After being admonished by U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen for abusing the trust of the Laredo community, two high-ranking Laredo police officers, Lt. Eloy Rodriguez and Sgt. Alfonso Santos, were sentenced to approximately three years in prison Friday for conspiracy to commit extortion."It's a two-edged sword when someone has a position of honor and trust and you're supposed to uphold the law and you start sliding into the dark side," Kazen said. "It's very, very troubling."
Kazen sentenced Rodriguez, 44, and Santos, 51, to 38 and 34 months, respectively, for their role in the 8-liner extortion operation that also brought down former Laredo Police Chief Agustin Dovalina. The sentence came at the recommendation of the federal government. All three former officers pleaded guilty to the same charge; Dovalina's sentencing is forthcoming.
"I want to apologize to my family, to the force and to the City of Laredo for my wrongful actions," Rodriguez told Kazen before learning his fate. "I am going to regret this for the rest of my life. I lost my career. I lost my integrity." Santos expressed similar sentiments, apologizing to his family for hurting them.
"I pled guilty. I admit I made a mistake," he said. "I was selfish. I'm sorry for the embarrassment caused to the Laredo Police Department." Santos also expressed remorse that his son, Jesse Santos, resigned from the police department shortly after being sworn in as an officer because of the pressure Santos' actions caused. The former officer then took a more defensive stance before finishing his statements.
"It's amazing that my failures and my mistakes have been far more interesting than my success as a Laredo police officer," he said. The sentences came more than six months after Rodriguez and Santos were originally charged with 20 and 18 counts of "interference with commerce under color of official right," or extortion, respectively. Rodriguez was also charged with several counts of cocaine possession.
The former police officers subsequently agreed to cooperate with federal investigators, and, in exchange for their cooperation, all but one charge was dropped. During sentencing, Santos' attorney, Emilio Davila, pointed out specific details that he said differentiated his client's case from Rodriguez's, including Rodriguez's drug charges.
Kazen responded that Santos should not be rewarded because the federal government chose not to prosecute Rodriguez on misdemeanor drug charges. Davila also told Kazen that Santos' role was minor because Rodriguez initiated the extortion scam, to which Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wright responded that Santos was indeed the middle man between the government's cooperating witness, identified as former Entertainment World owner Linh "Larry" Tuan Do and Dovalina.
Rodriguez was ordered to forfeit $57,000 and Santos $27,800, the total amount the 65-page indictment claims they extorted in 2006. Kazen expressed his concern and his disappointment that Rodriguez initially came into contact with Do through an investigation into drug trafficking, and said Rodriguez was being friendly with the wrong people.
Davila and Rodriguez's attorney, Fausto Sosa, agreed the sentence was fair under the circumstances. "I think he (Santos) did absolutely everything he physically could to correct the mistake that he made," Davila said outside the courthouse. "We went before Judge Kazen, who is strict, but he's fair, and he was sentenced to 34 months. He's lost his career, but he did everything he could to correct the mistake."
"It was just," Sosa said. "It's what the government recommended, and that's what was done." Octavio Salinas, Dovalina's attorney, said he hoped his client would receive similar treatment at his sentencing. "The only difference between us and them is that their amounts (of money extorted) is a lot larger, and, of course, they were testifying against my client," Salinas said.
Salinas added "the facts speak for themselves" with respect to the government's allegations that Rodriguez became involved in the extortion ring after initially investigating drug traffickers. Kazen told the defendants that because of their actions, the entire Laredo Police Department has been smeared publicly, and expressed concern for a citizenry that does not trust those sworn to protect.
"I don't know how people can function if they don't know whether to trust the police," he said. "You two have caused a real blow to your fellow officers," he said. "It's just a bad scene."
(Julian Aguilar may be reached at 728-2557 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org)