The leader of a Columbus, N.M., gunrunning ring fled – and remains free – after word of a federal wiretap was leaked to his associates, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Spitzer told a jury Monday.
The jury is to decide the fate of retired educator Danny Burnett, on trial in Albuquerque for revealing the fact that there were wiretaps on the cellphones of Columbus village officials and, specifically, told Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega about the wiretaps.
Ignacio Villalobos, a member of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juárez Cartel, was the alleged leader of the gunrunning operation and the only member identified who managed to elude arrest in March 2011 when the investigation came to a close. He remains a fugitive.
Vega, who pleaded guilty in the case, is awaiting sentencing under a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
Burnett is the husband of veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, who headed the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office when the Columbus investigation was going full steam.
Danny Burnett’s attorney, Jacquelyn Robins, told the jury selected Monday morning that Burnett knew nothing about the wiretap.
“He had no information to give and wouldn’t have if he did,” Robins said.
Later, she told the jurors to ask themselves, “What is Angelo Vega getting out of his lies? Is he getting a reduced sentence?”
Burnett is accused of giving Vega a specific example of information on an intercepted telephone conversation and then lying to federal agents about the conversation, which allegedly took place outside an Albuquerque restaurant on Feb. 17, 2011.
Spitzer said in his opening statement that intercepted conversations about criminal activity dried up after Vega and Burnett had lunch.
According to Spitzer, Vega’s co-defendant, Columbus Village Trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez, told federal agents after he was arrested, “You have a leak in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Whether Paula Burnett had access to information about the wiretaps is expected to be disputed during the trial.
According to court records, she denies knowing much about the investigation, recused herself shortly after learning about it and denies telling her husband about Vega being a target of the probe.
She has not been charged with any crime but resigned as chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office when her husband was charged. She is now in the civil division.
Burnett knew Vega for decades. Burnett was school superintendent in Carrizozo and took Vega under his wing when Vega was a student in the school system there.
Vega and Gutierrez pleaded guilty in 2011 to participating in the gunrunning scheme, but their plea agreements are sealed, so what type of deal they cut with government prosecutors isn’t public.
Burnett’s defense also began to show that Vega and others involved in the gun-smuggling scheme had an ample number of warnings that law enforcement had the gun-running operation under a microscope.
An undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives testified Monday that village officials used village vehicles to chase him and two other agents out of town. They were stopped by Vega and identified themselves as federal agents so they could get on their way.
He also testified that village officials discovered electronic tracking devices placed on their vehicles.
The gunrunning ring wasn’t even deterred by the seizure of 10 weapons from Gutierrez’s vehicle by State Police and the disappearance of 20 more from a stash house in El Paso – secretly seized by federal agents using a delayed notification search warrant.
Assistant U.S. attorneys from the Western District of Texas are handling the prosecution, and U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan of the Northern District of Oklahoma is hearing the case.