$500K Unalaska drug bust sends local business owners to jail

Megan Edge

In the last weeks of May, the Unalaska Department of Public Safety seized more than a half-million dollars' worth of illegal drugs from a local couple who own three businesses in the Aleutian Islands fishing hub.

Deputy Chief of Police Mike Holman described the bust as the biggest he's seen during more than 19 years on the job. Now, two people are behind bars, facing a slew of drug- and weapon-related charges.

Thu McConnell and Tam Van Nguyen, both 45, face numerous charges of misconduct involving controlled substances and misconduct involving weapons. Holman said because of the size of the bust, the couple are assumed to be major players in illegal drug activity on the island.

The drug seizure began with a sting on May 24. An unnamed criminal informant contacted 46-year-old Eric Roach and asked to "be hooked up," according to court documents filed May 29 in Unalaska courts.

"The informant told us he could buy from Mr. Roach," said Holman in a telephone interview. "So we had him arrange it, and we gave him the money and we monitored him."

Court documents state Roach took a taxi to Dutch Harbor Asia, which Holman said sells souvenirs, clothing and various grocery items. The go-between walked inside briefly before sitting outside with Nguyen, who was working alone at the time of the bust. Roach left in a taxi and handed over the "tar" -- slang for heroin -- to the criminal informant. Holman said "within seconds" Roach was arrested.

It's unclear whether Roach is facing any charges, but court records show he was released from jail on May 28, four days after his arrest.

In a later search of Dutch Harbor Asia, police seized 15 bindles -- small packets -- of cocaine, 11 bindles of heroin, 29 bindles of methamphetamine, digital scales, a loaded semi-automatic handgun, large amounts of cash and one glass smoking pipe, court documents said. Holman estimates the drugs confiscated from the store, which were pre-packaged, had a street value of roughly $10,000.

Five days later, police searched the four-bedroom Biorka Drive home of Dutch Harbor Asia co-owners McConnell and Nguyen. Court records state that two bags of brown "tar" heroin, weighing 140 grams, were found hidden roughly 12 feet high in a vaulted ceiling. In a light fixture, investigators found 100 grams of methamphetamine, and in a bedroom they found 25 more grams. Four ounces of pre-packaged marijuana were found in a freezer, and a search of the bedroom turned up 10 grams of cocaine and a Kimber .45-caliber handgun underneath Nguyen's pillowcase. All told, the drugs seized from the store and the home had an estimated street value of $500,000, according to Holman.

McConnell and Nguyen's names were already familiar to Unalaska's Department of Public Safety. Holman said the department had a couple of successful busts in the fall that opened doors to more busts, and the couple's names came up during the course of those investigations.

And although Unalaska law enforcement believes they have nabbed two major players, there are still several questions about the couple who Holman said have been on the island "almost as long as I have."

What investigators do know is that the two own three businesses together -- Dutch Harbor Asia, Aloha Tan and Dutch Harbor Asia Taxi. Holman said they also know that the duo is in a long-term relationship and have two children -- a recent college graduate and a 15-year-old who lives in Washington.

But what's unknown is peculiar, said Holman. He said police are currently investigating whether any of the three businesses were actually profitable or if they were just drug fronts. And the duo's relationship is complicated. The two claim they were married, Holman said, but he hasn't found a marriage license yet. One of the pair said they are divorced, according to Holman, but the other said they are just separated.

According to charging documents, McConnell also claims she is the sole owner of Dutch Harbor Asia, but a business license and other financial documents state she and Nguyen jointly own the store.

It's also unclear how the couple came to be in possession of the drugs. Holman said there isn't any indication that the drugs were manufactured in Unalaska. He believes drugs are coming in on boats, planes and through the mail.

"Small marijuana grows may be occurring, but we haven't run across one in a long time," said Holman, who's been the deputy chief of police for a little more than two years. "And we are an island, so there are only so many ways you can get it here."

McConnell faces 10 charges, while Nguyen faces 16. McConnell and Nguyen both have prior convictions for weapons misconduct for selling switchblade knives.

They are due back in court June 13.

Reach Megan Edge at megan@alaskadispatch.com.