Danny Burnett, who retired as superintendent of the Los Lunas School District in 2003, and former Columbus, N.M., Police Chief Angelo Vega were friends from their days in Lincoln County, where Vega was a deputy sheriff and Burnett an educator in the 1990s.
Vega was charged with providing security for the gun smuggling operation, earning $20,000 in a two-month period while running interference for Columbus Town Trustee Blas “Woody” Gutierrez. Both Vega and Gutierrez have pleaded guilty.
Vega was helping Gutierrez by buying police equipment, including bulletproof vests, identifying law enforcement undercover vehicles and generally running interference with federal and state law enforcement agencies.
Burnett, who is married to veteran Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, has pleaded innocent. His attorney, Jacquelyn Robins, says she expects her client to be “exonerated.”
Paula Burnett resigned as chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Criminal Division and resumed her duties as a prosecutor. She has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
In court records, Burnett is accused of telling “John Doe Number One” about a wiretap investigation. That person, in turn, allegedly passed the information on to “John Doe Number Two.”
People familiar with the Columbus gun smuggling ring investigation have confirmed that Vega is John Doe Number One and Gutierrez is John Doe Number Two.
The U. S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, which is handling the case, declined to comment beyond what is in Burnett’s indictment.
Prosecutors out of El Paso are handling the case because Burnett is married to a prosecutor in the Albuquerque U.S. Attorney’s office.
U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan of the Northern District of Oklahoma agreed to preside over the case at the request of then chief U.S. District Judge Bruce Black.
Eagan’s initial rulings in the case provide some indication as to how Danny Burnett might have found out about the wiretap, concluding that the case will present “unique” discovery issues because some of the documents involved are emails to or from federal prosecutor Paula Burnett.
“It is not always clear what emails are related to the criminal charges against defendant or if the e-mails are privileged,” Eagan wrote.
At the time of the alleged leak by her husband to Vega, Paula Burnett was head of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque overseeing all criminal prosecutions, including the Columbus investigation.
Federal wiretap orders used in criminal investigations have to be approved by the local U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice in Washington before being presented to a federal judge for approval.
According to federal court documents, during February 2011 The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wiretapped the telephones of Gutierrez, owner of the Poncho Villa Saloon, as part of an investigation into a gun running operation shipping weapons to Mexico.
Several of the weapons the group smuggled were found at murder scenes in Palomas and Juárez.
According to several people familiar with the Columbus investigation, Burnett became a friend and mentor to Vega when the two men lived in Lincoln County. Vega’s law enforcement career is checkered by two criminal charges.
In 1996, he was indicted by a Lincoln County grand jury on two counts of extortion and one count of intimidation of a witness. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge as part of a plea agreement.
In 1998, he was appointed police chief of Carrizozo and was arrested in 2001 on stalking and harassment charges, which were later dropped. He left Carrizozo in 2005 and took a job with the state as director of the J. Paul Taylor Juvenile Justice Center in Las Cruces.
In 2007, Vega became a marshal for the town of Mesilla, and left in 2009 to become chief of police in Columbus.
If members of a gun smuggling ring operating out of Columbus were tipped off that federal agents were using wiretaps to investigate them, it didn’t keep them off the telephones.
And it didn’t stop them from buying guns to ship to Mexico.
February 2011 was a busy month for the smuggling ring, particularly for Police Chief Vega and town trustee and bar keep, Gutierrez.
According to court records, the two men purchased police gear on Feb. 10 to send to members of La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juárez Cartel that was then in pitched battles with the Sinaloa Cartel.
♦ On Feb. 12, 2011, State Police stopped Gutierrez and seized 10 firearms bound for his contacts in Mexico.
♦ On Feb. 14, federal agents using a “delayed notice” search warrant seized 20 AK-47 type pistols, 30 high capacity magazines and a Dremel tool used to grind serial numbers off the guns from an apartment in El Paso that Gutierrez and others used to store the weapons for shipment to Mexico.
Gutierrez’s consternation over the disappearance and replacement of the weapons filled wiretap transcripts over the next several days.
♦ On Feb. 14, Burnett allegedly leaked information about the federal wiretaps to Vega.
♦ On Feb. 16, Vega tried to help Gutierrez retrieve the 10 weapons seized by State Police with Vega vouching for Gutierrez to federal agents.
♦ On Feb. 18, Vega agreed to buy four bulletproof vests for Gutierrez to send to one of the leaders of La Linea.
♦ On Feb. 23, Gutierrez arranged the purchase of 10 AK-47 type pistols and 1,500 rounds of ammunition. The same day Vega made a telephone call to an ATF agent stating that Gutierrez is not involved in gun smuggling.
The arrests were made in March.
Ten of the 11 defendants, including Gutierrez, have pleaded guilty. The one defendant who has not pleaded guilty, Ignacio “Nacho” Villalobos, is a fugitive.
Vega has not been sentenced. He pleaded guilty in August, and his plea agreement is sealed.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal