Trial begins for former, current San Juan cops

McALLEN — Testimony got underway Wednesday in the trial of one current and one former San Juan police officer accused in a conspiracy to steal cocaine.

After jurors were picked earlier in the day, testimony began in the trial of Salvador Hernandez and Richard Leon Castillo, who are both accused of a conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine beginning in August 2016, and then lying to federal agents during the subsequent investigation into the conspiracy.

This is the second trial involving the duo after the first ended in a mistrial when jurors could not agree on the drug conspiracy charge for the two. Jurors did, however, find Castillo guilty of lying to federal agents, which resulted in his termination shortly after the trial ended in mid-December.

Representing the government are Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kristen Rees and Roberto Lopez Jr., while Hernandez is being represented by Douglas Allen A’Hern of Houston. Castillo is represented by McAllen-based Reynaldo M. Merino.

Hernandez, who remains on unpaid suspension with the San Juan Police Department, was acquitted of a drug trafficking charge in the same trial, court records show.

Both men worked for the department for about three years each, according to San Juan police officials.

Now, the men face two counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine, while Hernandez faces an additional two counts of making materially false statements to federal agents. This stems from an interview with federal agents where they allege Hernandez lied about what happened during the seizure of the aforementioned cocaine.

Lopez, in his opening statement for the government, said the case is about two thefts: the theft of cocaine by people hired to commit as much, and a theft by those hired to seize that cocaine, referring to the two officers.

The charges stem from an August 2016 traffic accident in San Juan, which involved a vehicle driven by a suspected drug trafficker that had been abandoned in an orchard after crashing into a tree, according to the criminal complaint.

Inside the vehicle were a total of three duffel bags, two of which contained bundles of cocaine.

Hernandez responded to the crash at about 7 a.m. Aug. 27, 2016, near Moore and Stewart Roads. That was around the same time U.S. Border Patrol agents had arrived on the scene, the complaint states.

A Border Patrol K-9 agent, Gilbert Barron, walked around to the passenger side door and used his K-9 to determine possible narcotics located within the discovered bundles, the complaint reads.

Barron was the government’s first witness Wednesday and the first to arrive at the site of the accident on the day in question, where a Ford Expedition had crashed into an orchard. He testified that shortly after arriving to the scene, a San Juan Police officer, who was later identified as Hernandez, also arrived.

Lopez asked Barron about the steps he took after arriving, stating that after determining the contents inside the SUV were duffle bags, a total of three found within the vehicle, he asked Hernandez to secure them while he and at least three other agents searched the orchard field for the suspected driver of the SUV.

Along with Barron’s testimony, the government called Border Patrol agent Ernesto Flores, who helped in what amounted to an hour’s-long search, according to Flores’ testimony.

Flores, a longtime law enforcement veteran who works as part of the Border Patrol “Strike Team,” also testified that when they returned from searching for the driver, the San Juan officer remained at the scene during that entire hour. Even more alarming to Flores was that the bundles were in the back of an unopened hatch of the officer’s patrol unit.

“ Seemed … not right,” Flores said.

Asked about protocols with regard to narcotics at a scene, Barron said agents first secure narcotics and remove them from the scene as soon as possible, which he said he did not see in this instance.

Ultimately, Barron ended up following Hernandez, who had turned on his emergency lights, back to the San Juan Police station, where — according to the complaint — officers counted the duffel bags and reported 37 bundles.

Barron testified that later that same day, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration asked him questions regarding the day’s seizure.

Also called during the first day of testimony was a U.S. Customs and Border Protection dispatcher who was asked about dispatch radio calls the morning of the incident, and a DEA forensic chemist, who tested all 37 bundles submitted for testing.

The chemist concluded that of the more than 42 kilos tested, less than 1 percent tested positive for cocaine.

The next morning, DEA agents visited the San Juan police station to retrieve the 37 bundles, but a thorough investigation revealed that the duffel bags retrieved from the vehicle and moved by Hernandez actually contained 40 bundles of cocaine at the time Hernandez took possession of the bags, according to the complaint.

Federal agents interviewed Hernandez, where he admitted to retrieving the bags and taking them to the station, but claimed he was not aware of anyone counting the bundles, the criminal complaint states.

The government alleges Hernandez lied when he said he did not open the back hatch of his police unit after placing the two duffel bags inside the hatch, claiming he did open the hatch to his unit between the time he took the bags and when he arrived at the police station, the indictment states.

Five others have also been named in connection with the conspiracy: Hugo Alejandro De Hoyos, Vanessa Rios, Arturo Bazan-Martinez Jr., Jose Armando Bazan, and Victor Manuel Gonzalez Jr. all face one count of conspiracy to possess and distribute more than 5 kilos of cocaine, court records show.

All five pleaded guilty to charges in the indictment last December, which was prior to the start of Hernandez and Castillo’s first trial, and face sentencing on June 20, court records show.

San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez declined to comment on Hernandez’s second trial, stating that he’d prefer to wait until its conclusion.

Day 2 of testimony resumes Thursday morning, with additional law enforcement expected to testify.

This report was updated to correctly reflect where Douglas Allen A’Hern is from.