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Moreno Valley man found guilty in drug case

A Los Angeles County jury found a man described as a “top lieutenant” for a large-scale narcotics operation that stretched to the Midwest guilty Monday of possessing and transporting hundreds of pounds of cocaine and marijuana.

Prosecutors took Derwin Webster, 38, to trial more than six years after he was arrested on suspicion of helping move cocaine into the secret compartment of a tractor-trailer near Rowland Heights. Authorities at the time alleged that Webster and his cohorts were moving drugs for a cartel that transported large quantities of cocaine from Mexico to distant regions of the United States.

The Moreno Valley man, who acted as his own attorney in the case, frowned last week during closing arguments as he listened to Deputy Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia play an incriminating audio recording from a phone call in which a man talked in code about the arrest of one of the members of the alleged drug ring.

“Do you recognize that voice?” Plascencia asked after he stopped the recording. One juror nodded vehemently. “Of course you do,” Plascencia continued. “Some people are born with voices that can be a gift or a curse because they’re so identifiable.”

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The jury’s verdict came after about 3 1/2 hours of deliberation and two weeks of testimony. Webster was convicted on all six felony counts, including conspiracy, drug transportation and possession for sale. He will face 32 years in county jail when he returns to court Aug. 24 for sentencing, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said.

Though prosecutors were careful to keep the focus on Webster during their case, witnesses who investigated the drug ring made reference to a larger scheme. The district attorney’s office described Webster in a news release Monday as a “top lieutenant” in the operation.

During the trial, Plascencia connected Webster to alleged co-conspirator Samuel Vivoros Murrillo and alleged ringleader Steven Montes. He said that in February 2006, Webster spoke with Montes by phone before helping load 175 kilograms of cocaine into a tractor-trailer to be driven by Murrillo. Authorities tracked Webster as he drove his Nissan Quest into the Rowland Heights area, grabbed a bite to eat at a Denny’s restaurant and then made the transfer to Murrillo in front of a plastics distributor.

Authorities stopped Murrillo driving the tractor-trailer a short time later and found the cocaine in a secret compartment. Agents testified that they seized another 175 kilograms of cocaine connected to the ring the next month in Chicago.

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Prosecutors first filed the charges in May 2006, issuing a statement alleging that Webster and the other suspects were connected to a cartel that moved narcotics smuggled from Mexico across the country to the Midwest and East Coast. Authorities said they seized $28-million worth of cocaine, along with 657 pounds of marijuana, more than $1 million in cash, handguns, tractor-trailers and cars connected to the operation.

During a yearlong investigation into the ring, authorities said they used such methods as air surveillance and wiretaps to track the suspects. The alleged ringleader, Montes, pleaded no contest to two drug-related charges in 2009 and was sentenced to more than 20 years in state prison. Murrillo was initially arrested when his truck was pulled over, but he was later released and is now a fugitive, authorities said.

Webster, meanwhile, elected to go to trial and defend himself. He struggled in his role as attorney, pausing for long periods between questions and asking for side discussions with Superior Court Judge Bob Bowers Jr. so many times that at one point the judge refused.

In his closing argument Friday, Webster apologized for the delays, saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing.... I’m a nobody.”

matt.stevens@latimes.com


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