Packed with heroin, burrito had bite
The young woman sat by herself in a hallway of the bustling courthouse, nervously clasping a brown paper bag. Inside was a warm bean and cheese burrito stuffed with 24 grams of black tar heroin.
Henry Marin, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, peeked out from a courtroom and waved her over.
Lunchtime was approaching -- lawyers in suits clutched their briefcases and witnesses waited to testify.
As the handoff was made, no one appeared to be paying attention -- until a voice commanded: “Deputy Marin, you need to stop.”
What Marin didn’t realize was that the hallway bystanders were undercover sheriff’s investigators. And the woman was a cog in an elaborate sting targeting him and another deputy suspected of smuggling drugs into the county’s lockups for inmates in a notorious prison gang.
Grand jury transcripts made public this week offer a rare glimpse into the world of drug smuggling into the jails and reveal for the first time how a secret Sheriff’s Department task force has tried to combat corruption among deputies helping to fuel a lucrative drug trade behind bars.
Investigators have monitored phone calls in which jail leaders -- so-called shot callers for the Mexican Mafia -- plot in coded language to use sheriff’s guards to bypass tight jail security. Successful schemes bring tidy profits, as heroin and other drugs can be sold at up to 10 times their street value to inmates who are desperate for a fix behind bars.
The grand jury transcripts give details of the successes and hiccups during the sting that ensnared Marin, complete with a video pen that failed to work, detectives in disguise and a couple who unwittingly walked into the sting with their own special package Marin was meant to deliver.
Marin’s case is the latest in a string of sheriff’s employees accused of smuggling narcotics in recent years. Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore declined to discuss the task force, saying, “We will arrest ... anybody that’s involved in trying to take drugs into our jails. How we do that, I’m not going to get into.”
Earlier this month, the grand jury indicted Marin on conspiracy and drug charges. He pleaded not guilty. In testimony before grand jurors, investigators and others gave the following account of the inquiry:
In January 2010, inmate Carlos Gallardo phoned a friend who had previously bought drugs for him. Known by the moniker “Trouble,” Gallardo was a Mexican Mafia associate who had learned that a fellow inmate, Robert Alvarez, was heading to the Airport Courthouse. In the call, Gallardo used code to refer to drugs, calling them “his son” or “Junior.” A deputy -- “the man in green” -- would help, he told his friend.
The woman, however, refused. She reminded him of another time he wanted a delivery in a hurry: a jail clerk was caught carrying 25 grams of meth destined for Gallardo.
Listening to the call was Jim Deruyter, a sheriff’s investigator. Later, Deruyter and other investigators confronted the woman at her home about the conversation, and she broke down.
“Look,” Deruyter told her, “we’re after a deputy sheriff who is dirty, one or two, and what we really need is your cooperation in getting these deputy sheriffs.”
Later that day, Gallardo called her back. This time, she offered to help.
The woman visited Gallardo in jail. Separated by thick plexiglass, the two spoke in code via the jailhouse telephones. Gallardo had written instructions on a tiny piece of paper he held up to the glass; the woman scribbled the details on a magazine.
She was to put the drugs inside food and take them to the Airport Courthouse at lunchtime, when it would be less conspicuous. She was told to ask for Rodriguez or Marin, referring to deputies.
The Times is not identifying the woman, who has been relocated by law enforcement authorities out of concern for her safety.
On Feb. 23, the woman arrived at the courthouse and entered an elevator. Two undercover sheriff’s investigators walked in, carrying a burrito stuffed with heroin. When the elevator cleared and they were alone, they handed her the food and quickly fitted her with a recording device and the video pen.
Later, as the woman sat on a bench on the seventh floor, a couple -- later identified as Alvarez’s relatives -- sat near her holding their own plastic foam food package. The woman called one of the nearby undercover sheriff’s investigators on her cellphone. “These guys are bringing dope,” she said.
Marin came out and accepted the food from the couple. Soon after, the courtroom doors opened again. The woman got up and approached Marin.
Inside the courtroom vestibule, out of view of sheriff’s investigators, the woman gave Marin the burrito.
Interrogated after he was stopped, Marin admitted that he intended to give the burrito to Alvarez after checking the package and didn’t know there were drugs inside. He said he had passed food to Alvarez for about a year. He was never paid to do it, he said, but he did the favor in return for extra sandwiches.
Victor Lewandowski, who was then a sergeant, confronted him with the burrito and showed him the drugs.
“His story that he would risk his job for the promise of a sandwich was ridiculous,” Lewandowski testified.
“You’re not one bit surprised to see that there is drugs in that burrito, because you knew,” the sergeant told Marin.
“No, no, I didn’t know. I hadn’t checked it yet,” the deputy responded.
The other deputy, Oscar Rodriguez, still works for the department and is now in patrol.
A sheriff’s spokesman said Rodriguez, whose involvement is still being investigated, declined to comment for this story.
Investigators never found drugs in the package from the couple with the meat sandwiches but believed the contraband could have been taken out before they intercepted it.
During Marin’s questioning, he admitted delivering the two meat sandwiches, one for Alvarez and one for himself. When Marin was asked what investigators would have found if they had examined the contents, he was blunt.
“Drugs,” he said.
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