Gerardo Uribe is described by business associates as honest and professional, a "gentle soul" who methodically built a medical marijuana empire in Colorado. While he struggled at times to get financing, the 33-year-old Uribe made a point of emphasizing following the rules, aware his Colombian heritage might invite suspicion, one business partner said.
In a recent court filing, federal prosecutors describe Uribe in different terms — as the head of an organization targeted in a long-term investigation into the alleged illegal production and distribution of marijuana, money laundering and other offenses.
On Nov. 21, federal agents executed search warrants on 14 businesses and two homes in the largest raid ever on Colorado's medical marijuana industry, rousting a part-time manager as he got his children ready for school in Nederland and busting down doors in Denver.
Sources told The Denver Post that the raids were chasing possible connections to Colombian drug cartels, although investigators haven't publicly accused any of the businesses of wrongdoing. The raids gutted grow warehouses, cost businesses millions in inventory, and forced owners to close stores and lay off employees, although many of the businesses have since reopened.
The government has identified a dozen people in the ongoing investigation. All but one is connected to a chain of five medical marijuana dispensaries and about a half-dozen marijuana grows controlled by Uribe, his relatives or associates, records show.
Among the Uribes' raided businesses was VIP Cannabis in Denver, thought to be one of the highest volume dispensaries in the state.
The individuals involved include Uribe's father, brother and a cousin; a Denver lawyer who represented the Uribe businesses and became an owner himself; and a Cuban national locked up in a Florida prison who used to work in one of the raided dispensaries and allegedly tried to order a hit on one of the owners, according to court records.
Uribe has not been charged, and his lawyer has said he has done nothing wrong. Only one individual has been arrested so far in connection with the raids — a Colombian national facing a gun charge.
The Post was not able to identify through business records any link between the VIP Cannabis-affiliated individuals and another raid target, Laszlo Bagi. The parties say they are not connected.
Federal authorities have declined to discuss the investigation.
"The investigation is ongoing," said Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Colorado, "and it is active."
But the weapons charge that grew out of the raids provides new details.
According to a U.S. District Court filing by federal prosecutors:
At 6 a.m. on Nov. 21, Arapahoe County SWAT team members armed with a search warrant entered a $1.3 million home in Englewood and immediately encountered a man with a gun.
Agents believed the people in the home would be armed based on earlier contact with members of the organization and statements Uribe made to law enforcement officers during a traffic contact.
The armed man — Uribe's father, Gerardo Uribe Sr. — held a loaded firearm in one hand and a loaded pistol magazine in the other.
He ignored commands, was wrestled to the ground and cuffed. He requested medical treatment and was taken by ambulance to a hospital.
Agents from four federal agencies swarmed the five-bedroom, eight-bathroom home, which was described in a real estate listing as being filled with contemporary marble and white carpet touches and boasting a backyard with a grassy knoll, pool, hot tub and pool house.
Eight occupants were put in flexible handcuffs — including Luis Uribe, Gerardo Uribe's younger brother, and Carlos Solano, the Uribes' cousin. Both were identified in a search warrant obtained by The Post as one of 10 "target subjects" in the raids. Both men agreed to be interviewed by investigators at the home.
At the raided home, authorities seized five assault rifles, one shotgun, five handguns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. There was no mention of how the guns were acquired, although a lawyer for the Uribes' businesses said they were purchased legally.
One of the home's occupants was 49-year-old Hector Diaz, who had caught investigators' attention because of an e-mail they obtained depicting a photo of Diaz holding two semi-automatic weapons and wearing a Drug Enforcement Administration cap.
The court filing said evidence suggests Diaz may be a shadow investor who has provided funding from Colombia to help buy at least one large warehouse in Denver for growing marijuana.
Diaz, however, told investigators he had recently wired $422,000 from Colombia to a Colorado bank account to purchase a warehouse for a metal structuring business to manufacture concertina wire, or coiled barbed wire. Diaz told authorities he owned a stake in the business, formed in July, along with Gerardo Uribe Sr. and Gerardo Uribe Jr.
Agents have not found information to back up Diaz's claim that he is in the barbed-wire business, according to the court filing.
Diaz was charged with a single count of possessing a firearm after having been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa. He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Gerardo Uribe Jr. and his lawyer have declined interview requests.
In brief comments standing at the entrance of VIP Cannabis, Uribe said he believed a large bank deposit triggered the raids.
"A gentle soul"
David Furtado describes himself as a "people's attorney" who keeps his fees low, began representing the Uribes in their business dealings, bought stakes in a dispensary and a grow, and now wants out after being identified as one of the targets of November's raids.
"Can you imagine my embarrassment?" said Furtado, 48. "Can you imagine my shame? I don't want to be defending myself. I just want to get rid of these things. If it means I need to stand on my head and spit nickels, I'll do it."
Furtado said Gerardo Uribe Jr. came to the United States from Colombia when he was 19, worked in real estate in Florida and moved to Colorado, where he worked in sales.
The lawyer dismissed suggestions of any possible links to Colombian drug cartels.
"Gerardo is a gentle soul," Furtado said. "If people knew Gerardo Uribe, they would know he is not Colombian cartel. He is honest. He tries to do the right things."
When Uribe has been sued over a debt, it was sometimes "because he overestimated his ability to earn money," Furtado said.
Furtado also has been the target of lawsuits.
In 2011, a Douglas County woman who said Furtado set up a marijuana growing operation in her garage sued Furtado, Gerardo Uribe, Solano and others, alleging she was misled.
