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Light Terms Disturb Drug Case Prosecutors

Times Staff Writer

Little more than a month after authorities seized 556 pounds of cocaine and arrested 21 alleged members of a drug ring operating in the Pasadena area, court cases have been virtually concluded against 17 of the suspects.

Although the case is coming to a swift resolution, prosecutors expressed chagrin that five key defendants who entered guilty pleas could be back on the streets in five years. Despite the fact that the confiscated cocaine was a record haul for Los Angeles--with an estimated street value of more than $158 million--the same maximum sentence applies for the transport of one ounce or 1,000 pounds under state law, Deputy Dist. Atty. Chuck Horan said.

The five, each of whom pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport and sell cocaine, face maximum five-year prison terms, Horan said.

“It’s better than nothing, but it’s just a shame they can’t get 15 or 20 (years),” said Horan, co-prosecutor of the case. “It’s an ungodly amount of dope for five years. . . . You can make millions of bucks with less risk (of prison time) than a guy robbing a liquor store.”

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Named as Kingpin

Among the five is Jairo Santa Maria, 60, identified by Deputy Dist. Atty. Curtis Hazell, a co-prosecutor, as the kingpin of the ring and “probably the biggest dope dealer we’ve successfully prosecuted in Los Angeles County.”

Hazell said Wednesday that Santa Maria “is the fellow who arranges for the cocaine to be brought up from Colombia through his ties with Colombian dope producers. . . . He is very unusual because guys like him usually haven’t come to the United States before; they don’t stay near the dope.”

Santa Maria’s lawyer, Mark Bledstein, questioned the prosector’s characterization of his client. “Nothing he has pleaded guilty to has to do with whether he is a kingpin,” Bledstein said.

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The other four key defendants who have pleaded guilty, prosecutors said, were Carlos Palacios, Alvaro Acevedo, Jose Rosas and David Candelaria-Martinez. All five are due to be sentenced next month. A sixth defendant, Ceasar Bonilla, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of possession of cocaine for sale.

Charges were dismissed Wednesday against six other defendants at the request of the district attorney’s office. In all, charges have been dropped against 11 of the suspects, Hazell said, because “in order to convict all of the defendants, we would have had to make a deal with a particular defendant who was more culpable than some that remained.”

Preliminary hearings have been set for the other four defendants in early July.

Held in Joint Sweep

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The suspects, several of whom are related, were arrested May 19 in a joint sweep by Los Angeles and Pasadena police, federal drug enforcement agents and investigators from the district attorney’s office. About 528 pounds of cocaine were seized at a home on North Michigan Avenue in Pasadena and 28 pounds were seized at Rosas Electrical Shop in Huntington Park.

If the defendants had been tried in federal court, they could have faced 20-year sentences for similar offenses, according to James Walsh, chief of the major narcotics violators unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles.

Walsh and Horan said a joint decision was made to try the defendants at the state level. Horan explained that because of strict federal rules on pretrial disclosure, prosecutors might have been forced to publicly divulge sensitive information concerning the drug ring.

Charges were dropped Wednesday against De Ligia Hernanos Palacios, Mario Alonso Palacios, Roseo Cardenas, Pablo Emilio Montoya, Harvey Rivera and Jario De Jesus Duque. Charges were previously dropped, also at the request of the district attorney’s office, against Andrea Macias, Casandra Tolley, Maria Cecilia Acevedo, Fabio De Jesus Hincapie-Vallejo and Raul Jesus Morales.

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