Lemuel Uy Libunao: Immigrant Success Story or "Purple Syrup" Drug Lord?

Lemuel Uy Libunao co-owns Plaza Pharmacy in Santa Ana, Blue Rose Pharmacy in Buena Park and Value Plus Pharmacy in Long Beach. Of Philippine-Chinese descent, the 42-year-old "Emerging Asian" was a shoo-in for the Outstanding Entrepreneur Award from the Asian Business Association of Orange County. But now the feds allege he's also been leading a multi-million drug ring that moved large quantities of the cough suppressant Promethazine (a.k.a. "purple drank," "syrup," "lean") to Texas, where it was sold on the black market at huge mark-ups. Who is alleged to have drawn the former photographer and weekend golfer into a life of crime? His 70-year-old mother.

Libunao and his mother, Lucita Uy, who both reside in Claremont, were arrested on Oct. 6 and subsequently pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy to structure cash transactions to evade federal reporting requirements. If convicted, they could be sentenced to 25 years each in federal prison, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney's office.

Facing serious federal counts is not foreign to Uy. She was named in a 1998 federal indictment related to an insurance fraud scheme surrounding Houston's Solid Medical Clinic and lawyer James Earl Conley. Facing 20 months in the federal pen for money laundering, Uy made a plea deal and received probation, which ended in 2002.

Lemuel Uy Libunao may have to give up the car.
Lemuel Uy Libunao may have to give up the car.

According to new 36-page indictment, Uy was the ringleader, Libunao was a "co-conspirator" and two others worked for them. As pharmacy owners, the mother and son could acquire one-pint bottles of Promethazine syrup at $6.95 to $8.95 wholesale. The feds say from September 2004 to July 2008, Uy spent more than $1.1 million for 97,000 pints of Promethazine, which is habit-forming, produces a high associated with heroin use and, when mixed with alcohol, can be fatal.

A pint of the purple syrup could fetch up to $200 on the streets of Los Angeles, but Uy is alleged to have sent the drugs in at least 24 shipments to Houston, where the same pints went for $300 to $600 each, according to the indictment.

The proceeds from the illegal sale of 1.5 million does was at least $10 million, according to the feds, who claim $6.9 million in cash and another $2.7 million in money orders were deposited in 10 accounts in banks in Arcadia, Monrovia and elsewhere. Deposits were allegedly split up into increments of $10,000 or less to avoid triggering automatic reporting by the banks to federal authorities.

With their fortunes, the mother and son lived the life. The indictment seeks to have them forfeit seven real properties in Monrovia, Claremont and Houston; $64,500 in cash; a 2007 Mercedes Benz S550; a 2007 Honda CRV; a 2007 Toyota Tundra; and 11 luxury watches, including a Rolex trimmed in diamonds.

What's amazing is, despite his mother's past, Libunao does not on the outside seem to be the type of person to get embroiled in an illegal venture like this. At least he has not outwardly exposed a love of the gangsta life, showing instead an affinity for golf. He only got into business after his real passion, photography, just wasn't paying the bills.

Of course, we don't know what kind of influence mommy had.

Uy  was held in lieu of $75,000 bail. Her son had a $150,000 bond. Represented by the Glenn K. Osajima Law Offices in Santa Ana, they have a Nov. 29 trial date. Pending the mother and son's day in court, their passports have been confiscated.

Two others facing related charges involving the alleged ring face up to 20 years in prison.


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