Closing arguments expected in ex-cop’s trial

McALLEN — Closing arguments in a trial related to a cocaine conspiracy could come as early as Tuesday.

The trial is connected to an Aug. 27, 2016, seizure of 40 bricks of cocaine and 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 also employed for about three years and who the government accuses of conspiring to possess and distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine.

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.

On Monday, during the fourth day of testimony, the government called to the stand Arturo Bazan-Martinez Jr., who was part of the group that conspired to steal 40 kilos of cocaine from suppliers in Mexico.

Bazan, 58, of San Juan, testified about his role in the cocaine conspiracy. Bazan said he connected a cartel associate named Angel or “Prieto” — who Bazan had met in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, years after a prior federal drug conviction resulted in him living there for about three years — and his friend, Hugo De Hoyos, a San Juan business owner he knew who was looking to move merchandise.

De Hoyos, 42, of Pharr, testified last week about his involvement in coordinating the theft of 40 kilos of cocaine that were headed outside of the Rio Grande Valley. A local construction company business owner, De Hoyos is one of five people connected to the current case against Hernandez and Castillo.

The other three co-defendants who also pleaded guilty to charges in the indictment in December include De Hoyos’ wife, Vanessa Rios, Bazan’s son, Jose Armando Bazan, and Victor Manuel Gonzalez Jr., one of De Hoyos’ employees, who was tasked with staging the crash at the orchard. All five defendants are set to be sentenced in June, court records show.

Bazan further testified that after connecting Angel and De Hoyos, who discussed a plan to steal the 40 kilos that were destined for Atlanta from Angel, 10 of the bricks would be taken to create 40 fake or “cloned” bricks and split the remaining 30 kilos in half.

The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Roberto Lopez Jr. and Kristen Rees. Hernandez is represented by Houston-based attorney Douglas Allen A’Hern, and Castillo is represented by McAllen attorney Reynaldo M. Merino.

Bazan said he agreed to this plan to steal cocaine from Angel because he was set to make somewhere around $250,000, from his 15 cocaine bundles.

But after the vehicle was crashed into the orchard by Gonzalez and authorities arrived and seized the 40 bundles of now “sham” cocaine, three of the bricks went missing, sparking an investigation by Drug Enforcement Administration agents who knew of a plan to move 40 kilos of cocaine into the seizure.

Bazan also began to worry about the theft after he sent 3 of his 15 kilos up north to be sold in Victoria, where they discovered those bricks were also sham.

Now worried, Bazan testified he checked his remaining 12 kilos of cocaine, tested them, and after realizing those bricks were also “not worth anything,” he dissolved them in water and got rid of the packaging.

On about Aug. 30 or Aug. 31, 2016, days after the original seizure, DEA agents arrested De Hoyos and seized 15 kilos of cocaine he had buried on his property in San Juan. Bazan was arrested in connection with the conspiracy the following January, he testified.

It would appear that the second theft, the one executed by someone at the scene of the crash, was what ultimately undid Bazan and De Hoyos’ conspiracy since agents — speaking with their own informants — were anticipating a load of 40 bricks of cocaine that were headed north prior to the crash at the orchard.

The government called a DEA agent on Monday who testified about his role in the investigation. The agent was specifically tasked with investigating the theft of 3 kilos of cocaine after the seizure.

The agent said he was present during an interview in November 2016 when agents spoke with Hernandez regarding the Aug. 27, 2016 cash, and subsequent seizure.

Last Friday’s testimony centered around the body camera footage recorded by Hernandez and Castillo during the crash, and the subsequent search for a driver through the orchard.

At a point during the search for the suspected driver of the SUV within the orchard, San Juan Police Sergeant Rolando Garcia, who was the supervisor on duty, is heard telling Hernandez to go back to his unit and head to Ridge Road.

Hernandez’s footage shows the officer run to his unit, unlock it and drive away. The video then stops. This was the first instance of Hernandez being alone with the evidence, but not the last.

Aside from the drug conspiracy charge, 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 on Aug. 27, 2016.

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 — the second instance of Hernandez, now only accompanied by Castillo, where the officer was alone with the cocaine.

Hernandez is shown opening his back hatch, with Castillo heard asking, “And they have not been accounted for.” Not understanding the question, Hernandez asked Castillo what he meant.

Castillo responds, asking if the cocaine bricks had been counted yet. When Hernandez replies that they had not been counted, Castillo’s body camera is turned off a moment later with the last image being Castillo’s hand covering the view of the duffle bags in the back of Hernandez’s unit.

The image, which depicts three duffle bags and a reddish laundry hamper, is purported to be the two duffle bags full of cocaine bundles, a third bag identified as Hernandez’s “go-bag,” a bag law enforcement officers carry in the normal course of business.

Throughout the course of testimony, many law enforcement officers called to the witness stand were asked where they kept their “go-bags,” with all responding that they keep it up front next to them in the passenger’s seat for easy access.

The DEA agent testified Monday he did not believe Hernandez when he answered questions about the aforementioned seizure.

The government also called to the stand Ricardo Sanchez, a former law enforcement officer who worked at the San Juan Police Department from 2014 to about 2016.

Lopez asked Sanchez about questions regarding the department’s policy with regard to securing evidence and the proper procedure of uploading body camera footage — this was along the same line of questioning asked of other witnesses who work in law enforcement.

Prosecutors also called a FBI agent who specialized in forensic evidence, specifically with regard to cyber security.

He testified about his role in the investigation into the phones of Hernandez and Castillo.

The agent said he extracted regular and deleted files off the phones of the two men and did find recently deleted photos, but said there was nothing linking the two men with regard to the investigation or any talk of drugs.

The government is expected to rest its case, while the defense is expected to call several of its own witnesses.