McALLEN — Jurors will begin to deliberate whether or not the government proved that two police officers conspired to possess and distribute cocaine nearly two years ago.
Both the government and defense will open Wednesday with closing arguments after more than six hours of testimony Tuesday from the government’s last witness — a group supervisor for the Drug Enforcement Administration who oversaw the investigation of three missing bundles of cocaine.
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. Hernandez also faces two counts of lying to federal agents.
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.
Based on the evidence and testimony submitted by the government and heard before the court, jurors may have the difficult task of returning with a guilty verdict for the two officers, who each face one count of cocaine conspiracy.
As it has been their strategy, A’Hern and Merino pointed to the government’s inability to show concrete evidence the two officers agreed to steal 3 kilos of cocaine at the crash site.
The evidence against the two includes video footage from Castillo’s body camera in which he’s seen approaching Hernandez, who is sitting in his unit.
Castillo and Hernandez are seen at the back hatch of the unit where Hernandez is shown opening up the hatch to unveil three duffel bags and a plastic bin, where the seized load had been placed earlier in the search.
Castillo asks Hernandez if the bundles had been counted. Then the video recording is terminated as Hernandez is heard saying, “This one is mine,” as he is looking at one of the bags in the back of the unit.
No other evidence was presented that showed the two officers talking about the recently seized load.
Merino and A’Hern have conceded the officers may have committed errors during their handling of evidence, such as turning off body cameras outside police department guidelines, and Castillo being caught lying to DEA agents during questioning.
But the attorneys argue this behavior only shows the officers were less than professional, not that they were involved in a conspiracy to steal the cocaine.
Specifically, Castillo is heard stating in three different instances that he had not seen the bundles until after he made his way back to the police department — something already established because of Castillo’s conviction last December that was related to lying to federal agents.
Richard Clough — DEA group supervisor, the government’s 20th witness testified Tuesday — specifically about his overseeing of the investigation into three missing bundles of cocaine after a seizure at the aforementioned orchard in San Juan.
Clough testified that the day before the seizure at the orchards that he and a large contingency of his agents were in Fort Worth for an unrelated event; at the same time he and other agents were receiving word about a potential load of 40 kilos making its way through the Rio Grande Valley.
He testified that the information was spotty, and ultimately, he lacked the manpower to create a plan of action to follow up on the information.
Clough said that the following morning, Aug. 27, 2017, San Juan Task Force Officer Carlos Mireles told him about the large seizure at about 9:45 a.m. that morning — nearly three hours after the initial SUV crash.
Clough said he ordered TFOs to the scene but the bundles are already back at the San Juan Police Department being processed.
Clough testified he interviewed Hugo De Hoyos, a San Juan businessman, who admitted to the coordinated crash of the SUV and the subsequent seizure of what later turned out to be “sham” cocaine.
The DEA supervisor stated De Hoyos showed agents the 15 kilos of cocaine he had stolen and that he buried on his property. Agents linked him to the SUV crash through the vehicle plates.
The remainder of Clough’s nearly six hours of testimony related to the interviews with Hernandez, on Nov. 29, 2016, where he testified that the officer became “agitated” at the line of questioning with regard to the seized bundles and Castillo.
Clough said that in the last interview with Castillo, he asked the officer about 3 missing kilos of cocaine.
He testified that Castillo lowered his head and paused for about 10 seconds before asking for an attorney, at which time Clough terminated the interview.
In another instance underscoring DEA’s belief that Hernandez was hiding something, Clough testified that when agents arrested Hernandez in May 2017 Hernandez asked agents why they were going after him, saying that after all “he’s a small fish” and that they should be going after the “big fish” at the department.
Asked by the government what he meant by that, Clough said Hernandez said he wouldn’t talk about the case.
Clough said agents are still working this case to find the owners of the original 40 kilos of cocaine.
Closing arguments are set to begin today with the government starting first, and then defense attorneys A’Hern and Merino will each get about 30 minutes for their closing arguments.