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DEA’s search for elusive fugitive ends at local mortuary

Johnny Lee Padilla was interviewed in 1993 at the Springer Boys School after escaping three times. (Mike Stewart/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Federal narcotics agents have been looking for Johnny Lee Padilla for years. Last week, they found him at the Gabaldon Mortuary in the South Valley.

Now, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents are investigating whether Padilla, 43, was tortured and executed in Mexico, where he lived, allegedly under the protection of a major cartel leader.

In recent years, authorities have linked Padilla to the Juarez Cartel and identified him as a leader in the Los Padillas gang, which has operated for decades out of Albuquerque’s South Valley.

In 2015, a federal grand jury in Albuquerque indicted him on charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Although DEA agents have been tracking his movements, they were never able to catch up with him or arrest him because he lived in Mexico.

It was an online obituary that finally led them to him here in Albuquerque.

In early November, agents were told that Padilla had died in Mexico. It was last week when they found an online obituary on the Gabaldon Mortuary website announcing his death and pending funeral services.

That’s when they served a search warrant on the Gabaldon Mortuary on Old Coors SW.

Agents found paperwork showing that Padilla’s body had been transported by a Mexican funeral home through Mexican Customs, but there was no paperwork showing the body had cleared U.S. Customs.

According to the search warrant affidavit, the paperwork indicated Padilla’s death was the result of a heart attack and diabetes. But when the body was examined here, there was a bullet hole in the back of the head, stab wounds, scratches on the back and “signs of torture,” according to documents.

“A person associated with the Padilla DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization) paid $21,000 in cash for funeral services, including a $15,000 payment of all one-hundred-dollar bills,” the search warrant affidavit said. “A drug dog alerted to the presence of controlled substances on those one-hundred-dollar bills.”

One of the agents visually confirmed Padilla’s identity, but couldn’t obtain fingerprints from the body because it had already been embalmed in Mexico.

The agents seized the body and sent it to the Office of the Medical Investigator for further investigation as evidence in a suspected “drug-related torture and execution.”

A DEA spokesman said the agency couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.

Cartel connections

As a juvenile, Johnny Lee Padilla made the newspapers with his multiple escapes from the Springer Boys School, where he was serving a sentence for burglary.

But from the mid-1990s until 2014, Johnny Lee Padilla has been a ghost, according to law enforcement sources.

Rumors of his involvement in drug deals surfaced on occasion, but he was never targeted by law enforcement.

But in 2014, his name began appearing in drug cases, and the DEA and FBI began trying to track his activities.

According to court records, Padilla since then has been connected by informants and wiretaps to the Juarez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.

Most recently, DEA agents believe he was under the protection of and living with Carlos Arturo Quintana, known as “El 80” or “Ochenta,” a leader of La Linea.

Many DEA agents believe La Linea has taken over control of the Juarez Cartel in the wake of the Juarez-Sinaloa Cartel war that lasted almost a decade at a cost of thousands of lives in northern Mexico.

Padilla’s 2015 federal drug trafficking indictment is still sealed, but his name has come up in several other federal drug trafficking cases involving alleged members of the South Valley Los Padillas gang.

It was in 2015 that an old friend of Padilla’s, Ricky Gallegos, a known member of the Los Padillas gang, was arrested with more than two pounds of methamphetamine and two pounds of heroin.

In 2016, federal agents used wiretaps to connect several Albuquerque heroin and methamphetamine dealers to Padilla.

Padilla’s son was also convicted of a federal gun charge and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.

It was part of a continuing effort that put the Los Padillas gang under constant law enforcement pressure for more than two decades. Every federal law enforcement agency – the DEA, FBI, Homeland Security Investigations, among them – has arrested members of the gang. Headquartered in the far South Valley, the Los Padillas gang has for generations been linked to numerous homicides, drug trafficking and other crimes.

Despite being under such intense law enforcement scrutiny, the gang manages to survive, according to federal court records.

Some court documents alleged Johnny Lee Padilla was the leader of the gang as late as 2018, directing drug trafficking activities from the Juárez area.

His brother, Jeffrey Padilla, who served 20 years in prison for two homicide convictions in the 1990s, was once identified as the gang’s leader. But Jeffrey Padilla, who lives in Albuquerque, has said publicly that he has renounced the criminal lifestyle and turned his life around.

Other members of the family also were convicted of major felonies, most often involving drug trafficking, but haven’t been charged in recent decades with any crimes.

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