PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — What do money laundering, pounds of marijuana and the illegal shark fin trade have in common?
According to federal authorities, the answer is Mark Leon Harrison of Southport.
Federal authorities have charged 12 people, including Harrison, with being part of a money-laundering criminal conspiracy that distributed marijuana in the United States and shark fins in Hong Kong.
This week several federal agencies raided a local seafood wholesaler in connection to the case. Officials close to the business tell News 13 that they were allowing Harrison to store shark fins at their location believing that his operation was legitimate.
They are not implicated in this case or named in the indictment.
According to US Department of Justice news release, Harrison was convicted of violating federal law in 2009 for dealing in shark fins.
While catching and harvesting sharks is legal in some places, including Florida, it is illegal to only remove the shark’s fin and leave it to die in the ocean. However, poachers often do this because they have more to gain financially if they just strip the fin rather than harvest the whole shark, prosecutors wrote in the grand jury indictment.
The indictment names 11 other people who took part in a conspiracy that involved wire fraud and mail fraud
The other defendants in the case are Terry Xing Zhao, Natalie Ye Man Chan Wu, Woonjin Lam, AKA Larry Lam, AKA Larry Lin, Anthony Wu, Billy Chen, Ying Le Pang, Heather Huong Ngoc Luu, Lam Phuoc Quang, Kevin Chinh Nguyen, Elias Samuel Castellanos, and Terry Louis Shook. Federal prosecutors also named two businesses, Serendipity Business Solutions, and Phoenix Fisheries.
Investigators said the conspirators tried to avoid international, federal, and wildlife trafficking laws to meet the demand for shark fins in the Asian market. The group illegally smuggled shark fins from Mexico and exported them to Hong King.
The group created Phoenix Fisheries, LLC., as a front seafood company in Southport because possessing, selling, and shipping certain shark fins was lawful in Florida and Harrison had contact with shark fin dealers, the indictment states.
A second company, Serendipity Business Solutions was created in California and send the shark fins to Hong King. Phoenix also shipped the shark fins to Hong King via the Port of Savannah, the indictment states.
Investigators say the group created fake invoices, and wired money to third party businesses in order to hide the illegal profits.
Meanwhile, the conspirators branched out into buying marijuana in California and distributing it in Savanna, Ga. Investigators say the conspirators charged a “commission fee” to unlawfully deposit millions of dollars into business accounts. They also took buk cash from drug trafficking and deposited into business accuonts that dealt in gold, precious metals and jewels in hopes of hiding the illegal profits.
The incident states that undercover agents with the DEA and US Fish and Wildlife Services caught the defendents through a series of stings.
Beginning in December of 2019 Harrison communicated with an undercover USFWS agent several times about his illegal shark fin business.
On July 24, 2017, Quang, was arrested during a traffic stop in Meridian, Mississippi and authorities discovered that he had $1,778,001 in cash concealed in sealed plastic bags. Prosecutors wrote that Quang admitted that he was paid $10,000 to transport the cash from Atlanta, Georgia to Los Angeles,
On August 29, 2019, Luu and Castellanos met with an undercover DEA agent in California and agreed to launder money in exchange for a commission fee. Defendant Heather Huong Ngoc Luu, a/k/a, “Tammy,” and Defendant Elias Samuel Castellanos received $100,000 in cash to wire into third
party business accounts to hide criminal proceeds.
On or about September 4, 2019, Luu, confirmed that $94,000 was wired into an undercover DEA account.
“The $94,000 representing the $100,000 laundered, minus the commission fee,” the indictment states. They did this again in September of 2019 with $200,000. Then in October the defendents deposited $188,000 and kept $12,000 as a fee. In February of this year they did it with $500,000.
However, by then Luu said she was having trouble with banks closing her accounts.
Along with the criminal charges prosecutors are seeking multiple forfeitures in the case including the property at 13408 Prosper Road in Southport, other properties in California and Georgia, and a blue BMW.
The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Georgia. They declined to comment Friday.