District Judge Bruce Pickett sentenced three men Wednesday for trafficking 80 pounds of marijuana in February along Interstate 15 in Idaho Falls.
Ping Li, 30, of Boston, Jianhua Yuan, 28, of New York City, and Shou Zou, 34, of Renton, Wash., were sentenced separately. Li was sentenced to one to 10 years in prison, while Yuan and Zou were sentenced to two to 10 years in prison.
The men were caught with the drugs when an Idaho State Police trooper saw a 2017 GMC Yukon with a California license plate changing lanes without signaling. The car was driven by Yuan with Zou as a passenger. Ping was driving along with the Yukon in a black Cadillac.
The trooper noticed the cars were changing lanes at the same time and seemed to be traveling together. The trooper stopped the Yukon, and Yuan and Zou consented to a search. Nothing illegal was found in the car, and the trooper told state police detectives to follow the Cadillac, suspecting the Yukon was a decoy. A trooper also continued to follow the Yukon.
The Yukon was left at Idaho Falls Regional Airport while the suspects rented a red Ford Taurus. During a second search after the Yukon was abandoned, a K-9 indicated it detected drugs, but nothing was found.
The Taurus and Cadillac later stopped at a church for a few minutes, where Zou switched to the Cadillac with Ping while Yuan continued to drive the Taurus. Police stopped the Cadillac for not signaling. A drug pipe was found in the car, and Zou had a bag of methamphetamine in his pocket, but no marijuana was found.
The Taurus was stopped for an improper lane change, and this time investigators found the shipment of marijuana in the vehicle.
All three suspects were charged with trafficking 25 pounds or more of marijuana and Zou was charged with possession of a controlled substance. The charge was reduced to trafficking 1 to 5 pounds of marijuana and the possession charge was dropped as part of a plea agreement.
Defense attorney Kyle Hansen represented Li and said his client needed money and decided to help his friends transport marijuana. Li gave no statement during sentencing.
Doug Knutsen, defense attorney for Yuan, said his client’s statement to the presentence investigator was false, and he wanted to set the record straight. The judge said Yuan could explain himself during allocution, when a defendant speaks to the court during sentencing, but Knutsen said he would prefer to attach a written statement to the presentence investigation.
Curtis Smith, defense attorney for Zou, told the judge his client would suffer additional consequences after his prison term.
“The price he will pay for this is that he will be deported back to China,” Smith said.
Smith said his client is not a legal resident of the United States, but is married to a U.S. citizen, and his family would have to make a difficult choice of whether to follow him to China.
In addition to time in prison, each of the defendants was fined $15,000, the maximum allowed under sentencing rules. The group also must pay $3,699.07 between them to cover the cost of prosecution and investigation.
Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.