Convicted drug courier suspected of cartel ties
Federal prosecutors believe a man recently convicted of hauling 15 pounds of high-quality methamphetamine up Interstate 5 was involved with a Mexican drug cartel.
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Medford, Francisco Hernandez-Figueroa, 29, of San Rafael, Mexico, had entered the country illegally with the purpose of delivering a load of meth on the streets of Seattle.
An Oregon State Police trooper stopped Hernandez-Figueroa's Acura on March 20, 2011, near Medford and found the meth hidden in an intricate compartment system cut into the vehicle, documents show.
Hernandez-Figueroa pleaded guilty to the charges in state court and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Federal prosecutors decided to prosecute him a second time on the same charges, partly because of the man's alleged connection to a cartel.
"You have to be involved with a drug-trafficking organization to attain the amount of pure methamphetamine (Hernandez-Figueroa) had," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Byron Chatfield.
What was most disturbing to prosecutors, aside from the amount of meth hidden in Hernandez-Figueroa's car, was its quality.
Lab tests confirmed the meth was "99.5 percent" pure, with an estimated street value of $873,546, documents show.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that meth purity levels are on the rise, with average levels reaching 88 percent purity in 2012, up from 53 percent in 2000. Prices, however, appear to be dropping.
The agency reports that a gram of high-grade meth sold for an average price of $123 in 2012, less than the $239 average a meth user paid for a gram in 2000.
The cost figures were collected from across the country, the Justice Department said.
An interesting aspect of this case, according to prosecutors, was Hernandez-Figueroa's attempt to avoid a steep federal prison sentence by quickly pleading guilty to state charges in Jackson County Circuit Court.
"It is very uncommon for a defendant to plead guilty to serious charges with little discovery," Chatfield said. "And that's what happened here."
Documents show that Tanya Morrow, a federal public defender in Medford, read about Hernandez-Figueroa's arrest in the Mail Tribune and contacted Justin N. Rosas, Hernandez-Figueroa's state public defender, and advised him that it would be better for the suspect to plead quickly to state charges before federal prosecutors could take the case.
The defense attorneys apparently believed it was unlikely that federal prosecutors would pursue federal charges once the case was adjudicated in state court, documents show.
Chatfield said his office does not often take cases that have been settled in state court. But federal prosecutors will step in when they feel that a large drug case does not adequately punish an offender.
"In this case, because there was such a large amount of narcotics involved, we believed the federal interest was not vindicated," Chatfield said.
A suspect can be tried for the same crime twice as long as the case is pursued in two separate jurisdictions, Chatfield said.
The state and federal courts operate in their own jurisdictions, which allowed Hernandez-Figueroa to be tried twice for his crime.
According to court documents, Hernandez-Figueroa's defense lawyer told him it was possible for federal prosecutors to charge even after he pleaded guilty to the crimes in state court.
Hernandez-Figueroa rolled the dice and pleaded guilty, a gamble he lost.
He was given five years in state prison, but his federal sentence was 10 years. These sentences will be served at the same time, which means Hernandez-Figueroa will serve five years in a state prison and then be moved to a federal pen to serve five more years, Chatfield said.