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Criminal Cases

Successful anti-smuggling investigations involve federal, state and local agencies working together to attack criminal organizations from the top down. In addition to the historic Western Union settlement, cases investigated and/or prosecuted by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office include:

Operation Portera

The Section supported a wiretap investigation into members of a criminal enterprise working on behalf of the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel which resulted in the indictment of 44 people on charges related to drug trafficking, human smuggling and money laundering. This group was responsible for coordinating importation of multi-ton quantities of marijuana and illegal aliens from Mexico into the United States through the San Miguel Gate area and the smuggling of bulk drug proceeds and assault weapons back into Mexico. Law enforcement intelligence linked over 150 drug seizures since May 2008 totaling approximately 28,000 pounds of marijuana to the enterprise. Since September, 2011, 27 defendants have pled guilty and 12 were sentenced to prison. On July 9, 2012, a lead defendant with no prior criminal record was sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Operation Triple Threat 

From January, 2011 to September, 2011, the Section supported a DEA wiretap investigation into a large scale drug trafficking organization responsible for smuggling approximately 1,300 kilograms of cocaine valued at $30,000,000 into the U.S. through the Nogales Port of Entry. The organization used three separate vehicles with hidden compartments to smuggle approximately 35 kilograms of cocaine per day, three times per week, and used these same vehicles to smuggle large amounts of U.S. currency back into Mexico. Once in the United States, the cocaine was being stored at various Phoenix area stash houses. On September 21, 2011, simultaneous search and arrest warrants were executed on suspected members of the drug trafficking organization and their stash houses. Police seized approximately 37 kilograms of cocaine and $262,636.00 in U.S. currency. Of the 23 defendants indicted, 10 have entered guilty pleas. Prison pleas range from 2-8.75 years for stash house operators and 8-15 for drug transporters. Prosecution is on-going.

State v. Rascon-Ramirez et. al

The Section supported a wiretap investigation resulting in the arrests of 21 of 28 suspected members of a large-scale marijuana trafficking organization responsible for smuggling over 30,000 pounds of marijuana with an estimated value between $9,000,000 and $15,000,000. This criminal enterprise used various smuggling methods, including backpackers and drive-thru vehicles, to transport illegal drugs. This coordinated take-down by law enforcement impacted the cartel plaza bosses in Naco, Mexico and dismantled an organized drug transportation cell in Southern Arizona. Prosecution is on-going with several defendants scheduled to enter changes of plea.

State v. Jose Antonio Morgan et al

In January, 2012, after a wiretap investigation supported by the Section, police executed simultaneous search and arrest warrants on suspected members of the drug trafficking organization and their stash houses. This criminal enterprise smuggled large amounts of marijuana and cocaine into the United States through the Nogales Port of Entry using tracker trailer dump trucks with scrap metal as cover, vehicles with hidden compartments, and backpackers, then smuggled large amounts of U.S. currency back into Mexico. Once in the United States, the marijuana and cocaine was being stored at various stash houses in the Nogales, Rio Rico, Tucson, and Phoenix areas. The organization has been responsible for smuggling over 19.1 kilograms of cocaine and 2,952 pounds of marijuana into the United States with a street value estimated to be between $2,631,600 and $2,126,400. Of the 15 defendants indicted, 14 were arrested. Prosecution is on-going.

State v. Juan Aguayo

In January, 2012, the Section obtained a conviction after a jury trial against Juan Aguayo for transporting 4,500 pounds of marijuana valued at $2.2 million dollars concealed inside his cattle trailer. After substantial pretrial litigation, including disclosure motions and efforts to present a duress defense, the defendant was convicted at trial. He absconded and will face mandatory prison up to 12.5 years when he is arrested.

State v. Veronica Alegria Rodriguez

The defendant was arrested at the Nogales Port of Entry for transporting for sale over 12 kilograms of cocaine valued at $250,000 in her vehicle after a Customs and Border Protection drug detection dog alerted on her vehicle. CBP officers removed the front bumper and found metal boxes welded to the frame rails of defendant’s vehicle containing cocaine. After a fully-litigated trial, a jury convicted the defendant of the charged offense. The defendant absconded and faces up to 12.5 years in prison upon her apprehension.

