Gov’t witness in straw purchase trial admits to mistakes on documentation

McALLEN — A crucial witness in the government’s case in a straw gun purchase trial admitted to several mistakes in his own investigative paperwork during more than four hours on the stand Tuesday.

Jose Mireles, an FBI task force officer with the Violent Crimes Unit, was called by the government to testify to his role in the investigation into 39-year-old Jose Joel Elizondo, who is accused of purchasing a semi-automatic Beretta 9 mm handgun in April 2016 for a co-worker who did not have legal status to be in the country.

Specifically, prosecutors allege that the Monte Alto man lied at the time of the firearm purchase when he falsely stated on the standard ATF Form 4473 — a requirement for the legal purchase of a firearm from a federal firearms licensee — that the gun was for him.

But the government alleges Elizondo “knowingly” bought the gun for his co-worker, 30-year-old Jorge Luis Almanza-Barceñas, who was the general manager at local used car dealership Frank’s Auto Sales, despite knowing that Almanza-Barceñas was undocumented and not legally able to buy his own gun.

Elizondo’s attorney, Ronald Glen Hole of McAllen, on the other hand, argued his client was merely doing a favor for Almanza-Barceñas and didn’t know he was breaking a federal law when he made the purchase for the co-worker.

His client — a 39-year-old man with no spouse or children who lived in his mother’s home — was hard-working, law-abiding and “not your most-sophisticated person,” Hole said.

He claimed that Elizondo was coaxed into agreeing with FBI task force officers who interviewed him in relation to the gun he purchased more than a year before.

Jurors were shown a video recording of a second interview Mireles and another FBI task force officer conducted with Elizondo in June 2017 inside the McAllen police department.

During the interview, which lasted approximately 20 minutes, Mireles asked Elizondo about April 9, 2016, the day he purchased the 9 mm firearm at the Cash America Pawn store in San Juan.

In the video, Elizondo told officers he and Almanza-Barceñas drove together to the pawn shop and that he was given approximately $550 to $600 to make the purchase, but that he never received anything in exchange for buying the gun for Almanza-Barceñas.

Hole argued that Mireles and the other FBI task officer “put words” in Elizondo’s mouth during that interview, telling the man, “You knew (Almanza-Barceñas) was illegal, didn’t you?”

On numerous occasions Mireles appeared confused by his own documentation, characterizing his errors as “clerical” in nature.

But as Hole pushed Mireles on several other mistakes he had found in the investigative paperwork, the FBI task force officer eventually conceded to noting the wrong dates during the course of his investigation; sometimes even noting dates that were in the future.

When asked by Hole if the FBI would deem his paperwork “adequate,” Mireles testified that they would not.

Federal authorities only began investigating Elizondo after the gun he had purchased and handed over to Almanza-Barceñas was used in at least one carjacking in McAllen and after Almanza-Barceñas was arrested in April 2017 — more than a year after the gun’s purchase.

Local police arrested Almanza-Barceñas and two juveniles on April 13, 2017, in connection with at least two carjackings in McAllen — one of which the government claims involved the Beretta purchased by Elizondo.

Hole further questioned Mireles’ procedures during the course of the investigation, asking why he had not recorded his first interview with Elizondo in late May 2017, which is when Mireles testified he talked to Elizondo at his home in Monte Alto in the presence of the latter’s mother.

Mireles testified he was there only to ask about the gun and that he didn’t record the interview or read Elizondo his rights because he wanted Elizondo to visit the FBI office so he could take an official statement from the man.

He testified that Elizondo admitted he knew Almanza-Barceñas was undocumented, but then he changed his statement to say he did not know he was “illegal.”

Hole questioned why Mireles would not note that Elizondo “changed his story” on any form — Mireles said he only noted that Elizondo said he knew Almanza-Barceñas was undocumented.

In another instance, Mireles admitted to not documenting interviews with employees of the San Juan pawn shop, conceding that he probably should have done as much.

For its part, the government, represented by U.S. Attorneys Lynn Wei-Yu Wang and David Matthew Paxton, called three more witnesses before the court recessed for the day — the McAllen detective who helped track down and arrest Almanza-Barceñas on April 13, 2017, as well as two Cash America Pawn employees, the woman who was assistant manager the day of the gun purchase, and her boss.

Prosecutors and the defense focused their questions on procedures pawn shop employees follow during gun purchases — centered on the “4473” form.

The court recessed with Blanca Cansino on the stand. Cansino was the assistant manager at the pawn shop the day Elizondo purchased the gun.

The trial, which is expected to take anywhere from three to four days, resumes Wednesday for the second day of testimony with Cansino on the stand.