IRS agent attracts attention in money-laundering paradise

The Tap House bustled with the usual suspects, and the gathering in the back of the local bar was in a particularly festive mood.

Normally low-key members of the IRS Criminal Investigation Division were uncharacteristically animated as they celebrated the promotion and transfer of Christian Mickelsen, one of their top agents.

The words “IRS agent” conjure a certain buttoned-down image: eyeglasses, a knotted tie, a briefcase, humorless gaze, and a deadly nose for numbers. In an agency that’s far more CPA than MMA, the linebacker-sized Mickelsen is an exception. At 6-foot-4 with a big upper body, he stands out in most crowds.

And he has done just that in recent years in Southern Nevada, where he worked in tandem with Drug Enforcement Administration agents to help make the biggest narcotics cases in the valley.

Although the 35-year-old Mickelsen has transferred out of state, he returns for the upcoming trial involving the October 2008 kidnapping of 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger.

When Puffinburger was abducted in Las Vegas by Mexican men linked to an international methamphetamine ring, all of Southern Nevada law enforcement focused on the kidnapping. The child was recovered and suspects were arrested, but the investigation quickly morphed into a drug money laundering case tied to the boy’s grandfather, Clemens Fred Tinnemeyer. He is suspected of ripping off the drug smugglers for millions.

“When the kid was kidnapped, everyone scrambled,” Mickelsen says. “It was a team effort.” But after gathering a few details of the disappearance, “We soon learned it was drug-related.”

He ran down leads and gathered information. The puzzle gradually came together. The drug money laundering case emerged.

Not every investigation has come together as quickly with as much media attention. Mickelsen and his DEA running mates mostly managed to keep a low profile.

Las Vegas is a world-renowned party town, but the presence of so much cash and so many casinos give it a mystique as a money-launderer’s paradise. Mickelsen just calls it a target-rich environment.

There’s the Telles-Gaches case involving a dozen defendants and thousands of illegally obtained prescription painkillers. More recently, there’s the Oxycodone case with connections from Las Vegas to Alaska. Thus far, it has generated 27 defendants.

The list goes on. There are the Lozoya-Mendoza sisters, accused of laundering methamphetamine profits, and the crew of indoor pot growers accused of laundering their profits through local banks.

And there’s Operation Vegas Pipeline, a three-year, multi-agency investigation that exposed the Las Vegas-to-Hawaii meth shipment route and sent ringleader Benjamin Acuna to prison for 32 years and local John “Hoss” Rodrigues to prison for life.

A target-rich environment, indeed.

Former IRS Criminal Investigation Agent Larry Halper recalls Mickelsen taking to the complex, sometimes dangerous duty almost naturally.

“He’s a very aggressive agent, a very likable guy,” says Halper, now a private investigator. “He’s the perfect fit if IRS CID wants to be involved with narcotics investigations. He should be working undercover. He’s very good at what he does, very knowledgeable. He works hard and plays hard, and that’s what the game’s about.”

Las Vegas IRS Special Agent in Charge Paul Camacho is sorry to lose Mickelsen, but notes, “True to his form, he has been mentoring younger agents to ensure what he started continues and thrives.”

Now, about that height and muscle advantage he had over most others in the office. The somewhat shorter Camacho cracks, “The joke around DEA is that Christian does not look like their vision of a stereotypical IRS agent, but that I do. If it means maintaining our great relationship, they can tease me all they want.”

In the coming weeks, IRS Agent Mickelsen will no doubt be seated at the prosecutor’s table for the Puffinburger trial.

By now you know he’ll be hard to miss.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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