Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bail cut for Arpaio staffers tied to drug ring

Two of three Maricopa County sheriff's employees implicated in a multinational heroin smuggling ring have been released from custody after posting bail, and the highest-ranking member of the trio had his bail reduced to $25,000 this week after a judge determined the original $1 million cash bail was excessive.

The developments in the case, which accused the sheriff's employees of conspiring to smuggle heroin and launder money, came as prosecutors have offered plea deals to all 19 defendants and dismissed charges against one in the interest of justice.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the reduced bond amounts and dismissed charges do not reflect on the quality of the investigation his deputies performed. But Arpaio said he was concerned about the release of some suspects who have ties to other countries.

Evidence that investigators presented to the grand jury after the months-long probe, which included the use of court-ordered wire taps, indicated that former Deputy Alfredo Navarrette and former sheriff's detention officer Marcella Hernandez discussed moving to a ranch in Mexico before their arrests.

Investigators said the ranch is owned by the smuggling ring's alleged leader, Francisco Arce-Torres, who is accused of having ties to the Sinaloan cartel and whom detectives believe fathered a child Hernandez gave birth to shortly after her arrest.

"I'm a little concerned about my people being released on $25,000 bond when intelligence shows they have this farm in (Mexico) and they're thinking about moving there," Arpaio said.

The efforts of attorneys to reduce bail amounts, get charges dismissed and have cases sent back to a grand jury are part of any vigorous defense. But the involvement of three members of the law-enforcement community being investigated by their own agency makes the case distinct.

The group mostly moved heroin, according to investigators, and officials suspect each of the arrested sheriff's employees played a crucial role in moving the drugs and hiding illicit profits. Authorities say the ring moved about $56,000 worth of heroin a week through the Valley.

Arce-Torres arranged for the heroin to be brought into the Valley after his brothers produced the drug on the family's ranch in Mexico, according to court documents.

Hernandez's brother, who was also among those arrested, is suspected of operating one of several stash houses, and investigators believe Hernandez coordinated the pickup and delivery of heroin from the drug houses.

Navarrette and Sylvia Najera, the other arrested detention officer, helped set up a shell corporation called West Utilities Group Inc., which was used earlier this year to launder nearly $50,000 in drug proceeds, according to court documents.

Najera was released after posting $12,000 bail this summer.

Hernandez's bond was reduced from $2 million to $25,000 and she was released shortly after 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

But it was Navarrette who was depicted as among the most egregious suspects to emerge in the investigation, in part because of his role in the sheriff's human-smuggling unit and the presence of two undocumented immigrants in Navarrette's Phoenix home when deputies raided it in May.

Navarrette's attorney painted a different picture in documents he filed requesting reduced bond for his client.
The undocumented immigrants in Navarrette's house were simply renting space from the divorced deputy, who needed the extra income to keep his home, according to his attorney.

And the lifestyle Navarrette lived before his arrest does not fit with that of a money-laundering smuggler, Navarrette's attorney, Herman Alacantar, told the court.

"Mr. Navarrette was not once during this investigation spending large amounts of money, driving of possessing fancy or expensive cars or otherwise living an expensive or extravagant lifestyle," Alcantar wrote. "On the contrary, Mr. Navarrette's utilities were regularly cut off for nonpayment; he was always behind on all his bills and often had to borrow money from other deputies and friends to make ends meet."

The filings included numerous letters from Navarrette's family and friends, who cited his longstanding ties to the Valley, where he was born and raised, his service in the military and work in the Sheriff's Office.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the case, but their filings point to some of the same factors - particularly Navarrette's work in law enforcement while allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise - as reason enough for the bond to remain at $1 million.

The filings also cited months of surveillance and intercepted phone calls that allegedly support prosecutors' claims that Navarrette was intimately involved in the smuggling ring.

"While the defendant has many letters in support of him, it is apparent that those who continue to support him do not grasp the depth of his behavior and actions," prosecutor Rebekah Browder wrote. "If the defendant was able to commit these crimes while wearing a badge, it can only be assumed that if he is released from jail, he will have free reign to break the laws again."

But Superior Court Judge Janet Barton ruled Tuesday that Navarrette's $1 million bond was "clearly excessive."

The decision left Arpaio steamed.

"You have a deputy sheriff who has worked on our human smuggling and given intelligence out, putting my deputies in danger, tipping them (smugglers) off and now this guy's getting back on the street with $25,000?" Arpaio asked. "I don't understand this, I really don't."

The sheriff's employees and other defendants are due back in court in early December.

Navarette remained in custody as of Wednesday.

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