To owner Jamie Bohnett, it was just like any other day in early March at the Over Easy restaurant on James Street.
Staff were on the last hour of the workday, a mother, her son and a few other customers were finishing their meals at nearby tables and Bohnett was doing some paperwork for the following day.
There was only one other man sitting by himself at a table — eating chicken and waffles.
What Bohnett didn’t know was that a few minutes later, the man sitting alone eating his chicken and waffles would be arrested by the FBI for allegedly providing encrypted BlackBerrys to transnational drug traffickers, including the deadly Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, headed by Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“He seemed like a mellow guy. There were no guns involved. … It was very professional,” Bohnett said. “He didn’t seem like a bad guy. He was real nice, gentle guy and quiet.”
Vincent Gabriel Ramos, 40, of Vancouver, B.C. was arrested March 7 by the FBI on suspicion of racketeering, drug-trafficking, conspiracy and money-laundering charges out of San Diego.
Ramos and four of his associates who remain fugitives were indicted by a federal grand jury March 15, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A global effort attempting to cut off drug organizations from their secure communication networks spanning the U.S., Canada and Australia is laid out in a heavily redacted complaint unsealed in federal court. Authorities in Panama, Hong Kong and Thailand also aided in investigation efforts, officials said.
The FBI believes Ramos, founder and CEO of Phantom Secure, sold approximately 20,000 encrypted BlackBerrys to customers, generating about $80 million in revenue since 2008, according to federal documents.
Half of those devices are said to be used by criminal organizations in Australia, as well as members of the Sinaloa cartel.
Those who used the phones would remain anonymous to one another, and instead use usernames, handles or nicknames, such as “leadslinger, The.cartel, narco, Knee-capper, Elchapo66, The.killa,” and so on.
The FBI alleges the phones shielded transnational drug traffickers in North America, Australia, Asia, Europe and Central America from the eyes of law enforcement.
If convicted, Ramos could face life in prison.
Bohnett said he remembered two men in plain clothes who looked like businessmen walked in, sat at the bar and grabbed menus. He recalled talking with them to see if they wanted to order, but was told they weren’t ready yet.
He said from where they were sitting, they were able to observe most of the people in the restaurant, including Ramos.
One of the men got up and went outside for a phone call. Minutes later, Bohnett said five or six men walked in, went over to Ramos sitting at the table by himself and arrested him.
“Before we knew it, we had six guys walk in really fast and I thought ‘Oh we should serve them. They’re big guys, I bet they’re hungry,’” Bohnett said. “It happened so fast, there was no resistance. … They basically outnumbered him 6 to 1 big guys.”
Bohnett said one of the women who was in the restaurant at the time of Ramos’ arrest came back in and told Bohnett they had discretely asked her to move away from Ramos before they sat at the bar.
“The FBI guy asked if he paid for his meal, but I was in shock and didn’t even hear what he said. Later a police officer came in and told me to talk to the FBI about him not paying for his meal. I think we lost that one,” Bohnett added with a chuckle.
Bellingham police investigations Lt. Mike Johnston said it was strictly an FBI operation, but Bellingham police were asked to help assist with locating and arresting Ramos.
Johnston said he and several other officers were sent to Bellis Fair Mall in plain clothes to look for Ramos, but it was later discovered he was at Over Easy. By the time Johnston got there, Ramos had been arrested, he said.
Johnston said Bellingham police assist other agencies when asked, such as the local FBI field office, the DEA or the U.S. Marshals, because they have more resources.
“We do our thing and they do ours and when they need help, they call us and we can rally 11 to 14 detectives,” Johnston said.
Johnston said this was the first time he had heard of Ramos or his charges, but was happy Bellingham police could help. It's believed that Ramos was only passing through.
“I’m glad we were able to assist the FBI with their investigation. … We’re pleased any time we can help take a potential bad guy off the street.”