Covina arrests mystify a neighborhood

The residents of North Monte Verde Drive, a stretch of oak-shaded suburban calm in the Covina area, normally would feel safe knowing that two off-duty police officers were visiting the neighborhood.

Not this time. These officers were far from home -- agents of the Mexican federal police -- and they ended up on the wrong side of a bust, with a fortune in cash that prosecutors say was tied to narcotics trafficking.

The raid in July raised the specter that the often-brutal workings of the Mexican drug trade have reached deep into Southern California. But five months later, the fuller background of the case remains a mystery.

"We all just sort of went, 'Yikes!' " Susan Wood, a longtime Monte Verde resident, said of the possible link between her neighborhood and the mayhem a country away. "This isn't a drug-trafficky area at all."

No connections to Mexican drug syndicates have been alleged in the Covina case, and defense attorneys say there are none. But speculation has been fueled by the fact that authorities have been unusually tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding the arrests and the direction of their investigation.

One of the Mexican suspects, a federal police commander based in the border city of Mexicali, is believed to have been the target of an assassination attempt there last summer, when gunmen shot up his car and killed two of his aides.

The commander, Carlos Cedano Filippini, 35, was not in the vehicle at the time. Mexican media reported that Cedano abandoned his job after the shooting.

He was the second Mexican federal officer arrested in a Southern California drug probe in three weeks. Earlier in July, agents from the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement arrested Omar Lugo and another man in Riverside County on suspicion of transporting 154 pounds of cocaine in their car. A judge later ordered the two suspects released, ruling in favor of defense attorneys who said officers had lacked probable cause to search the car, said Orlando Lopez, a special agent in charge for the bureau. That ruling is under appeal and an investigation is continuing, Lopez said.

Narcotics-related violence in Mexico claimed more than 5,000 lives last year, as rival drug cartels battle over smuggling routes and beleaguered government forces press a crackdown. The spoils of the carnage are narcotics bound for the United States -- Southern California is a top trans-shipment point -- but there have been few outward signs here of cartel operations and attendant bloodshed.

Like Wood, other Monte Verde residents said they know nothing about the case beyond what they had learned in news reports, and very little about the occupants of the spacious home where the Mexicans were taken into custody. Some residents were fearful of being quoted by name.

"It's like a TV show," a neighbor said of the case.

Arrested along with the agents were two U.S. citizens, siblings Hector and Julissa Lopez. Their parents, who live in the 4,800-square-foot house at the end of a long driveway, have not been implicated, authorities say.

Julissa Lopez, 36, is the common-law wife of Cedano, the commander from Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency, that nation's equivalent of the FBI. Also charged is one of Cedano's officers, Victor M. Juarez, 36.

The four have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court on charges of possessing more than $630,000 as part of an alleged drug transaction. If convicted, they face a maximum of four years in prison.

A stakeout team of narcotics investigators stormed the house and spotted the defendants walking out of a bedroom, according to prosecutors. Seized along with the suitcase full of cash were a money-counting machine, other bundles of currency, heat-sealable packets for the bills, and lists of payments and debts for narcotics, authorities say. Defense attorneys have said the lists were innocent jottings of family activities.

No drugs were found, but a police dog trained to sniff out narcotics residue showed a positive response to the suitcase and to other items in the bedroom, investigators say.

A preliminary hearing provided scant insight into the probe, with testimony focusing mainly on details of the surveillance and search of the house.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment, as did officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles Police Department, which are conducting the investigation. Shortly after the arrests, a DEA spokeswoman said the stakeout team had not expected to encounter Mexican agents at the house, but she did not elaborate.

Mexican authorities did not return phone calls.

The court record already could fill a wheelbarrow. Defense attorneys have filed lengthy motions seeking to dismiss the charges on grounds that there was no probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. They also challenged the bail amounts -- originally $2 million -- and got them reduced.

In addition, the defense has filed a writ with the state appeals court asking that the case be thrown out because investigators have refused to answer questions about what led them to the house and why they had concluded that drug dealing was involved.

"Their case is based on guesswork, not evidence," said Mark Werksman, an attorney for Julissa Lopez. "All they've got is a bunch of money. They're trying to make a mountain out of a molehill."

Investigators say they saw Hector Lopez and Juarez arrive at the home with bags of what appeared to be bricks of drugs or cash.

Later, they say, they stopped a woman who drove away from the house with a suspicious parcel -- she has not been charged -- and they discovered that it contained only meat, which Werksman said was for a restaurant the Lopez family owns. The investigators say they then entered the house to make the arrests.

To date, Hector Lopez, 33, is the lone defendant to be released on bail. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful, and his attorney did not return calls.

A friend of Julissa Lopez, Heidy Gallegos, submitted a letter to the court as a character reference. In an interview, she said Lopez's arrest was "very shocking. . . . It's scary."

Gallegos, a nurse, said she did not believe Lopez could do anything illegal. She said Lopez helped out at her father's tire business but otherwise spent all of her time with the three children she has with Cedano.

"She's your typical soccer mom -- very loving. Her priority is her kids," said Gallegos, adding that she met Lopez when she was her patient more than a year ago.

Lopez would talk about the strain of having a husband who worked across the border, Gallegos recounted.

"All she would tell me is that she would miss him, because he had to travel back and forth with his job," Gallegos said. "I remember the kids saying how much they missed their dad, how much they loved their dad."

Gallegos also recalled the day that Lopez told her about the attempt on Cedano's life: "I thought, 'Wow!' I was amazed."

An attorney for Cedano has said his client had to flee to the United States to escape the would-be assassins. It is not clear what prompted the shooting in Mexicali.

Neighbors on Monte Verde, which runs along the Covina-West Covina line, told of having no inkling of trouble at the Lopez home, whose wrought-iron driveway gate has been adorned with Christmas decorations.

"Everybody was surprised," said one neighbor who resides on the same side of the street, where old horse corrals share sprawling lots with newer homes. "We have no problems here."

Virginia Yeager lives in a house that her husband's family built in 1932. She said the neighborhood had changed a lot over the decades, with newcomers from Latin America and Asia moving in. She said burglaries are a worry, but there has been nothing to suggest the faintest echo of a distant drug war.

"I haven't heard about that up here," Yeager said. "You just kind of keep in your own little enclave." /siege

Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available online.