Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The last time alleged drug trafficker Robert Corbin Padilla appeared in federal court, he was 23 years old and facing criminal charges after the Drug Enforcement Administration seized crack cocaine, a 9 mm handgun and a bulletproof vest at his property.
But for reasons prosecutors can’t now explain, his case was dismissed in 2001 and he was set free.
This week, Padilla, 42, was back in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on multiple new drug trafficking charges after a two-year DEA investigation that relied chiefly on months of court-authorized wiretaps on his phones. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
During a pretrial detention hearing Monday in U.S. Magistrate Court, federal law enforcement officials testified that, over the past two decades, Padilla had become a major drug trafficker with a pipeline from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Federal records allege that he acquired a reputation for using threats, violence and having connections to law enforcement that made him “untouchable.”
“Through information obtained early on in this investigation, agents believe that Padilla has source(s) of information in the Las Vegas Police Department and/or the San Miguel County District Attorney’s Office,” stated an 87-page DEA search warrant unsealed Sept. 19. “Lead agents believe these source(s) of information may provide Padilla information regarding any investigations targeting Padilla as well as provide him information regarding impending execution of search warrants.”
One example cited in a newly unsealed FBI affidavit: After a DEA search at Padilla’s Rio Rancho property in November 2011, law enforcement agents left empty-handed – without the drugs or contraband they thought they would find.
A confidential informant later told agents that Padilla had advance notice of the raid. The informant said he told Padilla he was lucky. Padilla’s reported response: “Got to know what you’re doing; you got to know the right people.”
In the fallout from the recent DEA-led investigation, the Las Vegas Police Department and the San Miguel County District Attorney’s Office pledged to look into whether someone in their offices has been tipping off Padilla and his drug organization to law enforcement investigations.
During Monday’s detention hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen, Padilla’s defense attorney, Joe Romero Jr., cited Padilla’s minimal criminal record as grounds for him to be released from custody, with conditions, pending trial.
“Mr. Padilla’s criminal history does not satisfy the proof necessary to find Mr. Padilla is a danger to the community and a danger to any specific witness,” said Romero, who had represented him in the 2001 federal prosecution. “It is very relevant that he has no felony convictions.”
Since 2000, Padilla has had 14 arrests on state charges, ranging from aggravated assault with a deadly weapon to DWI.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristopher Houghton told the judge that Padilla was charged federally with distribution of controlled substances two decades ago, “but Mr. Padilla’s case was dismissed … for reasons that are not altogether known to me.”
The court case file isn’t readily available, but Romero told the Journal on Friday that the earlier federal charges were dismissed because government witnesses wouldn’t show up to testify.
Molzen ordered Padilla held in custody pending trial on a federal indictment charging him with 12 counts, including conspiracy and distribution of cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. Eleven others alleged to have worked in Padilla’s organization were also indicted. One, identified as Ashley Romero of Las Vegas, is still at large.
Testimony during the detention hearing showed that Padilla remains a suspect in the July 22 fatal shooting of a government witness who testified against the murderous Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang in the massive FBI-led racketeering investigation dubbed “Operation Atonement.”
FBI special agent Bryan Acee testified that two eyewitnesses identified Padilla as being the shooter of Leroy “Smurf” Lucero. That investigation is ongoing, he added.
Padilla’s attorney, Romero, countered that Padilla agreed to be interviewed by the FBI after his arrest on the drug charges and denied any involvement in Lucero’s murder. Romero added that Padilla also offered to take a polygraph test to prove his innocence.
Romero on Friday told the Journal in an email that the “uncharged and sensational allegations made not only against my client, but against the police department and district attorney’s office in Las Vegas … are nothing more than prejudicial rumors … not only to my client by also publicly besmirching the reputations” of the police department and DA’s office.”
“When the dust settles,” he added, “they often turn out to be rather pedestrian cases.”
During the detention hearing, prosecutor Houghton played excerpts of Padilla’s intercepted phone calls between October 2018 and April of this year, when the DEA wiretaps ended.
