4 flight attendants arrested after allegedly smuggling drug money from NYC to Dominican Republic

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Four flight attendants were taken into custody on Tuesday after an investigation revealed a yearslong operation to smuggle $8 million drug money from New York to the Dominican Republic.

The suspects were employed by various airlines that made several trips from John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in Queens to the Dominican Republic. With their status as flight attendants, the group was able to utilize the special security lane when entering the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints. A witness told authorities they organized and operated money laundering and narcotic sales with flight attendants like the four that were detained on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York news release said.

To get their money to the Dominican Republic, the witness would give the flight attendants a small percentage of the money in New York before they left. To catch the flight attendants in action, the witness agreed to participate in numerous sting operations where money would be given to the suspects to be transferred to the Dominican Republic and handed off to another cooperating witness, the news release said.

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A passenger aircraft takes off from JFK international Airport in New York as the Manhattan skyline looms in the distance on February 5, 2024.
A passenger aircraft takes off from JFK international Airport in New York as the Manhattan skyline looms in the distance on February 5, 2024.

The cooperating witness operated a "significant money laundering organization" prior to being arrested in 2021, the news release said.

“As alleged, the defendants knowingly smuggled large amounts of illicit money linked to the sale of narcotics, to include fentanyl, and took advantage of airport security checkpoints by using their trusted positions as flight attendants,” Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge, Ivan Arvelo said in a statement.

"This investigation has exposed critical vulnerabilities in the airline security industry and has illuminated methods that narcotics traffickers are utilizing," Arvelo said.

Following the flight attendants arrest, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, said this announcement should serve as a warning that smuggling millions of dollars from the United States to another country has consequences.

“[Wednesday]’s charges should serve as a reminder to those who break the law by helping drug traffickers move their money that crime doesn’t pay,” Williams said.

Since December 2018, HSI and the New York Police Department (NYPD) were investigating an international drug trafficking and money laundering organization which allegedly trafficked fentanyl into the United States, the criminal complaint said.

USA TODAY reached out to the JFK Airport for comment.

Flight attendants face several charges

The flight attendants charged were 42-year-old Charlie Hernandez of New Jersey, 42-year-old Sarah Valerio Pujols of New York, 34-year-old Emmanuel Torres of New York and 35-year-old Jarol Fabio of New York.

According to the news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office, all of the suspects will be charged with the following:

  • one count of operation of an unlicensed money transmission business, five years in prison,

  • one count of entering an airport or aircraft area in violation of security requirements, 10 years in prison

In addition, two of the flight attendants will face these charges:

  • one count of conspiracy to operate an unlicensed money transmission business, five years in prison

Another suspects in the group is charged with:

  • one count of bulk cash smuggling, five years in prison

All four attendants were scheduled to appear in court this week.

Ahjané Forbes is a reporter on the National Trending Team at USA TODAY. Ahjané covers breaking news, car recalls, crime, health, lottery and public policy stories. Email her at aforbes@gannett.com. Follow her on InstagramThreads and X (Twitter) @forbesfineest.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Flight attendants arrested in drug money operation out of JFK Airport