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Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — When state police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents announced last week the seizure of 145 pounds of cocaine, $1.2 million in cash and the arrest of three men they say are linked to a Mexican drug cartel, the bust and the five-month probe that preceded it came as news to the state’s federal prosecutors.
“We were unaware of this investigation,” said Jim Martin, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha, whose office often prosecutes cases involving more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. “These are the types of cases we certainly would want to prioritize.”
The U.S. Department of Justice has made cracking down on Mexican cartels a priority under the Obama administration. The Justice Department launched an initiative to “use prosecutor-led task forces” that bring together diverse law-enforcement agencies to dismantle cartels, extradite the members and seize assets.
Since taking over the office in 2009, Neronha, too, has placed an emphasis on getting local, state and federal agencies to work together and jointly determine where cases should be prosecuted to deliver the stiffest sentences. A Syracuse University study released this month showed the number of non-immigrant felonies charged in Rhode Island under Neronha grew to 386, a 65-percent increase over the previous two years, the greatest jump in the country. Martin attributed that hike to the increased cooperation and sharing of resources by local, state and federal agencies.
Federal prosecutors, however, were not on hand last Thursday when DEA agents joined state and local police and Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin in announcing the arrests. And the cases are on track to be prosecuted in state, not federal court — leaving criminal court watchers scratching their heads.
“It tastes like a federal case; it smells like a federal case, given the quantity and the allegations of international and multi-state transportation of both cocaine and cash,” said George J. West, a defense lawyer who works in state and federal courts. “These are common factors in federal cases.”
Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the DEA in Boston, said his agency decided to take the case through the state court based on “who was working on it at the time.” But, he said, the three men could be indicted federally. By state law, a person cannot be prosecuted on drug charges in both state and federal court.
“It was initially charged by the state, based in part by the amount of involvement by the state police and by this office,” said Amy Kempe, spokeswoman for Kilmartin.
The state police always pursue cases through the state courts in consultation with the attorney general’s office, said Capt. James O. Demers. It’s the attorney general decision whether to reach out to federal prosecutors, he said.
The investigation began in September with a tip to state police about drug shipments heading into Rhode Island from the West Coast, according to the police. Over the coming months, local and state police working with the DEA task force monitored suspects via a global tracking device and a wireless camera aimed at a storage unit at 376 Dry Bridge Rd., North Kingstown. A federal database revealed that a tractor-trailer believed to be involved was recorded in November on the Imperial County Highway in California, a known source of entry for controlled substances into the United States, court records show.
The DEA task force, with officers from the Woonsocket, Warwick and East Providence departments, executed search warrants Jan. 29 and 30, seizing bricks of cocaine wrapped in Mexican newspapers, bundles of cash and a 9mm handgun. The police charged Adilson Antonio Reyes, 29, of Utah, and Rodrigo Armando Saucedo, 31, and Andrew Rios, 39, both of California, with possession of more than 1 kilogram of cocaine, possession with the intent to deliver more than 1 kilogram of cocaine and conspiracy to possess and sell the drug. No one faces a firearm charge. They are being held without bail.
Kevin J. Fitzgerald, an assistant federal public defender, speculated that perhaps prosecutors were gathering more facts to take to a federal grand jury, but he said that he thought the men would face the same exposure no matter where the case was brought.
Under state law, the men face up to life in prison, or 20 years, for each count of possession of more than a kilogram of cocaine, and up to 30 years for possession with intent to deliver. Conspiracy to possess could bring up to 20 years in prison, and conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver up to 30 years with no minimum sentence with either charge.
Under federal law, possession of more than 5 kilograms of cocaine and conspiracy to possess with intent to deliver carry a minimum sentence of 10 years and up to life in prison. A firearms conviction would automatically add five years.
“That’s real prison time,” Martin said. A federal prisoner is not eligible for parole before the end of his or her term, unlike the state system. They also cannot receive suspended sentences as seen in state court. Federal prisoners are credited for “good time,” which can reduce their sentence by 15 percent if they abide by the rules.
State prisoners, too, can earn up to 10 days off their sentence for each month of good behavior, plus 5 more for joining a treatment program. Sex offenders and those serving life sentences are not eligible for that incentive.
The DEA will also determine whether the $1.2 million seized will be forfeited to the state, or be handled by the U.S. Department of Justice. By state law, the attorney general’s office would receive 20 percent of the proceeds, with 70 percent to be divided by state and local law-enforcement agencies based on their role in the investigation. The remaining 10 percent would be given to the state Department of Health for substance-abuse treatment programs.
If the money is forfeited federally, it would be placed in a federal account. State and local agencies can then apply to the Justice Department for money based on their involvement in the probe. At most, 85 percent would be returned to the state.
DEA spokesmen did not return four phone calls asking for specifics about how the forfeiture will proceed.