In an October 2018 call, Padilla was told by an associate that a woman named “Yoli” owed (his drug trafficking organization) $7,000. But Padilla disputed that, saying, “If that was the case, I would have killed her myself or I’d send you to do it,” according to a recording of the phone call played Monday.
Defense attorney Romero told the judge his client may have engaged in “tough talk” but no harm came to the woman referred to in the call. But law enforcement officials contend Padilla has threatened violence against those who owed him money for drugs.
Padilla was a moving target for federal law enforcement officials in the weeks prior to his arrest in Albuquerque, records show. He swapped his distinctive 2016 black Chevrolet Corvette for an associate’s Honda, and switched cellphones. He also stayed in motel rooms not registered in his own name, according to testimony and federal records.
As recently as April, Padilla had a phone conversation with an associate named Ray Herrera who said he knew someone that worked for the “hoodas” (slang for police) who told Herrera that “law enforcement is actively targeting” Padilla.
“Herrera’s apparent source of information worked for the city of Las Vegas,” the DEA affidavit stated. “Padilla doesn’t believe that the investigation is at the Federal level because Federal law enforcement agencies don’t share information with the Las Vegas Police Department due to Padilla’s influence within the department.”
The DEA in 2009 interviewed a police sergeant who reported that Padilla was paying $1,000 a week to a “mole” inside the San Miguel County District Attorney’s office. That “mole” was described as a DA investigator who was a disgraced Las Vegas police officer.
“DEA agents were able to confirm the DA investigator had been employed by the San Miguel District Attorney’s Office for about 15 years,” the search warrant affidavit stated.
In March 2017, the DEA received a request from the San Miguel County DA’s office and Las Vegas police to investigate Padilla and his alleged organization. The DA’s office had filed drug charges against several people believed to be connected to the operation, “but case agents were unable to penetrate the Padilla DTO and the case went cold,” the affidavit states.
Sometime later, a Las Vegas police employee, according to the FBI affidavit, contacted the DEA and began providing information.
“The LVPD employee related he had come to the DEA because he did not trust LVPD officers and detectives with information on Robert Padilla and suspected they ‘looked the other way’ with regard to Padilla. The employee identified Padilla as the main drug source of supply in Las Vegas and attributed about 70% of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine on the streets in Las Vegas as having come from the Padilla drug trafficking organization.”
One of the DEA wiretaps picked up a conversation between Padilla and co-defendant Marcos Ruiz, in which Padilla texted a photo of what appeared to be crack cocaine he had just produced. A partial transcript of the call and the photo were included in the DEA affidavit.
In executing a nighttime search warrant in the case Sept. 19, a DEA-led team searched five Las Vegas locations, including a Wells Fargo bank where Padilla’s girlfriend worked. Agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service and Homeland Security Investigations were to be included, but no one from local law enforcement.
Federal search warrant records show Padilla successfully fended off at least three earlier DEA investigations. Of his state court cases, none involve drug charges. All ended in dismissals or pleas to misdemeanor charges. He received only probation or was sentenced to “time served.”
In one case from 2014 involving felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and tampering with evidence, Padilla’s defense attorney sought to disqualify DA Richard Flores and his top chief deputy because they had both been Padilla’s defense attorneys in criminal proceedings a decade earlier.
A different prosecutor was assigned and Padilla pleaded guilty to the petty misdemeanor of battery. A judge sentenced him to six months’ probation.
In Padilla’s most recent state criminal case, a woman told Rio Rancho police in 2015 that Padilla admitted breaking windows at her house because he believed she had removed some decorative rocks from his nearby vacant property.
According to the Rio Rancho police report, Padilla told the woman “police would not do anything to him.” He is also alleged “to have made a hand gesture to (the woman) in the shape of a gun.”
Padilla was initially charged with criminal damage to the woman’s property and disorderly conduct. The 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Sandoval County dismissed the charges in 2017, referring the case for grand jury indictment.
Court records show no evidence of an indictment in the case.