Wednesday, April 08, 2009
N.M. Marijuana Case Sidetracks Former Major Leaguer
By Tim Korte
LAS VEGAS, N.M. Years ago, Gilberto Reyes was a major league catcher working with Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez and Randy Johnson.
These days, he's jailed and facing the challenge of his life. Four days before Christmas 2007, Reyes was driving a truck that slid off an icy freeway in northeastern New Mexico, right into a tangle of legal trouble.
The vehicle toppled and spilled a load of furniture, along with hidden cargo 420 pounds of marijuana, bundled in 42 cellophane-wrapped bricks. The drugs tumbled onto the snowy ground after the crash.
Authorities estimated the street value at $250,000.
Reyes, a native of the Dominican Republic who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos during a seven-year career in the majors, has been jailed since but staunchly maintains his innocence on drug trafficking charges.
"I've never been in jail before this. I've never been in trouble with police," Reyes said last month during a one-hour interview with The Associated Press at the San Miguel County Detention Center.
Despite his troubles, Reyes smiled and laughed often after taking a seat inside a cinderblock-walled jailhouse classroom. He wore an orange jail-issued shirt, orange pants, white socks and sneakers.
He had his 45th birthday behind bars last winter.
Reyes said he rejected a plea bargain during his more than 15 months of incarceration because he had to protect his good name.
"To be honest, they had a good case," Reyes said. "The D.A. was very good. He was just doing his job. He can't let me go free. That was his case. He had to prove I knew something about it."
In February, Reyes' trial ended with a hung jury that was leaning 8-4 in support of his acquittal. But that meant he was facing even more jail time because a retrial was slated for July.
San Miguel County District Attorney Richard Flores was criticized by some residents who believed Reyes' claims of innocence and felt his long stay in jail was punishment enough, but the prosecutor defended his stance.
"Narcotics pose a problem within our community," Flores said, vowing to target anyone who sells or distributes illegal drugs. "There are many families that have been affected by drug abuse. It's not just the drug user that is affected."
The issue became moot this month when Flores dropped the charges.
The prosecutor knew federal immigration authorities had placed a hold on Reyes because his short-term visa expired during the jail stay. Flores realized the feds could accomplish what he also wanted putting Reyes out of sight.
So when a judge granted conditional release for Reyes on March 10, he was seized immediately by federal agents.
They took Reyes to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center in El Paso, where he has been held without bond, facing his pending deportation to the Dominican Republic.
"I am confident that the public interest will be served by removing him from the United States and his ability to transport and provide drugs to our citizens," Flores said.
The whole thing has been "a nightmare," Reyes said, certainly not what he bargained for when, he claims, he accepted a $1,000 offer from a man he knew only as "Garcia" to take the furniture to Denver from a town on the Mexican border.
Reyes said he met Garcia at a pool hall in Douglas, Ariz. They drank beer and hung out together for five months.
Across the border in neighboring Agua Prieta, Mexico, Reyes had been managing a team in the Mexican minor leagues. After the season ended last fall, he ran youth camps until his money ran out.
Garcia's offer sounded like easy work, and it would earn Reyes enough cash for travel to rejoin his family.
"The only mistake I made was trusting that guy," Reyes said. "I knew him for many months. I didn't know what a drug dealer looked like, but I didn't think he was one of them."
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, testifying for prosecutors at trial, said the cellophane drug bundles and use of a smuggler a "mule" were characteristic of sophisticated drug trafficking organizations.
Reyes couldn't pay the $10,000 bond after his arrest because, he said, he didn't have it. Later, after learning federal officials had placed the hold on him, he knew he would be deported if he was released.
"I didn't have any good choices," he said.
Still, Reyes felt he did the right thing all along. He said he could have run instead of waiting for police to arrive at the scene of the snowy crash.
"I sat and waited for the police. It's true I could have grabbed one of those marijuana bundles, stopped the next passing car and said, 'Hey, drive me to Albuquerque,"' Reyes said.
But he didn't, Reyes said, and he never realized drugs were part of the load. He recalled being dazed and didn't recognize the scattered bundles as marijuana. It was cold and snowy on a remote stretch of Interstate 25.
"There was nowhere to go on foot," Reyes said.
Later, while being examined at a Las Vegas hospital, Reyes said he was left unattended for 20 minutes and, looking back, believes he could have fled. Mondragon told jurors Reyes didn't run because he was innocent.
"I'm really happy I rolled the truck," Reyes said. "I didn't know there were drugs in there. But I'm happy it happened because those drugs never made it to drug dealers on the street."
Like countless others in his native land, Reyes learned baseball growing up in the Dominican Republic. He was a .202 career hitter over seven big-league seasons.
His time with the Dodgers spanned from 1983-88, backing up Mike Scioscia. Reyes said his career highlights included catching Hershiser in the majors and helping groom Pedro Martinez in the minors.
Reyes spent his last two major league seasons, in 1989 and 1991, with the Expos, working with Johnson and Martinez. He described the Nicaraguan right-hander as "a very good friend."
One of the most frustrating things about life behind bars? Reyes has limited access to baseball, making it tough to get scores and news.
But there were surprises. He led Bible study in the New Mexico jail, worked in the kitchen for a year and performed laundry duty.
"It was hard in jail, trying to have hope, but it was a good experience, too," Reyes said. "I helped people through Bible study. I didn't know how to peel potatoes. Now, I can cook for 150 people. I was a chef."
The worst part, he said, has been the impact on his family.
His wife left their Dominican Republican home for New Jersey after neighbors learned of his drug charges. His two youngest children are living with relatives so they can attend schools in Pennsylvania.
A son, Gilberto Reyes Jr., plays baseball at Bellevue University outside Omaha, Neb. Reyes worries the youngster might be affected by his father's troubles.
"I'm an easy guy, a softhearted guy," Reyes said, wiping off a tear. "I have been praying to the Lord for mercy. I know everything will come to an end. My mother always said God never gives you more than you can handle."
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