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Taxpayers to Get Urrego’s Defense Bill : Crime: Public defender will plead the case in new trial. The Florida man is accused of laundering vast drug profits.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County taxpayers will pick up the tab for defending a 68-year-old Florida man accused of masterminding the shipment of tens of millions of dollars in Colombian drug profits through a Simi Valley office.

Otoniel Urrego, who last month won a mistrial on charges he conspired to launder illegal drug profits in 1989, will be represented by the public defender’s office at the second trial because his private attorney backed out Thursday.

Terrence A. Roden of Los Angeles, who said he defended Urrego without charge earlier, told Superior Court Judge Charles W. Campbell Jr. that he could not absorb the cost of a second trial.

“He was not able to pay me and I assumed much of the expenses,” said Roden, who tallied his services in the first case in the “tens of thousands of dollars.”

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Deputy Public Defender Todd Howeth, who inherited the case Thursday, said he was months away from being prepared for trial.

“I’m in the unenviable position of trying to get up to speed on the case,” Howeth said. “I’ve not looked at one single document. Literally, I have one piece of paper that appears to say he qualifies for the services of the public defender’s office.”

Thousands of pages of documents must be reviewed by Howeth before a new trial. By law, the court is given 60 days from the mistrial to schedule another trial date, but Urrego is expected to waive time considerations at a hearing today so his defense team can do its homework.

Urrego at first said he would like to represent himself at the second trial, but changed his mind after conferring with Roden.

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Grunert said he is “as confident as I was going into the first trial” of winning a conviction and has not considered striking a plea bargain.

“We haven’t made any offers and we haven’t received any offers,” he said.

More than two years of investigations by his office have convinced Grunert that Urrego was well-connected to the Medellin drug cartel. “We feel he’s placed high in the cartel,” said Grunert, who attributed the mistrial to chance.

“You never know with juries,” he said. “You can never tell.”

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The district attorney’s office conceded at the February trial that Urrego was not in Ventura County during the two-month money-laundering scheme that prosecutors allege. Grunert argued, however, that Urrego oversaw the distribution of at least $25 million from Simi Valley to Colombia.

Authorities arrested three people in May, 1989, in Chatsworth and Simi Valley and confiscated $2.5 million in cash. Floriberto Urrego, his wife, Marta, and Luz Urrego all were apprehended during the raids, but only Luz Urrego still is in custody.

Otoniel Urrego was arrested in Miami on March 18, 1992, after investigators pieced together enough evidence to obtain an indictment. A paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, he has remained in Ventura County Jail in lieu of $1-million bond.

Floriberto and Marta Urrego, Otoniel’s brother and sister-in-law, were released after several days for lack of specific charges. They are believed to be living in Colombia and cannot be prosecuted unless they return to the United States.

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But Luz Urrego, who is the widow of another Urrego brother, made a deal with prosecutors and testified against Otoniel Urrego last month. She will not be released from custody until her brother-in-law is convicted, authorities said.

Public Defender Kenneth I. Clayman on Thursday was unshaken by the cost of the second trial and said his office is bound by the Constitution to represent anyone who cannot afford a lawyer.

“We get all kinds of cases that are costly to defend,” he said. “Some cases are more costly and some are less costly, but we do them all with equal diligence.”

Investigators for the court and public defender’s office will try to verify that Urrego has no funds to retain his own attorney, Clayman said. At the conclusion of the case, Urrego could be liable for his attorney fees, if ordered by the judge.

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“Nobody who has the ability to pay is going to get a free ride,” Clayman said.


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