Smugglers' Paradise

Guess who's winning the drug war in Cochise County?

At about the same time, BAG learned that the Border Patrol had busted a mule with about 400 pounds of cocaine. (That bust was credited to Gary Callahan, the agent recently arrested on smuggling charges. Police are speculating that Callahan spirited away at least 81 pounds of coke from the cache and turned it over to Paradise Valley dentist Bill Bartel.)

BAG's Bill Townsend noted the cocaine was bundled in green garbage bags and wrapped in gray duct tape. The Sierra Vista caretaker had mentioned that the bundles he'd seen were wrapped the same way. The narcs quickly obtained a warrant to search the house. Calderon was there alone, with a rifle and a revolver nearby, but he didn't resist as the cops rushed to the closet.

They found eleven bundles piled atop each other, 823 pounds of cocaine, one of the largest busts in Cochise County history. It probably would have sold on the streets for about $20 million.

Calderon, then 32, was jailed in Sierra Vista. He told police he had been paid $5,000 to act as an interpreter in negotiations over the price of the drug. At first, all he said was that some Mexican fellow named Ricardo had hired him. In his arrest questionnaire, Calderon listed himself as the sole breadwinner of a Sierra Vista family that includes a young wife and a child.

He noted that he made a living doing odd jobs around Sierra Vista, but that he had $10,000 in cash at home. Calderon's wife, however, told police he had rented the house "for the purposes of smuggling cocaine." The police report also said Calderon's wife claimed he "had smuggled narcotics before in Cochise County." (Townsend says Carlos Calderon confessed later that the 400 pounds seized by the Border Patrol also had been destined for his Sierra Vista safe house. Calderon allegedly also said that he had planned to siphon off a portion of the cache to deal himself.)

Within a few days after his arrest, the Guatemalan handyman, who was being held without bond, hired high-priced former Arizona Attorney General Robert Morrison, who swung a plea bargain that rocked the county. Calderon originally was charged with possessing cocaine for sale, a felony that calls for mandatory prison time. But he wound up pleading guilty just to possession of cocaine, which under Arizona law can result in probation.

Deputy county attorney Chris Roll recommended that Calderon receive a five-year prison term--the maximum under the circumstances. Even Morrison agreed that five years wouldn't be a bad deal for his client. After all, Calderon had been caught red-handed with $20 million of illegal assets.

Last September, Calderon appeared before Cochise County Superior Court Judge Jim Riley, who bought his "interpreter" story and sentenced him to a year in jail--with credit for three months already served. Riley insists he didn't know about the cops' contention that Calderon told them he had intended to sell part of the cache of coke.

"It was analogous to a mule case," the judge says. "He was neither a buyer nor a seller. It was his first offense. He has a stable family situation. The only horrendous thing was the tremendous amount of cocaine involved.

"For someone with a hanging-judge's reputation, I've occasionally imposed a sentence that flies in the face of the hue and cry of the war on drugs. But the prosecutor expected me to do what he should have done as far as making him plead to a charge that would have meant mandatory prison time."
The judge also fined Calderon $205,500--payable at $20 monthly upon his release.

The cops were outraged, and the finger-pointing still hasn't stopped. BAG's Bill Townsend angrily told a local paper it was the product of an inexperienced prosecutor getting snowed by a savvy defense lawyer. County attorney Alan Polley counterattacked, privately lobbying Sheriff Jimmy Judd to transfer Townsend out of BAG.

What should have been the brightest spot in BAG's year-and-a-half history had turned sour.

"Everyone assumed that 823 pounds wasn't for personal use," county attorney Polley tells New Times, "but we were worried that a jury would say, `Where is the evidence that he transported or intended to transport the narcotic?' To link that person with what was in the closet, we couldn't do it. There were no fingerprints taken, no clothing fibers. It wasn't the best police work, believe me. The judge's sentencing vindicated us, and then BAG badmouthed us."
Townsend, a low-key career cop from Douglas who seems an unlikely candidate for controversy, won't back down.

"We are just trying to nip at the cancer," Townsend says. "That much coke, 823 pounds, is a pretty big nip, wouldn't you say? Of course, the guy who owned the coke probably lives in a villa in southern Colombia. But Calderon wasn't a low-rent mule, like so many we get in this county.

"We have a guy who admits to us that he's negotiating the drug, that he's guarding it, and that he's participating in a conspiracy to sell it. We have a big political problem here. The price of dope is going down and the quality is going up. So where the hell is this war on drugs?"
Calderon, who recently was released from jail, should have his $205,500 fine all paid off in about 850 years.

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