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United States v. Mejias

decided: March 10, 1977.


Appeal from judgments entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Robert L. Carter, Judge, following jury verdicts of conviction on narcotics and conspiracy charges. Affirmed.

Lumbard and Feinberg, Circuit Judges, and Coffrin, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Lumbard

LUMBARD, Circuit Judge:

Alberto Mejias, Mario Navas, Estella Navas, Henry Cifuentes-Rojas, Jose Ramirez-Rivera, Manuel Francisco Padilla Martinez and Francisco Salazar Cadena appeal from convictions and sentences entered July 30, 1976 after a five-and-one-half week jury trial before Judge Carter in the Southern District. All appellants were convicted of conspiring to violate the federal narcotics laws between 1973 and 1974. Mario and Estella Navas, Mejias and Rojas also were convicted of substantive narcotics offenses.*fn1 Judge Carter sentenced each appellant to fifteen years' imprisonment on the conspiracy count, and imposed various concurrent and consecutive terms on those convicted of substantive counts.*fn2

All appellants allege a violation of their speedy trial rights. Most urge that pre-indictment delay resulted in a violation of due process. In addition, Padilla, Mejias, Salazar and Rojas contend that their motions to suppress evidence seized after their arrests were improperly denied. Ramirez disputes the legal sufficiency of the evidence against him. Padilla maintains that certain documents seized on his person were improperly admitted into evidence. Mejias and Salazar complain of prosecutorial misconduct; and all appellants charge that the sentences imposed constituted an abuse of the trial judge's discretion. We find these assertions insubstantial and affirm.

The record discloses that appellants were members of a massive international narcotics organization which smuggled hundreds of kilograms of cocaine into the United States from Colombia, South America for distribution primarily in New York City. The organization was multitiered, with various members at different levels of command. It was represented in the United States primarily by its importers, with couriers slipping in and out of the country for the purpose of smuggling cocaine and marijuana. Narcotics were brought into New York directly from South America, and indirectly through Florida, Central America, Germany and Canada. Much of it arrived hidden in false-bottom shoes and suitcases, hollowed-out coat-hangers and double-lined girdles and brassieres.

As a result of an intensive cooperative investigation by federal and state authorities, appellants were arrested by state authorities in late 1974. Their arrests on federal charges occurred in February 1976. The government's case consisted primarily of surveillance conducted between January and October 1974, over 150 wiretapped telephone conversations, evidence seized at the residence or warehouse ("stash") apartments of various of the appellants, and the testimony of various witnesses, including New York City Police Detective Luis Ramos, the undercover officer who infiltrated the organization, and Detective Vincent Palazzotto, the officer who arrested Mejias, Padilla and Salazar.

A summary of the highlights of the evidence presented by the government demonstrates overwhelmingly the complicity of the appellants. Most of the group used false passports to enter the country,*fn3 and other false identification to lease apartments, list telephones and rent automobiles. Conversations between members were laced with references to "clothing," "bibles," "music" and "children," which the jury could find were commonly understood code words for the cocaine in which the members were dealing. Continuous operations of the enterprise were financed by large portions of the narcotics proceeds, much of which was transmitted to Colombia by money orders.

Infiltration of the organization occurred in 1973 when Detective Ramos arranged a series of cocaine purchases from Lilia Prada, named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the indictment.*fn4 By means of a wiretap installed on Prada's telephone, Mario Navas was identified as the source of the drugs; and with Prada's cooperation after her arrest, a meeting was arranged on February 5, 1974 between Ramos and Mario Navas at which a sale of one quarter kilogram of cocaine for $6,400 was consummated, and a 3 kilogram sale, subsequently aborted for lack of funds, was proposed.

Mario Navas, like Mejias, was profiled in the government's case as an importer, who directly and through underlings did his own wholesaling. Unlike Mejias, who referred to himself as a priest and lived for a time in a convent while he maintained a separate apartment for his narcotics business, Mario Navas lived with his wife Estella in a series of apartments in Queens. Throughout 1974, surveillances and recorded conversations established that, in addition to his residence, Mario Navas maintained three stash apartments in Queens. On April 17, 1976 at one such apartment, Toto and Jero, two members of the organization, were arrested by officers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and narcotics and drug-related paraphernalia, along with $2,700 cash and miscellaneous papers, were seized.

Estella Navas handled her husband's business in his absence, attended various meetings and relayed messages to and from contacts in Germany and South America. She also controlled sales in her own right. On one occasion, after an arrest of one courier and a delay in the departure of another from Colombia had combined to thwart an expected cocaine shipment, the Navases purchased a minimal supply of one-half kilogram from another source. Following the pickup from the substitute supplier, Estella was seen entering one of the Queens stashes carrying a shoulder bag, accompanied by Mario in shirt sleeves, who was empty handed.

