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U.S. agents and Zions Bank bust money-laundering ring

Federal agents, with the help of Zions First National Bank officials, have broken up a major Colombian drug money-laundering ring based in Salt Lake City and involved a bank employee and a local evangelical pastor among others.

According to a federal indictment unsealed Monday, 15 individuals in Utah and Colombia were charged with conducting a large-scale money-laundering operation through 12 Zions Bank accounts and four other accounts out of Florida. According to the indictment, the accounts were set up to launder more than $1.45 million in U.S. currency wired from Colombia to Salt Lake City. Agents say the group avoided triggering fraud alerts by staying below the $10,000 daily deposit threshold and also deposited funds in odd increments.

After the alleged drug-dealing proceeds were deposited, ATM cards were then mailed back to Colombia, where funds were withdrawn as pesos, said U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner, who called the operation a part of the "Black Market Peso Exchange."

Warner said the alleged crime came to light after Zions Bank officials detected suspicious account activity tied to one bank employee.

"Our people are trained to look for certain suspicious activity," said Zions Bank spokesman Robert Brough. "They said something doesn't look right and according to regulation, we filed a suspicious activity report and notified law enforcement."

Using that tip, Warner said an undercover agent was sent to make contact with ring members, asking them to launder funds the agent told them was from marijuana deals.

According to the indictment, Ana Cecilia Toscano, 34, Salt Lake City, was employed at Zions Bank and aided in the laundering by concealing that funds originated from reported drug sales.

After federal authorities became involved, Juan Gilberto Lopez, 52, West Valley City, accepted various sums of money from an undercover agent totaling $18,000 believing it to be proceeds from marijuana sales, the indictment states. Lopez then allegedly deposited the funds into a bank account. U.S. Attorney's office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said Lopez is also believed to be an evangelical pastor who heads a Salt Lake City church called the Pentecostal Church of God.

Pastor William Fitzgerel of the First Apostolic Church, and a representative of the local Pentecostal community in Utah, said he had never heard of Lopez or his church. "He certainly doesn't speak for the Pentecostal community," Fitzgerel told the Deseret Morning News.

Federal prosecutors say there is no evidence in the indictment that Lopez used his position as pastor, or his church, for laundering purposes.

Prosecutors said the undercover work by the agent created a paper trail through the operation that will be used as evidence if the cases are taken to trial.

Nine of the defendants were arrested Thursday in Utah, some are Colombian nationals. There are also five defendants based in Colombia. The U.S. government has asked Colombian officials for their detention. Another man is in custody on an immigration hold.

Money laundering carries a potential maximum penalty of up to 20 years in prison. The maximum for conspiracy to structure monetary transactions is up to five years. The government is also seeking the forfeiture of a vehicle and a residence.

Brough said bank officials fully cooperated with the investigation, adding they felt "pleased" to help bring the suspects to justice.


E-MAIL: gfattah@desnews.com