When the federal jury heard fired Tijuana cop Angel Arceo-Sevilla testify in November of last year that Sofia Martinez was his boss in a ring of smugglers who ran people north from Rosarito in pangas and on jet skis, there were a few things they didn't know.
According to the motion for a new trial, the most important detail was that the jury didn't know about an email promise from the Assistant U.S. Attorney that Arceo-Sevilla’s sentence would be reduced from the mandatory minimum of five years to two years. Martinez’s defense lawyer had asked if there was an agreement several times before the trial and grilled Arceo-Sevilla about it during her cross-examination.
Not only did Arceo-Sevilla know he was getting a break, the prosecutor who sat through his testimony had arranged it, the motion filed March 9 argues. "The government sat silently by and allowed this false testimony to go before the jury without correction."
But after Martinez was convicted, emails from Asst. U.S. Atty. Michelle Pettit to Arceo-Sevilla's lawyer were released that suggest that by July of last year, Pettit was promising a significant reduction in his sentence "if he earns it whether or not he signs the [cooperation] addendum."
“We believe we have enough enhancements for Sofia that she will be facing 78 to 97 months [under the sentencing guidelines] if she goes to trial,” Pettit allegedly wrote in an email to Arceo-Sevilla’s lawyer.
Pettit and the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment on the matter. They have not yet filed a response to the defense motion for a new trial.
Martinez’s attorney Martha Hall pointed to the taped interview where Arceo-Sevilla told investigators: “I am going to make a gift to you of Sofia.”
"He set her up as his insurance," Hall told the jury. What she couldn't tell them was that she believed he lied during his testimony and would get a far better deal on his sentence than he said.
Martinez does not appear to be innocent. She was carrying throw-away phones five at a time, monitoring the Border Patrol from Playas de Tijuana, just south of the border fence, arranging cars to pick people up and letting the jet ski drivers live at her house, according to their testimony. Wiretaps captured her and Arceo-Sevilla talking about the crimes while they were being committed.
The affidavits to get wiretaps show that Department of Homeland Security investigators heard about a smuggler named Sofia a half dozen times when they interviewed people they’d caught entering the U.S. illegally.
In March 2012, when Martinez drove into the U.S. from Tijuana, Homeland Security investigators took her five phones and dumped them for texts and calls while she waited in the secondary inspection area.
By then, Arceo-Sevilla was on their payroll, he testified. Homeland Security paid him more than $9000 between 2011 and April 2013, when he got another $10,000 from the DEA, he testified. He testified the feds didn’t know he was committing crimes while he was their paid informant.
Arceo-Sevilla, now 40, had been busted running the border on a jet ski before, in 2011, long after he was kicked off the Tijuana police force over allegations of abuse of authority.
Martinez had up to three jet ski drivers living with her at her house. She had recruited them to work for her, but they were also driving for other people and the hierarchy of who was in charge was never clear in the contradictory testimony.
"I lived with Sofia and in my house there were no jet skis and the one who would bring the jet skis was [Arceo-Sevilla],” Pedro Mejia Campos testified. Arceo-Sevilla was paying Martinez and the drivers, he said.
The money was good. The spotter who stood on the beach at Las Playas and reported the movements of the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection's helicopter earned $100 to $300 per smuggling run. The drivers got between $700 and $1000 each run. They put one or two customers on the jet skis in Rosarito and waited until their spotters saw a hole in the surveillance, then ran up the coast and took them ashore from Imperial Beach "where the houses begin" to Mission Beach, Campos testified.
The jet ski drivers tucked their cell phones into condoms to keep them dry during the run, but talked with guides on the shore at critical points during the run, Campos said. He remembered a driver they called “Gringo,” calling from the ocean and saying he was running out of gas and a boat was chasing him — before the phone went dead.
"It was two or three months until we heard from Gringo," Campos testified. "He was caught."
Campos got caught in June 2014 on a jet ski run with two passengers. According to the prosecutor, Campos crashed into a Coast Guard ship — though his memory is that the ship got in his way and crashed into him, according to the transcripts.
Arceo-Sevilla was succinct about Martinez's usefulness in his testimony. As an American citizen, she was the only person who could cross into the U.S. and guide people they dropped off on the beach to cars waiting a discreet distance away to pick them up; she coordinated getting their human cargo past the San Clemente Border Patrol checkpoint; and she could go and buy jet skis in the U.S. and bring them to Mexico without filling out importation documents.
Arceo-Sevilla and Martinez’s crews also ran pangas full of people up the coast, he testified, to what he described as a marina at Mission Beach. On wiretaps, drivers referred to SeaWorld for the location.
"I had gotten a lot of results there since it is a marina there is no waves. It is really calm there. It is easier for people to get off they don't get wet and they don't have the risk that they could fall or something could happen to them," he testified.
In May 2013, the team’s pangas ended up in the Children's Pool in La Jolla. The 15 passengers bailed out and ran, and some were rounded up by Border Patrol agents. Two of those paying passengers testified against Martinez.
During hours of cross-examination, Arceo-Sevilla admitted a lot of awkward things, like that he had tried to get his wife into the U.S. to have their son born a U.S. citizen by lying about how far along her pregnancy was.
But he was far less informative when it came to what he expected in return for his testimony. During hours of cross-examination, he presented himself as resigned to a five-year prison sentence.
That — and that the prosecutor knew better and said nothing — may get Martinez a new trial.