LAS VEGAS — An attorney representing one of the illegal immigrants arrested Wednesday in a record-setting Las Vegas drug bust said the state's case may rest on evidence obtained through illegal search warrants.
Las Vegas lawyer Libo Agwara told The Associated Press Friday that he will challenge a flurry of search warrants quickly obtained by police this week to seize 212 pounds of drugs with an estimated street value of $5.7 million, the largest methamphetamine bust in Nevada history.
"This case is not as airtight as they think it is," said Agwara, who represents Felix Roman, 27, of Las Vegas.
Law enforcement officials told reporters this week that the bust was a game-changing sweep that would touch all corners of Las Vegas' illegal underworld, including drug bosses, small-time dealers and individual users. Officials seized four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of heroin and 208 pounds (94 kilograms) of methamphetamine in varying stages of processing, from its liquid form to the crystal-like pieces sold on the street. Police also seized $280,000 in cash, six guns and nine vehicles used for drug trafficking after searching at least five residential properties in Las Vegas and Henderson on Tuesday. In the previous record bust, Las Vegas officials seized 70 pounds (31 kilograms) of methamphetamine.
Roman and at least eight others were arrested in the raid. Most of the suspects were illegal immigrants from Mexico, including Roman; Jorge Loza, 26; Armando Lara, 37; Sergio Vieyra-Medrano, 37; Moreliano Zaragoza-Ramos, 26; Salvador Garibo, 27; Cecilia Salgado, 55; and Alejandro Gomez, 31. Mayra Torres, 28, of California was also arrested. Police officials said they expected to arrest at least two others tied to the drug operation this week. All but Torres and Salgado were being held Friday morning on an average bail amount of $13,000. The women had been released after posting bail.
A Las Vegas judge increased the bail amount to at least $100,000 per suspect during a hearing Friday after the state asked that the bail be increased to at least $1 million per suspect and $10 million for Zaragoza-Ramos, the alleged leader of the drug ring who also goes by the name Oscar Cavadas.
"Standard bail is just not appropriate in this case," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Tina Sedlock. "This is not a standard case."
Sedlock said many of the suspects, particularly Zaragoza-Ramos, clearly have access to drug money and had no incentive to return to court if they posted bail because they are illegal immigrants. She also requested that any bail posted be verified by the court because the money could be tied to illegal activity.
"The evidence against these defendants is overwhelming, your honor," Sedlock said. "We are never going to see these defendants again once they post bail."
Salgado, who did go to court Friday after posting bail, told the AP she should not have been arrested.
"No, I'm not guilty," she said in Spanish outside the courtroom Friday. "I worked a lot in this country to be involved in something like this."
She declined further comment after a court translator advised her not to speak to reporters.
The suspects are scheduled to return to court July 28 for a preliminary hearing.
A slate of lawyers representing the suspects asked that prosecutors release the search warrants obtained by police, as well as transcripts and other records associated with the wiretaps police likely used to follow the suspects during the course of the seven-month investigation.
It is likely that the defense attorneys, who are working independently for individual clients, will pit the suspects against one another and challenge the validity of the search warrants.
"There always are concerns because the cops always make mistakes" Agwara told the AP after the hearing. "A lot of times there are false statements. They deceive the court."
Defense attorney Jose Pallares, who is also representing Roman, indicated that he would argue that his client was not involved with the drug ring.
"It's really a case of guilt by association," Pallares told the AP.
Defense attorney John Momot, who is representing Zaragoza-Ramos, would not comment on whether his client was guilty, but said finger-pointing between the suspects is to be expected.
"That's a fact of life," he said. "But I am ready to litigate and fight for my client."
The investigation began in January and police officials said they are still trying to determine whether Zaragoza-Ramos has ties to Mexico's brutal drug cartels. The drugs were manufactured in Mexico and smuggled across the border into the United States.
"Cavadas has been identified as a high level drug trafficker who distributes pound quantities of methamphetamine throughout the Las Vegas valley," an arrest report states. "Detectives know that Cavadas maintains houses which he stores methamphetamine and utilizes runners to facilitate his narcotics trafficking."
Detectives watched Zaragoza-Ramos deliver a 5-pound (2.2-kilogram) bag of methamphetamine to a Las Vegas customer on June 6. They later learned Zaragoza-Ramos was scheduled to receive a massive shipment of the drug on Tuesday from Torres, who drove in from California.
Police observed Torres leave Zaragoza-Ramos' home Tuesday night. Police soon stopped her and found $270,000 in her car, the money she collected for delivering the shipment, according to an arrest report. In Zaragoza-Ramos' home, police found 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of methamphetamine in a master bedroom converted into a makeshift drug lab.
Officers from Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Boulder City joined officials from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Nevada Highway Patrol in the raid. Law enforcement officials said they could not reveal what triggered the investigation because the case remains open.