Former Columbus Village Police Chief Angelo Vega pointed to his former mentor, retired educator Danny Burnett, as the leak of a federal wiretap investigation into a gun running ring based in the small border town.
Vega admitted he used his position to run interference with other law enforcement agencies that might interfere with his fellow conspirators who smuggled weapons to the Juárez Cartel in 2010 and the first few months of 2011.
His testimony came during the second day of Burnett’s criminal trial in which Burnett is charged with leaking information about the wiretap and lying about it to federal investigators. Burnett has pleaded not guilty.
Vega has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle firearms and taking bribes as a public official with a possible sentence of more than 20 years in prison. His plea agreement limits his prison sentence to seven and a half years and he could get as little as three and a half years.
Federal prosecutors allege Burnett learned about the wiretap from his wife, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, who headed the office’s criminal division while the gun smuggling ring was under investigation.
Vega, the prosecution’s star witness, testified in a red jail jumpsuit with shackles around his ankles, waist and wrists making it difficult for him to look at documents handed him by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory McDonald of El Paso.
Burnett has pleaded not guilty and Paula Burnett, who has not been charged with any crime, denies telling anyone about the wiretap because she knew little about it.
Vega and others testified that while Burnett headed the Carrizozo School District, he took the troubled Vega under his wing and helped get him jobs and graduate from high school.
After his arrest in March 2011, Vega did not tell federal agents that he was tipped off about the wiretap.
From his jail cell he said he attempted to contact Burnett two or three times.
“I thought maybe he could help me,” Vega said. “He’s the one I call and he helps.”
He said Burnett never visited him in jail.
Vega, who has spent the last 31 months in solitary confinement while his case and sentencing are pending, testified that he met Burnett on February 17, 2011, at an Albuquerque restaurant because he wanted to trade a semi-automatic assault rifle for an old pickup truck Burnett owned.
But after the February lunch, Vega testified, Burnett told him the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had the gun-smuggling ring under investigation and that agents were listening to his telephone conversations.
“He told me I was in trouble,” Vega said. “The federal government had opened a jacket on me.”
Vega said Burnett told him not to discuss anything on the telephone or text anything using his phone.
“He told me Paula (Burnett) had told him,” Vega said, adding later that according to Danny Burnett, she was very upset about Vega being involved in gun smuggling.
Assistant U.S. attorneys from the Western District of Texas are handling the prosecution and U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan, of the Northern District of Oklahoma is hearing the case.