State v. Carlos Antonio Arredondo-Rosas and Gabriel Lopez-Iriarte

On January 27, 2012, a Nogales Police Department officer patrolling I-19 in Santa Cruz County as part of the Attorney General-funded Southern Border Alliance stopped a vehicle traveling southbound for a tinted window violation. Based on various factors which led the officer to become suspicious of the occupants in the vehicle, he requested written permission to search the vehicle from both occupants, which was granted. Inside the vehicle, police found three boxes of laundry detergent that had been opened and re-sealed with glue. The investigating officers found U.S. currency totaling $399,785.00 inside the boxes. Both suspects admitted they were transporting “dirty money and being paid by individuals in Mexico to pick the money up in the United States and transport it back to Mexico. In June, 2012, both defendants were sentenced to three years in prison.

State v. Hector Fuentes et al AKA

Metal Management: Sims Metal Management (SMM) is a multi-national metals and electronics recycling company. SMM buys obsolete metal from customers who generate metal waste. SMM then processes ferrous metal for resale via a variety of methods. After numerous complaints against SMM, TPD conducted an undercover operation involving SMM, with an undercover officer delivering cars, each with more obvious indicia of being stolen. The sting culminated in the undercover agent delivering a car that the UC outright told SMM employees was stolen. The investigation showed that SMM employees knowingly accepted and crushed each car delivered by the officer, despite the indicia of theft and stolen VINs. TPD, DPS, ADOT, and PPD executed a search warrant on August 23, 2011 at SMM and discovered an additional five stolen vehicles and seizing 50 boxes of titles and sales tickets. In total, 17 stolen vehicles were processed by SMM. In settlement of the criminal case, Sims provided $150,000 to the Arizona Auto Theft Task Force to fund a two-year statewide program to implement training and accountable procedures to prevent receiving of stolen property by heavy metal crushers and recyclers.

State v. Gary Kent Allen

Allen operated “Christian Credit Consultants” which advertised in local community churches as a debt-management business promising to help “negotiate your debt and pay off your debt at substantially reduced values.” The Defendant made no attempt either to pay the victims’ debts or to negotiate debt on their behalf and, instead, that he defrauded known victims of over $267,000. At sentencing after guilty pleas, the State emphasized the Defendant’s abuse of his religious affiliation and his manipulation of his victims’ religious fellowship, and that many victims still were struggling with the devastating financial fallout resulting from the fraud. Despite the Defendant’s efforts to mitigate his conduct, the trial court followed the State’s recommendation and sentenced Allen to a total of 13.5 years: an aggravated 12.5 year term on the first fraud count to be followed by a consecutive one-year jail sentence and probation on the second fraud count.

State v. Wendy Wren & Thomas Collier

The defendants used their “Arizona on EBay” business to defraud over 100 victims. They would accept merchandise from clients to post on EBay. The defendants subsequently refused to either return the items or remit payment to the clients for items sold. Collier pled guilty to Attempted Fraudulent Schemes, a Class 3 felony, and was sentenced to 5 years probation. Wren, who led and managed the fraudulent activity, pled guilty to Fraudulent Schemes and Theft, Class 2 and 3 felonies respectively. She was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison, followed by 7 years of probation. The defendants were ordered to pay nearly $75,000 in restitution. In accordance with the terms of the plea agreement, Wren paid $35,000 of that restitution prior to sentencing.

State v. Joseph J. Riley

Defendant Joseph H. Riley, Jr. perpetrated a scheme to defraud multiple beneficiaries of the Estate of Mary A. Riley by using his position as personal representative of the Estate to withdraw more than $100,000 from multiple bank accounts of entities controlled by the Estate. Violating his fiduciary duties to the Estate beneficiaries (his siblings), the Defendant periodically withdrew significant sums of money between December 2003 and November 2005 from the bank accounts of the Estate of Mary A. Riley and business entities owned by the Estate, including: San Juan Realty Company, Homesites, Inc., and the Guadalupe Land & Investment Company. After a guilty plea, at sentencing the Defendant was ordered: to pay $114,750.00 in restitution, to serve 104 days in jail as 52 consecutive weekends; disbarred from the practice of law; and revoked from membership in the national fraternity of Elks.

