Jury finds Monte Alto man not guilty of lying on firearm form

McALLEN — Jose Joel Elizondo Jr. smiled wide minutes after a federal jury found him not guilty of falsifying a federal firearms record.

Moments earlier inside U.S. District Judge Randy Crane’s courtroom, the 39-year-old’s mother, Maria Elizondo, 66, who testified in her son’s trial on Wednesday, wiped away tears after hearing the verdict.

“I thank God,” Maria said in Spanish. “My son has never had any (legal) trouble.”

Elizondo’s sister, Elizabeth Elizondo, 36, of Houston, who testified earlier in the day to her brother’s reputation as a law-abiding and caring brother who had never been in trouble with the law, was also overcome with emotion.

Elizabeth said (her family) knew all along her brother was innocent.

“We never lost faith,” Elizabeth said. “We’re very happy with the outcome.”

Standing outside the entrance of the federal courthouse, Elizondo, who now manages his own car detailing company, was swarmed by his family and his attorney, Ronald Glen Hole, as they celebrated the verdict that came after two-and-a-half days of testimony.

The government had accused the Monte Alto man of “knowingly” making a false statement on a federal firearms form during the purchase of a semi-automatic handgun in April 2016 at a pawn shop in San Juan.

On April 9, 2016, Elizondo purchased the gun from Cash America Pawn as a favor for his boss.

After purchasing the firearm — a 9 mm Berretta PX4 — Elizondo handed it over Jorge Luis Almanza-Barceñas, who was at that time Elizondo’s boss at a local used-car dealership. This Elizondo never denied.

About a year later, Almanza-Barceñas used the gun in a series of carjackings in McAllen. Local law enforcement arrested Almanza-Barceñas in April 2017 in connection with the carjackings, at which time the Berretta was recovered.

In September 2017, Almanza-Barceñas pleaded guilty to five different federal charges related to at least two carjackings in McAllen that he was involved with in March and April 2017.

He is scheduled for sentencing on April 19, court records show.

A grand jury charged Elizondo with falsifying the firearms record just three months later — after Elizondo met with Jose Mireles, a McAllen-based FBI task force officer in charge of the investigation into Elizondo.

Mireles played a crucial role during the trial, as the government’s main witness testified to his role in the investigation into Elizondo — specifically the two interviews he conducted in May and June 2017, in which Elizondo admitted to buying the gun for Almanza-Barceñas.

But Mireles went from a government asset to liability almost as soon as Hole began his cross-examination of the seasoned FBI task force officer.

Hole peppered Mireles with questions about his paperwork and investigation for about four hours on the stand during the first day of testimony Tuesday.

Hole, who accused the task force officer of sloppy work, picked apart the longtime law enforcement official, pointing to a multitude of errors in the paperwork he filled out or — in some cases — failed to fill out completely during the course of the investigation into Elizondo.

The government, represented by Lynn Wei-Yu Wang and David M. Paxton, presented as its main piece of evidence, a video recording of the second interview between Mireles and Elizondo.

During closing both Wang and Paxton told jurors to use their common sense in their deliberations — specifically they told them just watch the video, arguing that in it Elizondo confesses to his crime.

Despite the prosecution’s concession that Mireles had committed errors, his errors were not intentional, they argued, and that Mireles had “owned up” to them.

Paxton and Wang characterized Hole’s attempts to discredit Mireles as “smoke and mirrors,” and that the fact remained that Elizondo had committed a crime when he filled out the firearm form.

But Hole, who also urged jurors to use common sense, said the video would only prove Mireles and a second FBI task force officer had “put words” in his client’s mouth, and that in fact the video would show that Elizondo did not know what he was doing was a crime.

The video, which was shown during the first day of testimony and then again Thursday during the government’s closing arguments, proved to contradict what Paxton and Wang told the jury — specifically they said Elizondo said he had read the entire firearm form — despite Elizondo’s own statements during the interview, where he admits to not reading the entire six-page document.

At one point in the video, during the time when Mireles points to the portion of the form stating the penalties for lying in the document, Elizondo can be heard saying that was the first time he had seen that, despite his signature affirming that he had read it in its entirety.

Hole also compared Elizondo’s case, which was in part a straw purchase, to other federal straw purchase cases. Typically, Hole noted, someone who knowingly lies to buy a gun for someone else receives some sort of compensation in return.

In Elizondo’s case, Hole further argued, the defendant never received anything for buying the gun for Almanza-Barceñas — because in fact he had done so as a favor to his then-boss, a statement he had repeatedly made to Mireles.

During his closing argument, Hole directed the jurors’ attention to Mireles’ flawed documentation, including at least nine instances of wrong dates throughout the paperwork.

Hole said Mireles’ lack of “due diligence” amounted to “sloppy work,” and not up to standards needed to prove his client’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ultimately the government’s decision to utilize Mireles and the taped “confession,” may have backfired as the jury felt the government had not done enough to support their case against Elizondo.

Hole, who during the trial was animated and at times argumentative, said he was satisfied with the outcome.

“I’m just happy justice was served,” Hole said as he made his way out of the building.