A federal jury Tuesday convicted three men on cocaine trafficking and conspiracy charges in connection with the discovery last year of 21.4 tons of cocaine in a Sylmar warehouse--the world’s largest drug seizure.
But after seven days of deliberation, the jury deadlocked on reaching verdicts for three other defendants, prompting U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. to declare a mistrial for the three.
The jurors said they had been leaning 8 to 4 for conviction and prosecutors immediately announced they would seek a new trial.
The six defendants listened stoically as the verdicts were read, but outside the Los Angeles courtroom, two of the defense lawyers were elated over the mistrial involving their clients. David Z. Chesnoff of Las Vegas and Marlene Gerdts of Beverly Hills exchanged “high fives” after the defendants were led away by federal marshals.
All six defendants will remain incarcerated at a federal prison facility in downtown Los Angeles.
The three who were convicted had given incriminating statements to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local police after their arrests in September, 1989. Their lawyers argued that the statements were coerced.
Convicted were Carlos Tapia-Ponce, 69, of Chihuahua, Mexico, a retired Mexican customs inspector, and two of his sons-in-law, James Romero McTague, 42, an El Paso resident and the only U.S.-born defendant, and Jose Ignacio Monroy, 37.
Tapia was described by prosecutors as “the overseer (and) patriarch” of the drug trafficking ring, who leased the Sylmar warehouse where the of cocaine was discovered. They estimated that more than 50 tons of cocaine was shipped from the warehouse to drug distributors nationwide before the operation was shut down.
Juror Keith Murphy, 43, of Los Angeles, said that during deliberations the jurors referred to Tapia as “the godfather.”
Authorities found ledgers and notebooks in the Sylmar warehouse and in El Paso indicating that the Colombian-produced cocaine was driven in big-rig trucks from El Paso to Los Angeles.
Assistant U.S. Atty. James P. Walsh, Jr. and Special Assistant U.S. Atty. Susan Bryant-Deason, who prosecuted the case, declined to comment on the verdicts.
Tapia and Monroy each were convicted on one count of conspiracy and one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. McTague was convicted of those counts and an additional count of possession with intent to distribute 20 kilograms of cocaine.
Each faces 10 years to life imprisonment. Hatter scheduled their sentencing for Jan. 28.
In interviews after rendering the verdicts, several jurors cited incriminating statements made by the three to law enforcement officials as heavily influencing their decision to find them guilty.
Jurors said, however, that the sheer size of the drug seizure did not prompt them to convict the three.
“I’m glad they caught that much dope, but it wasn’t a big factor” in reaching a guilty verdict, said juror Alex Johnson, 55, of Compton. “I would have done the same thing if it had been three kilos.”
But the panel deadlocked on reaching verdicts involving Tapia’s son, Hector Tapia-Anchondo, 39; Hugo Fernando Castillon Alvarez, 32, and Miguel Chavez, 34.
The prosecution called Tapia’s son the “chief executive” of the cocaine trafficking operation who arranged for the drug shipments.
Defense attorney Chesnoff said his client, Hector Tapia, was “very happy” over the mistrial. He said Hector told him: “We’ll get ‘em next time. I’m not guilty.”
Jury foreman Joe Aljian, 64, of Los Angeles, said that after a week of sharp debate “it was hopeless” to try to keep deliberating over the deadlocked verdicts.
Beyond the 21 tons of cocaine that was confiscated, prosecutors told the jury that more the than 50 tons of cocaine which moved through the Sylmar warehouse in a three-month period before the seizure was undoubtedly distributed before authorities could shut down the operation.
The retail street value of the seized cocaine was placed by law enforcement officials at approximately $6 billion.