the region, investigators say, smuggling drugs up Interstate 5 by the ton and money back down by the millions. They dominate the marijuana market, tearing up Oregon forests for massive plantations. They exact an unfathomable toll in lives ruined and cut short by drug abuse.
Perhaps most unnerving, cartel-connected traffickers lash out in violence to control territory, settle debts or warn rivals — not just in Mexico, but here in the Northwest. Police suspect a cartel is behind the roadside execution early last year of a trafficker near Salem. They think cartel operatives shot two California drug dealers whose bodies were found buried in the sage northeast of Klamath Falls last fall. They also believe a cartel ordered a 2007 hit in which a trafficker and four friends were lined up on the floor of a Vancouver rental home and shot in the head.
“They will take advantage of any avenue they can to make their business succeed,” said Kelvin Crenshaw, until recently the special agent in charge of the Seattle regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Make no bones about it. The control is from the cartels.”
Yet even as traffickers live in our towns and menace our residents, their scourge has remained hidden in plain sight. Police often report homicides, drug busts and threats as isolated incidents. Until now, the region’s drug enforcement officials have mostly kept a lid on connections that all point in one direction: to the cartels responsible for the rivers of bloodshed hundreds of miles away in Mexico.
“They are here,” said one former cartel member, a 29-year-old Oregon man who asked that his name be kept secret to protect his safety. “They try hard to stay off the radar.”
Suspected cartel violence
The Oregonian’s investigation included the unprecedented cooperation of law enforcement officials at all levels, including more than 250 interviews with investigators in six states. The newspaper reviewed 50,000 pages of documents, including rarely available wiretap excerpts and files in open homicide cases. Sources also included former traffickers, defense attorneys and victims, such as the family of a Bend 21-year-old who collapsed on his front lawn as a lethal heroin dose flowed into his veins.
Law enforcement officials helped with The Oregonian’s investigation because they’re convinced the public needs to better understand the growing threat the region faces. Though many cartel homicides are never solved — witnesses are threatened into silence, and killers leave few clues before sliding back across the border — authorities say cartels’ involvement in deaths and other crimes here is unmistakable.
“Oregonians,” said John Deits, the assistant U.S. attorney who oversees federal drug prosecutions in Oregon, “are totally naive, totally out of touch with what is happening.”
The neighborhood of the Canby bombing seems an unlikely place for a cartel hit.
Ranch houses and newer Northwest-style homes line Northeast 22nd Street, which runs east-west along the north edge of town. The scent of freshly mowed lawns hangs in the air.
The one-story white house where the bombing occurred sits on an extra-wide lot. A gravel driveway sweeps along one side, past the cherry tree, to a carport and shop in back.
At the time of the crime, a man rented the house with his wife and their 19-year-old son. Their names are being withheld to protect their safety. The renter declined to be interviewed, but lead investigator Chris Mead of the Canby Police Department gave an account. Ben Hartwig, who was visiting the neighborhood at the time of the bombing, filled in details.
The renter worked two jobs, saving enough to buy a home in Salem. The family was in the middle of moving on the evening of Dec. 10, 2011, when the renter spotted the toolbox as he pulled his pickup to the house for another load. Believing that another man’s property should be left alone, he told his wife and son about the toolbox but did not call police.
The son, disobeying orders to stay away, tried to open the latch after his parents left for Salem. A string held it fast, but the box opened just enough to reveal something odd inside. The son called his parents’ cellphone only to be told again to leave the box alone.
The renter worked the next day, a Sunday. As he headed home, he called Velasco Rodriguez, a friend, for help gathering scrap metal at the Canby home. Velasco Rodriguez arrived with another helper, parking near the cherry tree. He asked the renter about the toolbox and was told to let it be.
The renter was in the carport loading plants into his pickup when he was rocked by a blast. He ran to the front yard. Two doors down, Hartwig was attending the annual gingerbread-house contest of his fiancee and her family when the home shook and the windows rattled. Hartwig, an Iraq War veteran and former explosives expert in the U.S. Marine Corps, froze for a second.
“It didn’t really make sense — a bomb going off in Canby,” he said.
He rushed down the block to find the renter and the other helper standing over Velasco Rodriguez in stunned silence. Velasco Rodriguez lay on his back in the driveway, shrapnel wounds in his head and stomach. Hartwig, who’d received his EMT certification five months earlier, knew the wounds were probably fatal. But he, neighbors and then medics tried to save Velasco Rodriguez.
In the days that followed, local investigators and agents from the FBI and ATF combed for clues. The explosion so shredded the toolbox that plastic bits remain at the scene even now. Investigators recovered enough of the pipe bomb to reconstruct it but learned little about its origin. They dug into Velasco Rodriguez’s background but quickly concluded he wasn’t the target. They also found no disputes or drug activity involving the renter and his family.
