Forest Park man admits role in drug ring

Scheme nets more than a dozen convictions

ATLANTA — A Forest Park man is among more than a dozen defendants convicted in what federal officials said was an elaborate, nationwide multi-million dollar money-laundering scheme originating from a now-defunct Sandy Springs restaurant.

Laverne Simon, 54, of Forest Park pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine. Simon has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release, officials said.

U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said Simon was one of 14 defendants, including an accountant, who participated in an illegal operation that took drug funds and filtered them through KC Pit BBQ Restaurant in Sandy Springs. Restaurant owners Jiles and Shannon Johnson and their accountant, Mattthew Ware, were the last of the 14 to be sentenced.

“Businesses and professionals who use legitimate organizations to filter laundered drug proceeds denigrate legitimate earnings while destroying the jobs of those who work in those businesses,” said Yates. “Illegal drugs lure many into that lifestyle with offers of big money, easily made. In the end, what really happens is lives are destroyed, businesses close and the dealers go to jail. We will continue working to remove harmful drugs from our streets.”

Harry S. Sommers, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration Atlanta Field Division, said the defendants got what they deserved.

“All of the defendants in this case are deserving of the sentences handed down,” he said. “Several of these individuals masked themselves as legitimate businessmen, while everyone lined their pockets with excessive profits gained from drug trafficking.”

Yates said the seven-year operation unraveled in 2010 when Simon, Thallas Amie and Jiles Johnson tried unsuccessfully to deliver 35 kilos of cocaine to Philadelphia. The drugs were intercepted by law enforcement officers.

Yates said the testimony and evidence in the case proved that this large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering organization coordinated the distribution of thousands of kilograms of cocaine imported from Mexico and transported from California to Kansas City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and the laundering of millions of dollars in drug proceeds in Georgia.

The organization coordinated its efforts through the KC PIT BBQ Restaurant in Sandy Springs, with the assistance of other businesses and professionals.

In 2003, Jiles and Shannon Johnson were the owners of the KC PIT BBQ Restaurant. Jiles Johnson was also a commercial truck driver. To supplement his restaurant income, he began driving kilograms of cocaine from California to Philadelphia on behalf of Mark Walker. Walker was a Philadelphia cocaine distributor with access to street-level dealers, including his brother, Sidney Walker, Ronald Martin, Lloyd Ellis and others, said Yates. Johnson also supplied cocaine to buyers in Kansas City and Washington D.C.

“As Johnson and Walker generated cash from cocaine sales, they purchased real estate in Georgia through Linda Tong, a local real estate broker,” said Yates. “Tong made ‘structured’ deposits of over $500,000 into bank accounts.”

“Structuring” occurs when a person breaks down more than $10,000 in cash into smaller deposits under $10,000 to avoid the filing of a Currency Transaction Report by a financial institution, as required by the IRS, Yates said.

“The Johnsons invested over $3 million in real estate holdings, including an 80-acre motorcycle racetrack in Twiggs County,” she said.

Ware accepted bags of cash in excess of $10,000 from Jiles Johnson, said Yates. Ware provided the cash to some of his accounting firm’s clients and they repaid him with checks made payable to Johnson and his businesses.

“When the cash volume increased, Ware connected Johnson to another client, financial planner Jacques Degaule, to assist with the laundering,” said Yates. “Degaule traveled to banks in Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania and New Jersey where he deposited over $7 million.”

Yates said no IRS 8300 Forms were filed, which are required when a trade or business receives more than $10,000 in cash. The Johnsons used these laundered funds to underwrite their investments and their restaurant’s operations.