Law-enforcement officials said Monday that they used wiretapping to help gather evidence against the defendants in a suspected illegal drug-distribution ring n and said it was the first time that a Benton County investigation used wiretaps under state law.
The investigation into the drug ring went public last week, when authorities searched more than 20 sites across the mid-Willamette Valley. Thus far, 16 suspects have been arrested in connection with the ring, which authorities say was distributing methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
Also Monday, grand jury indictments were filed for 11 of the defendants, on charges of racketeering, money laundering and the unlawful delivery of cocaine. The grand jury heard testimony Friday and so far has indicted 14 people in the case. (Three women were indicted Friday on charges of perjury.)
Two of the people arrested have yet to be indicted. One of the suspects, Jose Ortiz, who was arrested in Wednesday's raids, was immediately taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and has not yet been indicted. He will be charged in Benton County sometime in the next few months. Another man who has not yet been indicted, Pablo Desantiago-Puente, was arrested Wednesday and charged with tampering with evidence when he smashed his cell phone, allegedly to prevent police from getting information from it.
This investigation was only the second time in state history that a wiretap has been used to investigate a drug trafficking organization, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Stringer. Marion County used a wiretap in a drug investigation a few years ago, he said. And federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency might have used wire taps in Oregon investigations, but state law enforcement agencies would not necessarily know about them.
Benton County District Court Judge David Connell signed the warrants for the wiretaps, after reviewing affidavits in support of the warrant requests that were more than 100 pages long, according to Stringer. "Judicial oversight was intimately involved in the process," Stringer said.
"Generally speaking, wires are used when normal investigative techniques won't work or are too dangerous to employ," Stringer said.
Law-enforcement officers must show they have exhausted investigative techniques such as surveillance and using undercover officers before they can get a warrant for a wiretap.
"Organized drug dealers are dangerous people," Stringer said, "and a wire allows us to get good evidence without risking the lives of informants and police officers."
Stringer confirmed there were two months of wiretaps. Oregon state law allows a wire to be in place for a one-month period, followed by one 30-day extension. If a lengthier period is necessary, investigators must apply for a new warrant. Stringer declined to comment further about the specific wires used in this investigation. But he did say that now law enforcement in Corvallis have had experience using wires, they will be prepared to use them again against drug organizations if necessary.
"Now that we know how to do it," Stringer said, "drug dealers better think about getting out of this area."
In court appearances before Judge Connell on Monday, two of the men who Stringer previously identified as key players in the drug-trafficking ring, brothers Isidro and Ricardo Linares, still did not have attorneys. Both men are charged with one count each of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and money laundering.
Isidro Linares, who police say ran La Poderosa Mexican Store in Corvallis as a front for drug distribution, told Connell he hadn't been able to use the jail's phone to try to contact an attorney.
"Every time they take me out, they take me out at night or in the afternoon," Isidro Linares said. No attorney has been available at those times to talk to him.
Stringer told Connell he had contacted the jail commander, Lt. Scott Jackson, about the situation.
"They just want to make sure he's calling an attorney and not a co-conspirator to hide evidence," Stringer said.
Connell set Isidro Linares' next court appearance for Friday, but told him if he had an attorney before that day, the appearance could be moved up.
Ricardo Linares, who authorities say ran the Del Valle store in Independence as a drug-distribution front, said he didn't need an attorney. Stringer confirmed that Ricardo Linares had waived his right to an attorney to both Stringer and District Attorney John Haroldson.
"My only attorney is God, my father," Ricardo Linares said through an interpreter.
Connell reminded him that he can still hire an attorney at any time, and that he also has the right to represent himself. Stringer said the district attorney's office was willing to negotiate directly with Ricardo Linares if he chose to represent himself. His next appearance was set for Friday.
Outside court, Stringer said the district attorney's office was negotiating with the defendants in the case and their attorneys. He said plea offers would be made to all of the defendants, and those offers would correspond to each defendant's level of cooperation and the level of their involvement in the drug ring. The high bails set in this case, $10 million for the three men described as key players, the Linares brothers and Manuel Salgado, and $1 million for eight other defendants, reflect the amount of money law enforcement believes was generated by the organization, as well as the high flight risk prosecutors believe the defendants pose. Salgado faces two charges of racketeering, accusing him of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
It was evident in Monday's court appearances that two aspects of cooperation necessary for a deal with the district attorney's office are that the defendants waive their right to a trial within 60 days, and that they remain in custody until a settlement is reached or a trial is held.
Defendants who are in custody have the right to a trial within 60 days of their arrests. Robert Corl, the attorney who is representing Raul Cardenas Becerra, said in court Monday that his understanding was that the district attorney's office was not willing to negotiate with his client unless he waived his right to a trial within 60 days. Corl said his client did waive that right and he entered a plea of not guilty to the sole charge of racketeering.
Attorneys for Nadia Legorreta, Gregorio Hernandez-Hernandez and Irma Linares all said they would not waive the right to a trial within 60 days until they had reviewed the evidence against their clients. That evidence is likely to include the transcripts from the wiretaps.