The government additionally showed that Francisco Armedo-Sarmiento, commonly known as Mono, an unindicted co-conspirator*fn5 and an importer for whom Rojas and Ramirez worked as wholesalers, was a key figure in the conspiracy. During the time that the Navases were moving large quantities of cocaine, Mejias and Mono were similarly engaged, usually independent of one another, but occasionally with each other's assistance. Conversations intercepted on Mono's telephone in May 1974 established that Mejias purchased cocaine from Mono on at least one occasion, and that the two men had received narcotics from Colombia for which Mono had sent money to South America. Wiretap evidence also demonstrated that various members of the conspiracy used each other's apartments to conduct their business; for example, Mario Navas used Mono's telephone to discuss a narcotics shipment with Mono and a Spanish contact, Rojas used Mono's telephone to place a call for Mono to Colombia, Mono contacted Ramirez from the Navas telephone to set up a meeting to turn over narcotics proceeds, Salazar gave Mejias' address as his own when opening a bank account upon his arrival in New York, and Salazar and Padilla were arrested, along with Mejias, in Mejias' apartment, apparently in the midst of counting narcotics proceeds.

Rojas used an apartment at 327 West 30th Street in Manhattan to store narcotics distributed for Mono. On August 29, 1974 Rojas and Mono received a telephone call in that apartment from Mario Navas, who placed an order for narcotics which he and Estella picked up that evening.

Ramirez's participation as a wholesaler was primarily evidenced by several telephone conversations on the first three days of September 1974 in which he and Mono planned to meet, first at the 30th Street apartment, and then at a location in Queens, to permit Ramirez to deliver $10,000 in narcotics proceeds. They spoke of previous payments and of Mono's preference for money orders as a medium of payment. Ramirez was instructed as to which banks to use and what denominations to obtain. His knowledge of the organization and involvement therein was reflected by his informing Mono that he had taken some of Rojas' allotment of narcotics to service his customers. At the time of his arrest on September 3, 1974 in Queens, Ramirez was en route to meet with Mono and had ten blank $1,000 money orders from various banks, as well as a card listing Rojas' telephone number, in his possession.

Mejias kept a safe deposit box in a bank near his residence. When the box was seized in September 1974 it contained $26,700 in cash and records showing large deposits, totalling some $36,700, regularly made in May, July and August. Additional records recovered from Mejias' apartment at the time of his arrest evidenced at least three trips to Miami, Florida in 1974 - one prior to June 6, another in July, and a third in August. On the last trip, Mejias met with Salazar, and the two men returned together to New York. Salazar checked into the Skyline Motor Inn, on Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, where Padilla then resided. Salazar was identified in the government's case as the source of Mejias' cocaine; Padilla as Mejias' financier.

The Skyline Motor Inn was the scene of a series of meetings between various of the appellants at the end of August 1974. Mejias was seen there on August 29; on the following day, Padilla arrived with Mono and Mario Navas, followed by Mejias who later departed with Padilla. Records seized from Mejias' apartment showed accounts for that day totalling $58,500 and identifying, in three separate transactions, customers other than the co-conspirators with whom Mejias had met.

Additionally, recorded conversations indicated that on August 31 Mario Navas delivered $22,785 to Salazar as partial payment for two kilograms of cocaine. Later that day, Salazar departed for Miami, and Mejias and Mario Navas spoke about that payment, as well as an additional expected payment of $11,400. During Salazar's absence, the use of the motel room continued; Padilla was seen entering with a brown attache case. After his arrest in Mejias' apartment on September 3, 1974, police seized an identical case containing $31,525 from the room.

Salazar returned to New York on September 2, 1974. Early the following day, Mario Navas delivered $11,750 in a red plastic bag to Mejias as an additional payment for the previously purchased cocaine. Records recovered from Mejias' apartment showed that sales on September 2 alone totalled $273,450 for fifteen kilograms of cocaine purchased in differing quantities, not only by Navas, but also by Rojas and Ramirez, among others. Padilla's interest in those sales was substantiated by his possession of virtually identical records at the time of his arrest on September 3, 1974 in Mejias' apartment, some hours after Mario Navas had delivered the red plastic bag. Mejias and Salazar also were arrested at that time. Cash found in seven locations around the apartment totalled $108,149. In the trash can were fourteen empty bags, each of which contained cocaine residue. Cocaine-related equipment, in the form of lactose, plastic baggies and a heat sealer, was found in the kitchen cabinets.

None of the appellants took the stand; and only two offered any evidence. Apparently attempting to show the source of his money, Padilla introduced a copy of a check for $50,000 which he had deposited in his checking account in March 1974, after winning that amount in the New York State Lottery. Rojas attempted to rebut the testimony of government ...

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