As Witnesses Keep Dying, Mob Trial Heads to Phoenix
The lead detective allegedly became an assassination target. Prosecutors were so scared that they started carrying guns. And a federal judge asked for bodyguards and bulletproof glass for her court.
Now, all of that drama is moving from New Mexico to the U.S. District Courthouse in Phoenix, where 13 reputed members of the Cisneros crime syndicate and the New Mexican Mafia prison gang face trial in a federal death penalty case.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized the move to Phoenix after learning that court employees in Santa Fe leaked security measures to the defense. It's the first time the government has attempted to drop a federal death penalty case in one jurisdiction so charges can be pursued in another.
According to U.S. prosecutors, eight government witnesses have been executed, and three defendants are charged with conspiring to murder Phoenix police Detective Mike Maya, who is spearheading the case against them.
U.S. Attorneys Paul Charlton of Arizona and David Iglesias of New Mexico wrote to Ashcroft seeking permission for a venue change, arguing that "the only federal district in which this case now can be tried safely and efficiently is the District of Arizona."
"Even among death penalty cases, the present case is exceptional because of its history of murdered potential witnesses and the threat to current potential witnesses," prosecutors wrote in a motion asking that the New Mexico indictment be dismissed.
David Gonzales, U.S. marshal in Arizona, would not discuss security precautions at the Phoenix courthouse, except to say, "We'll do whatever's necessary to protect those involved."
Lawyers for the defendants point out that prosecutors have yet to win a single homicide conviction. Lacking physical evidence and witnesses to support their allegations, they say, the government has resorted to a fear and smear campaign.
"The accusation that these defendants pose any security risk to judges or anyone involved in the judicial process is, I think, totally without merit," said Larry Hammond, a Phoenix attorney for Felipe Cisneros.
As for the government's list of homicides, Hammond said, "There's going to be a huge dispute over who committed those murders."
The case involves two organizations that are believed to have merged for murder and other crimes:
The Cisneros brothers, Luis and Felipe, are suspected of having operated a narcotics and auto-theft ring based in Mesa for most of the past decade. Thanks in part to witness deaths, both avoided convictions until they were found guilty of multiple crimes last year in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The New Mexican Mafia, also known as New Eme, is an Arizona-based prison gang that counts defendant Raymond O. Llamas of Guadalupe among its leaders. New Eme gained notoriety in 1999 for a failed plot to kill then-prisons Director Terry Stewart.
A year ago, the Cisneroses, Llamas and other defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury in New Mexico in connection with numerous offenses, including the murder of former prison guard Jose Moreno Sr. and his son, Jose Jr., in Lovington, N.M.
The case was proceeding under intense security due to what government motions describe as a "trail of dead bodies of murdered potential witnesses," most of them killed in the Phoenix area. One of those homicides, the 1996 shooting of Aaron Romero in Mesa, is specified in the indictment.
Although most proceedings are sealed, U.S. District Court Judge Martha Vazquez of Santa Fe revealed key elements of the case recently when she allowed the government to dismiss charges in New Mexico and proceed under a new Arizona indictment filed secretly in July.
Unless her decision is reversed, all 13 defendants will go on trial in Phoenix.
Vazquez's 38-page order describes a furious legal battle and a behind-the-scenes struggle to safeguard justice system officials. It also divulges allegations that Maya, a member of the FBI's street gangs task force in Phoenix, was targeted for a hit by three defendants while they were behind bars in Estancia, N.M.
Prosecutors in New Mexico were so concerned about safety that, in addition to carrying firearms, they had the case transferred from Las Cruces to a more secure courthouse in Albuquerque.
In April, defense lawyers filed a motion of recusal against the assigned judge, Christina Armijo.
According to that motion, Armijo asked for 24-hour security, new locks and bulletproof glass for her chambers after attending a U.S. marshal's security briefing on the defendants' violent proclivities.
Defense attorneys obtained that information confidentially from court employees, a fact that prompted an "extreme amount of concern" in the Marshal's Office, according to court records.
The defense claimed that Armijo's precautions signified bias because of a "personal and baseless fear that one or more of the named accused would try to harm her."
Armijo withdrew from the case, and Vazquez took over. Three weeks later, federal prosecutors in Arizona obtained new grand jury indictments mirroring the old charges but adding three defendants and 22 criminal counts.
Defense attorneys complained that allowing the case to start over would violate speedy trial rights and force New Mexico attorneys out of the case.
Natman Schaye, a Tucson attorney in the case, said federal prosecutors continually talk about dead witnesses without showing how the Cisneros-New Eme suspects were responsible.
"It's sort of a 'where's-the-beef?' question. If they did it, why hasn't there been any evidence that they did it?" Schaye asked.
As for courthouse security, he said, "Our clients have been perfectly well-behaved since they have been in (a New Mexico jail)."