The Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation executed a search warrant Thursday morning on The Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs, which has been part of a federal investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering.
“At this time, we cannot give details,” said Bryan Thiel, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation team.
Authorities have been investigating family members of the Springs Resort and Spa owners as early as November 2013 because of allegations of laundering drug money through the Pagosa Springs resort. It could not be confirmed if Thursday’s raid is directly related.
“We have been cooperating with the government and its ongoing investigation,” read a statement from resort owners Nerissa and Keely Whittington. “Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of documents have already been supplied. The Whittingtons will continue to cooperate with the agents serving the search warrants.”
An attorney for the spa and resort said Thursday evening that neither Nerissa nor Keely is under investigation.
Nerissa and Keely Whittington have tried to understand the nature of what the IRS and DEA are doing, but they are unsure, their attorney said.
“They gave us the subpoena, and we returned the documents they wanted,” said attorney Jim Brosnahan.
Greg Schulte, Pagosa Springs town manager, said the town was notified of the warrant ahead of time – a formality for law enforcement.
The springs resort was closed temporarily Thursday morning to allow for the search. Any closing of the hot springs, whether for long or short term, will affect the town, said former Mayor Ross Aragon.
“It could be devastating if the situation goes south,” Aragon said.
The 2013 investigation centered on allegations that money was being wired between the springs and World Jet by brothers William Marvin “Bill” Whittington and his brother Reginald “Don” Whittington. Bill Whittington is the father of Nerissa and Keely Whittington. Don Whittington owns World Jet, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, aircraft service and charter business that federal agents allege offers jets to carry South American drug shipments.
In 2013, the DEA in Florida raided World Jet after investigating it for more than a year. A DEA affidavit detailed a scheme in which the company would sell airplanes at inflated prices to drug traffickers but maintain the title, either in the name of World Jet or a third party. When the smugglers were done with the planes, World Jet would “repossess” them, according to the 2013 affidavit. A DEA informant said Don Whittington had laundered his proceeds through the Pagosa spa and resort.
According to the search warrant affidavit, World Jet wired $451,000 to the Pagosa spa in 2009, and the spa wired back $111,408 the same year.
About that time, federal agencies seized $645,000 from World Jet’s bank account, causing Don and Bill Whittington to change “their method of transferring illegal proceeds from Florida to Colorado from direct wire transfers to indirect wire transfers using third parties and possibly bulk cash transportation,” according to the affidavit.
No charges have been brought against the Whittington brothers from the 2013 investigation.
In 1987, Don Whittington pleaded guilty to tax evasion and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In a related case, Bill Whittington pleaded guilty to marijuana smuggling and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But Bill was released early in November 1990, according to the Bureau of Prisons. According to a federal affidavit, in a plea deal Bill Whittington forfeited $7 million and assets to the U.S. government.
The brothers are former champion race-car drivers. They won the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race in Le Mans, France, in 1979 and drove in the Indianapolis 500 five times, with Don Whittington placing sixth in 1982.
Nerissa and Keely Whittington are also owners of the Gulfstream Group, which is the parent of property management and real estate companies in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
One of those companies, Big Byte Data Center in Albuquerque, also was raided Thursday morning. An IRS spokesperson confirmed the two raids are connected. According to the Gulfstream Group website, Big Byte data center is for lease.