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He was deported 4 times. His wife is accused of helping him flee to Mexico. Now, she faces 10 years in prison

He was deported 4 times. His wife is accused of helping him flee to Mexico. Now, she faces 10 years in prison
A patrol vehicle along the heavily fortified border south of San Diego. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Immigration officials have deported Jose Vega-Zuniga four times, but he's always returned, and usually landed behind bars.

But a recent DUI arrest culminated in a federal conviction this summer that carried up to 20 years in prison. So, prosecutors allege, he left of his own accord.

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Days after a federal judge issued a warrant for his arrest, Vega-Zuniga, 38, crossed the border near San Diego, sitting in the front passenger seat as his wife drove her pickup into Mexico, prosecutors said.

On Wednesday, nearly a month after the brazen escape, federal authorities arrested his wife, Elba Soto, at her Moreno Valley home, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Jose Vega-Zuniga
Jose Vega-Zuniga (U.S. attorney's office)

U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker blasted Soto for taking her husband to Mexico so he could dodge his prison sentence.

"If these allegations are proven, the defendant knowingly assisted a convicted felon avoid justice," Decker said in a statement.

The case began May 26, when immigration authorities learned that Vega-Zuniga was arrested in Riverside County on suspicion of driving under the influence.

During an interview with a federal agent, Vega-Zuniga admitted to illegally reentering the U.S. in 2011. He had been deported four times between 2000 and 2008, according to court papers.

The deportations usually coincided with the end of a prison term: Vega-Zuniga was sentenced to two years in state prison after being convicted of heroin trafficking in 1998. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2000 for illegally entering the U.S. In 2007, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in Riverside County, receiving another two-year prison term.

Federal prosecutors charged him with a count of unlawfully entering the U.S. after prior deportation and he pleaded guilty Aug. 3. He was also convicted of the DUI charge.

With his sentencing set for October, the Mexican national was allowed to remain free on $100,000 bond, according to court papers, but he was ordered to wear a GPS bracelet.

Prosecutors allege he removed the GPS monitoring device on or about Aug. 7, and Soto took the device to a pretrial services office. She said her husband was missing and she did not know his whereabouts, prosecutors said.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald issued a warrant for Vega-Zuniga's arrest. On Aug. 18, Soto allegedly drove her Ford F-150 truck through the Otay Mesa border crossing, according to court papers.

Surveillance footage reviewed by investigators showed Soto behind the wheel and Vega-Zuniga sitting in the front passenger seat, prosecutors said.

Under questioning by a U.S. marshal, Soto said she traveled to Mexico with her children. She insisted her husband was not in the car, according to court papers.

After her arrest, Soto appeared in a federal courtroom in Riverside on Wednesday afternoon. A judge ordered her held without bond.

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Meanwhile, Vega-Zuniga remains at large and is believed to be in Mexico, according to Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Vega-Zuniga faces up to 20 years in federal prison. If convicted, Soto faces 10 years in federal lockup.

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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