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Nine people have been arrested in connection with an international drug ring that relied on helicopters to leap across the 49th parallel, taking B.C. marijuana to remote sites in the northwestern United States and bringing cocaine and cash back to Canada.

Authorities seized two helicopters, around 300 kilograms of marijuana known as B.C. bud, 83 kg of cocaine and 40,000 ecstasy pills during a cross-border investigation dubbed Operation Blade Runner. Police estimated the street value of the drugs at more than $14-million.

At a news conference in Seattle yesterday to announce the arrests, police linked the Canadian-based marijuana and cocaine smuggling ring to the violent gangland drug wars over the past two months on the streets of Vancouver and its suburbs.

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However, the arrests were unlikely to stem the drug trade in B.C., U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan told reporters.

"We've stopped at least this group, we believe, and crippled this part of the organization. Will somebody take their place? Unfortunately, probably," Mr. Sullivan said.

Despite his pessimism, Mr. Sullivan warned the drug smugglers that authorities on both sides of the border intend to go after them.

"We're here [at the news conference] all of us, to ensure they know we're here. We're coming and we're going to try and get their assets, we're going to try and steal their dope, we're going to try and get their money and we are going to try and put them in prison for as long as possible," he said.

Operation Blade Runner - so named for the use of helicopters in cross-border smuggling - led to the arrest of eight Canadians and one U.S. citizen. One of the Canadians, 24-year-old Samuel Lindsay-Brown of Revelstoke, B.C., hanged himself in a Spokane County jail cell four days after he was arrested.

Investigators believe the drug ring has been in operation for more than a year, with shipments around once a week.

The investigation began on Feb. 21, when Utah highway patrol in Salt Lake City stopped Ross Legge, 53, of Alberta, and Leonard Ferris, 50, of Las Vegas, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle said.

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Law enforcement officers found 83 kg of cocaine in the car. They also discovered a link between one of the men and an ecstasy smuggling ring that had been prosecuted in Washington state last year. At the news conference, Mr. Sullivan declined to provide any additional details about the link.

Based on information from the traffic stop, law enforcement officers were waiting at a remote site in the Colville National Forest outside Ione, Wash., two days later when a $1-million Bell 200 Jet Ranger helicopter landed. Mr. Lindsay-Brown was arrested as he was unloading B.C. bud from the helicopter, police said. The officers found 193 kg of marijuana aboard the aircraft.

Mr. Lindsay-Brown was not on a suicide watch, jail officials told a Spokane newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. An autopsy report stated that Mr. Lindsay-Brown died from strangulation. He was alone in a cell, jammed a bed sheet into a wall light fixture and hanged himself, according to the newspaper report.

The helicopter was returned to the leasing company, which police believe provided the aircraft unwittingly to the drug ring.

The smuggling ring attempted another shipment of marijuana six days later. A Robinson R22 helicopter flew from a landing zone outside Nelson to a remote area in northern Idaho. U.S. authorities arrested Jeremy Snow, 29, of Kelowna after finding 79 kg of marijuana on the aircraft. The helicopter had been reported in B.C. to be stolen. However, the officers were skeptical and seized the chopper.

In Canada, the RCMP arrested two men from Chilliwack, ages 48 and 20, who were on their way to the helicopter landing site. Police found an additional 64 kg of marijuana and 40,000 ecstasy pills. They also discovered a loaded 40-calibre handgun in the Chilliwack men's hotel rooms and a nearby storage trailer. The RCMP said they could not release the names of those arrested in Canada for privacy reasons.

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They also arrested a 37-year-old man in Malakwa, B.C., and a 35-year-old man in Salmon Arm who had three handguns, a shotgun and a rifle at his home, police said. RCMP Staff Sergeant Dave Goddard declined to release any of their names until charges are formally laid.

The RCMP arrested Sean Doak, 35, as part of the drug ring. His name was released because he was on parole at the time for an unrelated matter and his name was already in the public domain, Staff Sgt. Goddard told reporters.

U.S. authorities said they hope the Canadians who are charged as a result of Operation Blade Runner will be extradited to stand trial in the United States. Staff Sgt. Goddard said he anticipated people will be prosecuted on both sides of the border.

In a highly co-ordinated effort that stretched across the international boundary, 10 different agencies in Canada and the U.S. worked together on the investigation, including the RCMP, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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