Former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega was getting paid more than $40,000 a year from the small village at the same time he was collecting $2,000 a month plus bonuses in $100 bills from the local Juárez Cartel representatives, according to testimony in federal court Wednesday.
Vega testified Wednesday that he didn’t remember exactly how much he was paid or how long he worked for the cartel, but another witness testified later that Vega received $2,000 a month plus bonuses.
Vega is the key prosecution witness in the case against Danny Burnett, who is charged with leaking information about a federal wiretap investigation in a Columbus gun and drug smuggling ring.
Burnett has pleaded not guilty, and his wife, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, has not been charged with any crime. She formerly headed the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office but was walled off from the Columbus investigation once she learned Vega was a potential target.
Burnett’s attorneys, Jacquelyn Robins and Larry Gomez, introduced into evidence emails circulated throughout the U.S. Attorney’s Office that Burnett was no longer to receive any information about the investigation.
Danny Burnett, former Carrizozo Schools superintendent, took Vega under his wing when Vega was a troubled student, helped him graduate from high school and get jobs.
But most of Wednesday’s testimony dealt with how the cartel operated in Columbus.
Vega’s boss in the illicit operation, former village trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez, testified that he had village Mayor Eddie Espinosa approach Vega in 2010 to see if he was willing to work for the cartel.
Gutierrez said Vega was receptive and began doing background investigations on people seeking to buy drugs from local Juárez Cartel leader Ignacio Villalobos – Gutierrez’s boss – and running license plate numbers of cars that might be law enforcement undercover vehicles.
Vega admitted running background checks and license plates at the request of cartel members and buying military gear at law enforcement supply stores for members of the Juárez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.
Vega also received $1,500 each time he allowed the cartel members to use village vehicles – including police vehicles – to deliver drugs, pick up guns and pick up money from marijuana sales on top of the $2,000 a month the cartel was paying him, Gutierrez testified.
Gutierrez, who faces 10 years in federal prison for his guilty plea, said Vega told him that he had a friend whose wife worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and that the friend told Vega their telephones were tapped.
Gutierrez said he was not sure Vega was telling the truth until the two men met in Columbus and Vega destroyed his new phone in front of Gutierrez.
“He did it to show he wasn’t messing around,” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said he took the information to his boss, Villalobos, and asked that Vega be paid a bonus. Villalobos hesitated because he wasn’t confident about the information.
Gutierrez said he paid Vega a bonus of $2,000 to $3,000 out of his own pocket.
He and Vega then started buying “throwaway” telephones – cellular phones without contracts using prepaid telephone cards.
The ring had previously used the “throwaway” phones, and Gutierrez said he had bought hundreds of them for use by members of the smuggling ring.
Gutierrez testified that Vega claimed his friends could make the case go away for $20,000.
Other government witnesses testified that no one in the U.S. Attorney’s Office could make a criminal case “go away” and that it would be impossible in an investigation as intensive as the one targeting the Columbus gun smuggling ring.
Assistant U.S. attorneys involved in the investigation testified that the quantity and quality of telephone conversations dropped after Feb. 17, 2011, the day Vega had lunch with Danny Burnett at an Albuquerque restaurant.