State v. Phillips et al

Four defendants operated a criminal enterprise organized specifically to victimize businesses in Pima, Pinal, and Maricopa Counties. The defendants stole merchandise including alcohol and cigarettes from various Circle K stores and then would then resell the stolen property on the black market. Knowing the Circle K non-confrontation policy, Defendants would walk into stores during normal business hours, go directly behind the counter or into the storage room, and fill trashcans with cartons of cigarettes and other merchandise. Defendants would then take the merchandise to an apartment where a co-defendant Lee illegally operated a “grocery store.” The total amount stolen was approximately $43,771.42. This case was prosecuted by the Section because of its statewide jurisdiction authority and nuisance to multiple counties. The Defendants entered guilty pleas and were sentenced to 2.5 years in prison.

State v. Palafox et al

In April, 2012, DPS stopped a vehicle on I-10 with approximately 130 forged credit cards and fake identifications. The fake identifications had the defendants’ photos, but had false names matching the names on the forged credit cards. The defendants admitted using the cards in Arizona for purchasing items to take back to Mexico. All three defendants were charged with conspiracy, fraud, money laundering, illegal control of an enterprise, forgery of a credit card, taking identity of another, and unlawful possession of a scanning devise. Each defendant was in the U.S. on a temporary visa. Prosecution is on-going.

State v. Kristella Brandenburg

The defendant was convicted in March, 2012 after a jury trial on charges related to financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. The victims were a vulnerable, elderly couple. At the time of the offense, the husband was 86 and suffered from dementia and the wife was 88. The State alleged that the Defendant, while ostensibly “assisting” her vulnerable elderly neighbors with some paperwork related to their long-term care insurance, instead paid two of her bills over the phone and purchased three lap tops from Best Buy with the victims’ credit card. Unfortunately, as it happens so often in elder financial exploitation cases, the wife passed away while the case was pending and the husband was unavailable as a witness as he had no recollection of the events. At trial, with no victims available to contradict her, the defendant testified that she had permission of the victims to use their credit card to pay her personal bills and that the three laptops were gifts from the victims. Despite the evidentiary obstacles, the jury returned a guilty verdict on Fraudulent Schemes and Artifices, a Class 2 felony and the judge sentenced her to four years probation, 30 days in jail and 1,000 hours of community service. Her nursing license also was revoked.

State v. Sergio Cordova

The Defendant was originally employed by a 95 year-old vulnerable adult at her residence as a landscaper. He insinuated himself into her good graces and began to walk her three dogs and run errands. Cordova then brought in "third-party unlicensed caregivers" to control the victim’s residence. Many of these “caretakers” were his relatives, including his own wife, to assist the victim with accounting and bill pay. He attempted to isolate the victim from her family and threatened professional certified caregivers. Cordova took advantage of the victim’s reduced mental capabilities and embezzled over $100,000. Cordova had admitted receiving $7,000 in “gifts,” in the form of $5,000 and $10,000 checks written to him from the victim between January, 2010 and December, 2010. The victim has been evaluated and determined to have dementia and a licensed fiduciary and guardian have been appointed. The defendant pleaded guilty to Attempted Financial Exploitation of Vulnerable Adult, a Class 3 felony and was sentenced to probation with 312 days of jail.

State v. Jodie Burch

Hospital staff at Tucson Medical Center Tucson contacted Tucson Police Department to report an incident of suspected child abuse. The child was admitted in an altered state resembling a coma and was unresponsive. Medical staff suspected that the child’s mother had forced the child to ingest a dangerous drug which would account for her presented symptoms. After lengthy proceedings to evaluating the defendant’s mental status, she entered two guilty pleas to child abuse. She was sentenced to 7 years in prison followed by a consecutive term of supervised probation.

Human Smuggling Ring Take Down, 2010

  • Smuggled aliens were transported from the border to the various shuttle companies or drop houses in Tucson.
  • More than 800 agents from nine law enforcement agencies were involved in the bust, which seized a total of seven weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, and more than 40 vehicles.
  • There are currently 47 persons in custody.
  • In addition to the criminal arrests, the case indictments include criminal forfeiture allegations valued at $10 million.
  • Key arrests were made in both Arizona and Mexico through unprecedented cooperation with Mexican law enforcement.

