The final four people convicted in the large-scale racketeering case involving the McConnell Unit in Beeville have been ordered to federal prison, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson along with Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Houston.
With the exception of Juan Ledezma, who was convicted following a two-day trial, 28 others pleaded guilty to varying counts of racketeering or other charges. Senior U.S. District Judge Hayden Head, who accepted the guilty pleas and presided over the trial, handed down the final sentences against all convicted in the case at hearings that concluded late yesterday.
“’Operation Prison Cell’ is a very appropriate name for this investigation in that it describes where those responsible for the corruption, trafficking and violence uncovered in this case will spend a considerable portion of the rest of their lives,” said Moskowitz. “Unfortunately, while we expect convicted criminals to act like criminals, we will not tolerate those entrusted to serve the public to do the same, and these sentences send an unmistakable message to both the corrupted and their corruptors that we will catch you and punish you for your crimes.”
Considered “facilitators” in the case, Melissa Lozano, 29, of San Antonio, was convicted on one count of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), while Craig Owens, 29, of Kileen, and Karla Sanchez, 26, of Houston, pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering. Yesterday, Lozano was ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison, and Owens and Sanchez received sentences of 60 and 24 months, respectively.
The remaining seven facilitators were sentenced last month. Yvonne Sandoval, 37, of Corpus Christi, Maria Fernanda Hidalgo, 32, of McAllen, and Lindsey Elaine Savage, 30, of Copperas Cove, were all also convicted of RICO and received sentences of 18 months, 12 months plus one day, and 38 months, respectively. The four others pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering. Juanita Beltran Mendez, 50, of Bishop, will be on probation for five years, while Nancy Star Onega, 27, and Donna Sorise, 57, both of Hialeah, Fla., and Maria Rose Rodriguez, 35, of Alamo, will serve sentences of 60, 71 and 66 months, respectively.
Four others charged in the case – Aaron Trevino, 37, of Lockhart, Christopher Karl Owens, 33, of Killeen, Christopher Smith, 28, of Chester, and Ledezma, 40, of Brownsville – were considered “inmates” in the overall scheme and were at one time or another in TDCJ custody during the conspiracy. Owens was sentenced yesterday to serve a total of 151 months in prison for the RICO conviction. Trevino also pleaded guilty to the RICO count and received a total of 198 months in federal prison, while Smith entered a plea to money laundering and received time served, approximately 10 months of incarceration. Ledezma, who was found guilty by a Corpus Christi federal jury of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana, will serve a total of 360 months in federal prison for the three counts of conviction.
The former McConnell Unit employees had already received their sentences. Former guards Stephanie Deming, 24, Lela Ysolde Hinojosa, 52, and Arturo Salas, 23, all of Beeville, Christy Nesloney, 27, of Cuero, James Randal Standlea, 25, of Mathis, Desiree Silguero, 43, of McAllen, Emmanuel Cotto, 32, of San Antonio, Megan Brook Morales, 24, of Bulverde, Lakeisha Jeanette Reid, 25, of Austin, Jaime Jorge Garza, 38, of Santa Elena, and Oscar Juraidini, 25, of Brownsville, were all convicted of one count of RICO as was contract mental health professional Kimberly Koenig, 32, of Victoria. Nesloney was previously sentenced to 28 months in federal prison, while Deming and Reid will respectively serve 27 and 24 months. Salas and Juraidini will each serve 22 months. Hinojosa and Morales each received 21-month terms of incarceration, while Garza will be in prison for 15 months. Silguero and Cotto will serve five months to be immediately followed by another five months on home confinement. Standlea and Koening will be on probation for three years.
Other McConnell Unit Guards Jamar Tremayne Green 30, of Refugio, Casey Simmons, 25, of Kenedy, and Justin Leonard, 24, of Cypress, were convicted of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine, respectively. Simmons was sentenced to three years of probation, while Green and Leonard will serve five months in prison plus five months of home confinement.
There are still two fugitives in the case and warrants remain outstanding for their arrests.
The arrests came as a result of a joint effort between TDCJ-Office of Inspector General and federal authorities to attempt to break the “culture of corruption” that permeated the McConnell Unit Prison during a period between 2005 to the present. State and federal authorities worked together in a determined effort to disrupt and dismantle the violent criminal gangs who were profiting through the corruption of guards at the prison.
Correction officers assisted prisoners incarcerated in the TDCJ McConnell Unit Prison in Beeville by smuggling cellular telephones and drugs into the prison system. The drugs and phones were then sold inside the prison to other inmates. The phones were used by inmates to assist in their coordination of criminal activities outside the prison.
During Ledezma’s trial, the jury heard testimony that Ledezma acted as an intermediary between drug traffickers in south Texas and Mexico. He had connections to drug suppliers and, utilizing the illegally smuggled cell phones, coordinated with other prisoners to organize drug deals inside and outside the prison. Jurors heard that prisoners had made phone calls to Ledezma while in the McConnell Unit. In these calls, Ledezma agreed to help arrange for six pounds of methamphetamine to be purchased in Corpus Christi and distributed in Arkansas. The buyers of the methamphetamine were to pay more than $20,000 per pound of the drug.
The overall investigation was initiated in 2009 when several Aryan Circle Gang Members were apprehended attempting to transport stolen vehicles from Corpus Christi to Brownsville. The vehicles were destined to be smuggled across the border and sold to Mexico Cartel members. The operation was coordinated by inmates incarcerated at the McConnell Unit through the use of the illegal cell phones.
A subsequent investigation led to a December 2010 federal indictment charging 14 alleged members and associates of the Raza Unida Street and Prison Gang with committing violent acts to support racketeering (VICAR). These violent acts included home invasions, shootings and conspiracy to commit murder. During the course of the investigation, agents and officers seized approximately 13 pounds of crystal methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $300,000. Additionally, seven assault rifles, 14 pistols, five shotguns, five bullet proof vests and approximately 1,000 rounds of ammunition were seized from the gang. All were subsequently convicted, two of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The overall case is the result of a four-year investigation conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Homeland Security Investigations, TDCJ-Office of Inspector General, Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Corpus Christi Police Department Gang and Organized Crime Units, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Bee County District Attorney’s office.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Patterson and Michael Hess.