An INS agent pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring to remove illegal immigrants from a federal lockup and release them to their U.S. relatives for ransom.
Jesse Gardona, a 15-year veteran of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's anti-smuggling squad, entered his plea without comment in Los Angeles federal court.
"My client is extremely remorseful for his conduct," defense attorney Yolanda Barrera said afterward.
Gardona, who is free on bond, faces a maximum five-year prison term when he appears for sentencing later this year on a charge of conspiring to commit graft and to harbor and transport illegal immigrants.
But the defense lawyer said she hopes the U.S. attorney's office will recommend a lighter sentence "because of the mitigating circumstances of this case."
She said the 40-year-old INS agent broke the law because he "was very moved by the plight" of the illegal immigrants he routinely captured and because he was facing serious financial problems.
Barrera declined to say whether Gardona's plea agreement included a promise to cooperate with law enforcement authorities. Assistant U.S. Atty. Alicia Villarreal said the investigation is continuing.
Gardona was indicted in May, along with Jose Quintanilla Guzman, 33--described by an FBI agent as a Mexican drug trafficker who ran an auto body shop in East Los Angeles--and Quintanilla's girlfriend, Leticia Chavez, 23, of Huntington Park.
Quintanilla, who has been behind bars since last year, when he was caught trying to reenter the United States illegally, is expected to plead guilty today, Villarreal said. Chavez entered a guilty plea in July and is awaiting sentencing.
According to court documents, Gardona led a team of anti-smuggling agents to a smuggler's drop house on South Normandie Avenue in Los Angeles on July 13, 1998. There, they arrested three suspected smugglers and 11 illegal immigrants from El Salvador.
Four days later, according to FBI Agent Ron Twersky's affidavit, Gardona took 10 illegal immigrants out of the INS detention facility in downtown Los Angeles and turned them over to Quintanilla.
One of Quintanilla's subordinates, subsequently arrested on drug-trafficking charges, told authorities he was present when Quintanilla telephoned the immigrants' relatives, demanding $1,000 to $1,800 for their release.
Gardona's share of the ransom was $300 a head, according to the affidavit. Investigators said he was working off a $20,000 to $30,000 debt he owed Quintanilla for help in setting up businesses.
FBI agents and investigators from the Justice Department's inspector general's office tracked down three of the freed immigrants on the East Coast.
Twersky said in his affidavit that all three identified Gardona as the person who had taken them from the detention facility. One said Gardona warned all those freed not to reveal how they got out. Gardona has denied threatening them.
Gardona used his authority to release captured illegal immigrants on other occasions, according to allegations in the FBI affidavit.
An unnamed informant told the FBI that Gardona once arranged for the release of three Russian women so they could work as dancers or prostitutes at a downtown Los Angeles nightclub.