McALLEN — Jurors were shown camera footage from the aftermath of a crash in an orchard involving an SUV loaded with cocaine.
The government, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Roberto Lopez Jr. and Kristen Rees, called to the witness stand Friday two current San Juan Police officers, one of whom is the designated Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force Office for the agency, and one of the men involved in the staged crash, among others.
The trial, connected to an Aug. 27, 2016, seizure of nearly 40 bricks of cocaine, pits the government against Salvador Hernandez, a three-year law enforcement veteran for San Juan police, and Richard Leon Castillo, a now-former San Juan officer who was employed for about three years as well, and who the government accuses of conspiring to possess and distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine.
Hernandez faces an additional two charges of lying to federal agents, related to the investigation into the seized bundles.
The trial is the second involving the two men — who were acquitted by jurors of drug conspiracy charges in December 2017 — but found Castillo guilty of lying to federal agents.
Hernandez is represented by Houston-based attorney Douglas Allen A’Hern, while Castillo is represented by McAllen-based attorney Reynaldo M. Merino.
The day’s most interesting testimony came from Jose Omar Padilla, a more than 20-year veteran of the San Juan Police Department, who was tasked with handling the internal affairs investigation into the two officers after questions came up about the seized cocaine.
During Padilla’s testimony, the government played recorded body camera footage of the events of the aforementioned date in question.
First, jurors were shown footage of a traffic stop at about 6:51 a.m. that same day, where the video shows the perspective from Hernandez’s body camera — showing both Sgt. Rolando Garcia and Castillo conducting a routine traffic stop on two people at a fast food restaurant parking lot in the 900 block of Raul Longoria.
The footage shows Hernandez, after one of the suspects pulls out baggies of cocaine, marijuana and pills handling the drugs without gloves, and even touching the contents inside the bags.
Asked if this was proper protocol followed by San Juan police officers, and Padilla said it was not.
Moments later, Hernandez rushes to a scene only minutes away in San Juan at the intersection of Moore and Stewart Roads — where an SUV had crashed into an orchard — leaving bundles within the vehicle.
Garcia and Castillo, who were finishing up at the traffic stop, arrived shortly after Hernandez, the footage showed.
Body camera footage once again shows Hernandez, not wearing gloves, handling the bricks within the duffel bags that were found inside the SUV.
Several U.S. Border Patrol agents, who showed up to the crash first, walk over to the duffles, which had been taken out at this point, and discussed what they believed to be inside.
This trend continued for the rest of the morning’s testimony, with the government going through the videos provided by Hernandez and Castillo’s recorded body cameras.
Later, after Garcia determined that they would take credit for the seizure, orders Hernandez to put the two duffel bags, and the red plastic bin found inside the SUV, to be secured in his patrol unit.
At a point during the search for the suspected driver of the SUV within the orchard, Garcia is heard telling Hernandez to go back to his unit, and head over to Ridge Road.
Hernandez’s footage shows the officer run to his unit, unlock it, and drive away, and then the video stops.
The government took this opportunity to ask Padilla if the camera should have been turned off at this point, and Padilla said no.
Padilla testified the camera should not have been turned off because the narcotics are still within the unit, and because the evidence had not been secured.
What appears to be the most damning footage comes a little later in the search of the suspected driver.
At one point, Hernandez, Castillo and Garcia are searching a shed that’s located within the orchard, about “three to four blocks,” from the original crash.
After a few questions for the shed’s owner, the officers begin to walk toward their patrol units.
At this point jurors are watching the video from Castillo’s body camera, which shows him walking with Hernandez, as they each head toward their patrol units.
Castillo, realizing he still has someone else’s handcuffs, turns around to give them to Hernandez.
At this time, Hernandez was back in his unit, about to drive off, when the two officers begin to talk about what’s inside Hernandez’s unit.
Hernandez is shown opening his back hatch, with Castillo heard asking, “And they have not been account for,” Hernandez, not understanding the question, asked Castillo what he meant.
Castillo responds if the bricks had been counted yet, and when Hernandez says no, a moment later Castillo’s body camera is turned off with the last image being Castillo’s hand covering the image of the duffle bags in the back of Hernandez’s unit.
Padilla, who watched this footage, testified that he was shocked at what he witnessed on the video.
“There was mishandling of evidence,” Padilla said.
He said he immediately told San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez of what he found in the video footage, and the chief transferred the case outside the agency.
This goes to one of the charges Hernandez faces. The government alleges Hernandez lied about the details regarding the back of his unit.
Hernandez is accused of lying to DEA agents when he said he had not opened the back hatch of his unit from the time the bags were placed inside his unit, until he arrived at the police station.
Agents believe that Hernandez did open the hatch of his unit between the time the bags were placed there and the time he arrived at the police station, the indictment states.
The footage proves he did open the hatch at least the one time with Castillo present.
Padilla was asked about the policy regarding securing evidence, another instance of the government attempting to underscore the unusualness of Hernandez remaining at the scene for more than an hour with multiple bricks of cocaine in the unit — a point hammered over by previous witness testimony from law enforcement.
Toward the end of the day, Adam Chavera, a San Juan officer and DEA task force officer, went over with the government how the body cameras work, how the internal police server works in regard to uploading footage.
Chavera, like the U.S. Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement before him, was asked about evidence protocol and whether or not, if ordered by a supervisor, he would travel with a large quantity of drugs by himself — to which he said no.
“It’s just not safe,” Chavera said.
He added that it would be a precarious situation for any officer to have 40 kilos inside the unit, with cocaine worth between $20,000 to $25,000 per kilo.
Also called to the stand was Victor Manuel Gonzalez Jr., an employee of Hugo De Hoyos, a local businessman who planned the theft of the 40 kilos of cocaine, and who ordered Gonzalez to stage the SUV crash so that the bundles would be seized by law enforcement.
Gonzalez, a former Valluco gang member who sports a shaved head covered in tattoos, testified that he did not get compensated for helping out De Hoyos. Instead, he testified that he merely helped out his boss because he didn’t want to lose his job with De Hoyos, as one of his construction workers.
He said because of his felony record, and his appearance, it’s difficult to land jobs which he needs to support his children.
Day four of testimony is set to begin Monday, with Arturo Bazan-Martinez Jr., another man who conspired with Gonzalez, De Hoyos and others to steal the 40 kilos of cocaine.