Furtado acknowledged setting up the grow even though it was against Douglas County rules but denied misleading the woman, Roddess Ekberg. Furtado eventually was awarded more than $600,000 after Ekberg failed to respond to his counter claims, records show.
Ekberg also was a grower for a dispensary called Daddy Fat Sacks. In 2011, dispensary owner and president Larry DeVillier notified Denver city officials he was closing the business and was no longer affiliated with Furtado, who had an ownership stake in the dispensary.
DeVillier wrote that Furtado "is unethical and I have reason to believe that his practices in the marijuana business are illegal."
Furtado denied the allegations and said Ekberg was dishonest and unreliable. Ekberg could not be reached for comment.
Furtado said VIP Cannabis' flagship store at South Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue brought in about $9 million in 2013 before the raid.
VIP reopened in December, restocked with marijuana it legally purchased from other businesses, and Furtado said at least one VIP grow operation is up and running again.
Furtado questioned why the government could not audit the businesses or investigate further instead of hitting them in the raids.
"It could have been handled differently," he said. "It could have been done more professionally. I think what people forget is, this affects people's lives, their families."
The Uribes acquired an interest in another marijuana business — a grow in north Denver operated under the name Elizabeth's End — in August 2012. By November of that year, the brothers, through Gerardo and a business they own called Herbology, owned 85 percent of the grow, plus 94 percent of a connected dispensary.
Their new share came from Jared Bringhurst, who was the businesses' previous majority owner, according to a lawsuit Bringhurst and the two remaining minority owners — Anthony Nuccio and Jesse Benitez — are pursuing against the Uribes and their associate Felix Perez. Bringhurst, Nuccio and Benitez all say the Uribes and Perez owe them money.
The lawsuit also previously alleged that the Uribes and Perez were suspected of hiding profits and product from their marijuana businesses and selling marijuana out of state, which they denied. Bringhurst, Nuccio and Benitez subsequently removed that allegation from the lawsuit, at the request of Furtado, according to a motion.
Although Bringhurst has said he now holds no interest in any of the businesses, he was still named as a target in the raid search warrant, as was Perez. Benitez and Nuccio were not named. The lawsuit is set to go to trial in September.
Late last month, Bringhurst filed a motion for a protective order against Perez, alleging that Perez had been harassing and threatening him. Bringhurst wrote that Perez repeatedly asked to be dropped from the suit. A judge approved the protection order last week, according to court documents.
Another possible dispute
Court records from Florida — where a raid target named Juan Guardarrama currently sits in state prison — hint at another possible business dispute involving Gerardo Uribe.
Guardarrama, 50, was convicted of working in the Miami area with Colombian and Cuban gangs to sell diamonds taken during violent robberies. But he also split his time in Denver, where he lived in a luxury apartment in the city's Golden Triangle neighborhood, according to court records.
According to a report in The Miami Herald, Guardarrama asked undercover investigators if they would help him smuggle 20 pounds of marijuana a month from Colorado to be distributed in Florida.
Guardarrama — whom authorities said used the street name "Tony Montana," after the character from the film "Scarface" — also asked to have two people murdered, according to charging documents. One was a man named Lino Alvarado. The other was Gerardo Uribe.
Both the marijuana-trafficking charge and the murder-solicitation charge were dropped as part of Guardarrama's plea deal.
Another November raid target, John Frank Esmeral, is identified in city records as a co-owner with Luis Uribe of a dispensary in northwest Denver and an affiliated grow near Coors Field. Both shuttered after being raided, said Esmeral's attorney, Rob Corry.
"He and I have no idea why the federal government decided to essentially dismantle his business," Corry said. "It was perfectly legal under state and local law, operating with all the appropriate licensure. If the Department of Justice's goal was to strike fear in our industry, mission accomplished."
Grateful Meds in Nederland, another raid target, also faces an uncertain future.
The once-thriving business was out of product and money when Gerardo Uribe and Furtado bought it for a song in 2012, said Mark Rose, one of Grateful Meds' original owners.
Rose said he had a hard time getting paid his share and had to drive to the main VIP Cannabis store in Denver to collect.
"I wasn't really happy with the way they did business," Rose said.
Furtado was "a hothead," Rose said. "He was boisterous. He was a big bully. He was all about trying to intimidate you from the start."
After the VIP group took over Grateful Meds, it remodeled the inside to match its other locations and brought in Joseph Taveras, a 50-year-old Dominican-American businessman from Miami, as manager.
Taveras — also identified as a target in the raid — said in an interview he has seen nothing questionable and suspects Gerardo Uribe is being unfairly targeted because he is Colombian. Uribe has struggled to get financing, which would not be the case if he were involved with cartels and money laundering, Taveras said.
"Gerardo, he is the one who cares more about everything," he said. "He knows because of the stigma, of being Colombian, that his people may be targeted. He all the time talked about doing the right things."
Another business associate, Olga Skuratovich, described Gerardo Uribe as intelligent, honest and well-versed in rules and regulations. Skuratovich is an owner of Metro Cannabis, a Denver dispensary that was to lease grow space from the Uribes at a planned greenhouse in Pueblo County that has been put on hold.
"I am not sure the government was being very fair," she said. "I am in this industry, too, and I can see how anyone can be picked on. I am Russian. Gerardo is Colombian. I think that's part of it, a stigma that is attached. No one will ever say it, but it's out there."
Furtado, the attorney, said agents carrying out the Nov. 21 raids left a message for the business owners.
One of the grow warehouse walls is adorned with the VIP Cannabis logo — a cloud of smoke wearing black sunglasses and a grin.
Over the cloud, Furtado said, someone had drawn a picture of a sun with rays coming down from it, and the initials, "D.E.A."
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