Men convicted in drug case with ties to cartel

Authorities expect a sentence of at least 30 years

February 07, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Two men accused of being co-conspirators in a cocaine distribution pipeline that funneled drugs from a violent Mexican cartel to the Baltimore area were convicted by a federal jury Monday.

Wade Coats, 45, of Baltimore and Jose Cavazos, 44, of Dallas were convicted of drug conspiracy charges; Coats was also found guilty of a firearms charge. The men, who rejected plea deals, face a maximum sentence of life in prison, and federal authorities expect a sentence of at least 30 years.

"This trial illustrated how drugs are imported and distributed throughout the United States," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a telephone interview. "The Justice Department has made it a priority to focus resources on crime that comes over the southwestern border, and those crimes are not restricted to the states immediately adjacent to that border."

Coats and Cavazos were arrested in April 2009 after Drug Enforcement Administration officers found Cavazos at a downtown hotel with more than $600,000 in cash.

Detectives had stumbled onto the pair while investigating a lower-level dealer, prosecutors said. Months later, a man who said he has ties to the Gulf Cartel was arrested by FBI agents in Dallas and began providing information to authorities on his contacts throughout the country, including Baltimore.

The witness, Alex Mendoza-Cano, gave a dramatic account of how he said he helped the Gulf Cartel make millions here: He described driving a motor home stuffed with millions of dollars in cocaine along a distribution route running through Arkansas, Chicago, New Jersey and Atlanta, with the drugs supplied by cartel members and smuggled across the border in personal watercraft and boats. He received coded instructions from Mexico via a radio, he said.

To prove his credibility, Mendoza-Cano set up a drug transaction at a White Marsh hotel with a man allegedly associated with Coats, as agents watched via cameras set up in the room.

Defense attorneys for Coats and Cavazos had argued that prosecutors were unable to conclusively connect the men to drug activity — neither was found in possession of any drugs — and instead relied on the testimony of desperate witnesses eager to say anything to help their own cases.

Thomas M. Donnelly said authorities were making "huge inferences" against Coats, an East Baltimore phone store owner, and Cavazos, who owns a car dealership in Texas. The investigation was also tainted, their attorneys said, with money and a watch stolen by a corrupt detective who has since been convicted of theft and making false claims.

But they weren't able to convincingly explain all that cash in the hotel.

Officers had followed Coats after observing an exchange in Little Italy with a drug dealer nicknamed "Truck," whom they had been tracking. Coats was seen entering and leaving the Marriott Waterfront, and agents located Cavazos in a room in Coats' name. There was $275,000 in heat-sealed bricks wrapped in aluminum foil inside the room, and detectives found another $300,000 in similarly packaged bricks in Cavazos' vehicle outside.

Mendoza-Cano, 34, said he had worked with Cavazos through intermediaries for years, and word of the arrest was sent by the cartel to verify that the money was gone. He met with an associate of Coats in Philadelphia, where they ate at the Capitol Grille and entered into an agreement to continue pumping cocaine into the city.

"I work for the cartel," he testified through an interpreter. "I will not argue orders they give me."

Authorities said they have seen a bump in the amount of local drug activity originating from Mexico.

"This is the reality of how the drug business operates," Rosenstein said Monday. "There's a lot of players that never put their hands on the drugs, and it requires a lot of investigative work to catch them with sufficient evidence."

"The Mexican impact is here, and it's not just in the past six months," Carl J. Kotowski, special agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore field office, said last week.

Cavazos testified that he earned the cash in an illegal poker game and used tax records to show that he had a gambling habit, said attorney Marc Zayon. But prosecutors pulled phone records that showed he had been in touch with co-conspirators whom he had been linked to through Mendoza-Cano.

Complicating the case was the involvement of disgraced Baltimore Police Officer Mark Lunsford, a DEA task force member who has since been convicted and sent to prison for skimming money from informant payouts.

Lunsford is believed to have taken an expensive watch and clothing belonging to Coats, and defense attorneys repeatedly invoked his name in an attempt to cast doubt on the quality of the larger investigation.

Prosecutors, in pretrial motions, had argued that Lunsford was accused of stealing items, not planting them.

"The government did a good job of diverting the jury's attention from" Lunsford's conviction, Ivan J. Bates, one of the attorneys representing Coats, said in a telephone interview. "At the end of the day, you were either going to believe [Cavazos] or Detective [Brian] Shutt," the lead investigator.

Mendoza-Cano testified that he continues to cooperate with authorities in other areas where he helped distribute drugs.

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