Then an ATF investigator discovered that the address had been listed by a man connected to a major drug case in another state. That led federal law enforcement officials to suspect the work of a Mexican drug cartel.
A month after the Canby bombing, the ATF agent traveled to Moses Lake, Wash., to learn about the 2008 bombings. There he found startling parallels to the Canby killing.
The morning of Aug. 2, 2008, William A. Walker opted to stay home to tinker in his backyard workshop while his wife joined visiting relatives to hunt for antiques, according to an account from family members.
The 69-year-old retired electrician had returned to the area in the mid-1990s after an industrial accident in Ohio left him unable to work regular hours. He and his third wife, Dorothy, settled in Wheeler, five miles east of Moses Lake, to look after the widow of a fishing buddy. Walker spent time repairing cars and small power tools.
“He was a fix-it guy,” said Valerie Johnson, a stepdaughter. “He’s just the good guy next door.”
About 8:30 or 9, Walker carried a battery charger to the back of his shop and plugged it in.
A couple of hours later, Dorothy Walker, 82 miles away in Cashmere, was growing anxious. She had tried over and over to reach her husband, first at the house, then on his cellphone.
“He’s one of those answering people,” she said. “I just got a terrible feeling.” She called a grandson in a panic, asking him to go check.
Andy Otto, 33, lived about six miles away and often spent Saturdays helping his grandfather in the shop. He arrived about 1:30 p.m. to a terrible scene. A pipe bomb inside the charger had exploded, blowing a hole in the shop wall and dropping Walker to the concrete floor. He had died of severe head and chest wounds.
A couple walking their dog had heard a muffled blast and saw a puff of smoke drift from the shop. A couple sleeping in an RV in the Walkers’ driveway also heard the explosion. Neither went to investigate, but they helped police piece together the sequence of events, said Ryan Rectenwald, lead investigator at the time and now chief deputy at theGrant County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Office.
At first, medics and police thought a shop chemical or battery had blown up accidentally. Another blast hours later and only five miles away suggested otherwise.
Death by scanner
Javier Martinez Adame, 53, was unemployed and living with his girlfriend, Heather Smith, in a small house on a dead-end lane just north of Moses Lake city limits.
Adame, the fourth of nine children, held odd jobs most of his life after a car accident left him unable to work long shifts, said a sister, Sandra Valdez. A father and grandfather, he kept a tidy home and worked on wood projects.
“He was a really good mechanic,” Valdez said. “He was just helping people all the time.”
Police suspected he was also dealing drugs. Grant County court records show he was convicted of cocaine possession in 1998 and cited for possessing drug paraphernalia in 1999.
That weekend in 2008, Smith found a police scanner in a paper grocery bag in the driveway and moved it to the porch, Rectenwald said. Just after midnight on Aug. 3, Adame carried the scanner into the kitchen and plugged it in.
Adame muttered an expletive just before a pipe bomb hidden inside exploded, killing him instantly. Rectenwald said Adame had experience with explosives and may have heard the detonator.
Valdez, notified in a phone call, arrived later that morning.
“When we drove up the gravel road, there were cops, tape. I was screaming,” Valdez said. “I was begging them to let me see him. They said I wouldn’t want to see something like that.”
ATF technicians soon established that the bombs that killed Walker and Adame were nearly identical. Given Adame’s history, investigators concluded he was the intended target of the scanner. But what about Walker? Grant County sheriff’s detectives, with help from ATF and FBI agents, hunted for a link between him and Adame.
For a time, Otto said, police thought he might have been the target of the battery charger. He and relatives said investigators asked him whether he owed someone in the drug world money.
“They said it was meant for me,” Otto said. “They stayed on that trail for a while.”
Otto was arrested in 2004 after police found 186 marijuana plants in a travel trailer he was using, but he said he had since put his “troubled” years behind him.
Investigators also focused attention on a neighbor whose home had been raided by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents five months before as part of a cocaine investigation. Law enforcement sources said a cartel could have meant the charger for him.
In any case, investigators concluded Walker was the victim of mistaken identity. Walker’s family dedicated a Facebook page to the case and still holds occasional events to seek help solving it. Both cases have gone cold, Rectenwald said.
Investigators are also looking for new leads in the Canby case. Police acknowledged that the common circumstances — pipe bombs hidden in everyday items that were left unattended — interest them.
Days after the bombing, Canby police set up a tip line and offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Investigators found it odd, Police Chief Bret Smith said, when few clues rolled in.
The silence, Smith said, indicates that the killer came to Canby, set the bomb and slipped away without a trace.
— Les Zaitz