Operation Vaqueros, 2010

  • Mexican drug trafficking organization believed responsible for moving at least 40,000 pounds of marijuana through southern Arizona, primarily through Cochise County
  • Organization used advanced counter-surveillance, ramp trucks to overcome vehicle barriers at the border, and hidden vehicle compartments
  • “Operation Vaqueros," a 36 month collaborative investigation by state, local and federal law enforcement offices, yielded 39 state and federal indictments and 34 arrests
  • Twelve people have been indicted on federal conspiracy charges.   In the course of the investigation, 26 people were indicted on federal charges, and 13 on state charges

Operation ‘Los Tusa’, 2009

  • Quick Action by Law Enforcement Stops Flow of Thousands of Pounds of Marijuana into Pinal County Annually
  • Seizure of $418,640 in U.S. currency, nearly 4,000 pounds of marijuana, 21 vehicles and several assault rifles
  • 21 indicted on charges including possession and transportation of marijuana for sale, money laundering, conspiracy and illegally conducting an enterprise
  • Identification and closure of multiple stash houses in Pinal County
  • Organization used a network of vehicles and individual walkers who carried backpacks filled with 50 - 100 pounds of marijuana each to smuggle across the Arizona desert from the border to southern Pinal County
  • Walkers were allegedly met by drivers in southern Pinal County who transported the drugs to stash houses throughout the county for subsequent sale and distribution
  • Mesa, Tempe and DPS SWAT teams joined PCSO multi-agency SWAT team during the execution of the high risk search warrants

Operation Tumbleweed, 2008

  • One of the largest drug trafficking take-downs in Arizona history
  • 59 indicted, 39 arrested on felony drug trafficking charges
  • Garibaldi-Lopez organization brought two million lbs. of marijuana to the U.S.
  • Traffickers used sophisticated automotive and surveillance technology to bring drugs across the border, through the desert to Phoenix drop houses
  • Year-long investigation required 85 agents from ICE, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs Air and Marine, DEA, Arizona Attorney General’s Office, DPS, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and Phoenix Police

Operation En Fuego, 2008

  • 35 indicted, 12 arrested on felony smuggling and money laundering charges
  • Organization made $63,000 per week and smuggled a total of 10,000 undocumented immigrants in two years
  • Used a fleet of vans to transport immigrants from Phoenix to 22 states
  • Seven-month investigation conducted by the Financial Crimes Task Force and the U.S. Border Patrol

X-Calibur Gun Store Take-Down, 2008

  • Owner allegedly conspired with straw buyers who smuggled guns to Mexico
  • Owner allegedly instructed straw buyers on ways to falsify purchase forms
  • Seized 1,300 weapons, including AK-47s, assault rifles, other long guns
  • Hundreds of guns found in Mexico have been traced to X-Calibur
  • Eleven-month investigation conducted by the U.S. Marshall; U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives and Phoenix Police

Operation River Walker, 2008

  • One of the largest human smuggling take-downs in Arizona history
  • 48 indicted for smuggling 8,000 undocumented immigrants per year across border to Phoenix drop houses
  • 13 drop houses seized, 20 arrested, 210 undocumented immigrants turned over to ICE
  • Defendants made $130,000 weekly transporting up to 60 people per day
  • Organization believed to have been active for nearly 10 years
  • Used specialized “sub-contractors” to facilitate transport along route including “walkers” to take immigrants across San Pedro River, drop house operators, bank account holders, and load drivers
  • Seven-month investigation conducted by the Financial Crimes Task Force

Operation Fly By Night, 2007

  • Case won top award given by International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2007
  • 16 indicted in one of the largest human smuggling busts in state history
  • Defendants made nearly $2 million running two drop houses, six travel agencies
  • Smuggled 6,800 undocumented immigrants across the country from Phoenix drop houses
  • Provided false identification, ground transportation to Las Vegas and one-way tickets from Las Vegas airport to destinations across U.S.
  • Year-long investigation conducted by the Financial Crimes Task Force

Used Car Lot Seizures, Ongoing

One prominent case:

  • 21 defendants indicted on felony conspiracy, trafficking charges
  • Seized 11 used car lots, 400 vehicles (worth $1.5 million)
  • Used cars from Valley dealerships used to move humans, drugs across state
  • Sophisticated operation provided phony titles to cars to avoid detection
  • Year-long investigation conducted by the Financial Crimes Task Force, DOJ