Something peculiar has happened in the prosecution of Lorne Leslie Jones, the former border inspector, nicknamed “Hammer,” who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison earlier this year after a San Diego jury found him guilty of helping smuggle marijuana and undocumented immigrants into the United States.
The case, the culmination of almost 15 years of on-again, off-again investigation by members of the Border Corruption Task Force, was hailed as a textbook piece of official sleuthing—“a reminder,” in the words of San Diego’s U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, “that we will not allow rogue officers to compromise national security and the public trust.”
Since then, however, the case has disappeared into a mystifying black hole. In March, it appeared to be entirely resolved— not least because Jones had waived his right to appeal. But there are now multiple indications it may have been reexamined or even reopened and that, far from being a textbook prosecution, it’s riddled with problems that raise questions about the U.S. Attorney’s office and federal investigators as much as the defendant. A cloud of official secrecy has descended, and nobody directly involved will say what is going on.
What we do know is this: Jones, a decorated former Marine who served 17 years with the U.S. Customs service, most of them as a dog handler, was ordered at sentencing to report to federal prison on May 2. But that date came and went, and he remained a free man. The U.S. Attorney’s office won’t say why—only that a new surrender date has now been set for Aug. 22. [Editor's note: This part of the story has been updated; Jones was in the process of reporting to prison on July 30.]
One of the witnesses in the case, a convicted Mexican drug trafficker named Raul Cortez who was brought into the United States for the specific purpose of testifying against Jones, has learned that his deportation back to Mexico has been delayed. Cortez’s lawyer, Steve Hoffman, expected him to have been sent back by now, but Hoffman was told in late April or early May that Cortez’s permission to stay was being extended at least until a new status hearing at the end of August.
CityBeat has learned, meanwhile, that Jones met with his court-appointed attorney, Ward Clay, at the beginning of this month and presented what he believed to be compelling evidence of his innocence— evidence the jury either did not hear or did not have explained to them the way Jones would have liked.
The very existence of this meeting is at odds with what Clay told this reporter in March—that his involvement in the case was over. Melissa Mecija, a reporter at 10 News, meanwhile, said she was told by a Customs and Border Protection source that a new hearing in the case had been scheduled for July 11—a hearing that ultimately didn’t appear on the docket, either because it didn’t happen or because it was kept secret.
When CityBeat asked Jones if there had been a new hearing, he replied: “I can’t talk about it.” Asked why he couldn’t talk when he’d previously discussed every aspect of the case in great detail, he said again: “I can’t talk about it.”
All this becomes more intriguing when one considers that the government’s case, despite a slick and superficially convincing presentation, looks much more fragile on close examination. Already at trial, it was clear the prosecution was relying on the testimony of unreliable, if colorful, self-confessed criminals who were offered immunity and other concessions to help the government nail their man.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff rebuked the government several times, most memorably at sentencing, when she called the 11 most questionable witnesses “Pinocchios” and said she had trouble believing much of the evidence linking Jones to drug smuggling. The jury had trouble, too, struggling to find that Jones had done anything wrong within the statute of limitations—the five years preceding his arrest in 2010. They convicted him of conspiracy only after peppering the court with questions about legal technicalities. Intriguingly, they acquitted him on a second charge of bribery, raising a logical conundrum: If they didn’t think he was being paid to help smuggle people and drugs into the country, what reason would he have had to do it at all?
Andy Schopler, the government’s lead attorney, was forced to make excuses for the witnesses at least twice, telling the court it was the defendant who’d chosen his associates, not the government. But the witnesses were not the only problem. The government’s own documentation and the federal employees who testified against Jones suffered from significant credibility problems of their own, some of which became clear toward the end of the trial and no doubt influenced the jury. Others came to light only later.
A months-long investigation by CityBeat suggests that a more effective defense lawyer could have destroyed much of the government’s case that Jones was involved in smuggling after 2005, or that he ever traveled to Mexico, as the government contended, to set up the criminal conspiracy for which he was convicted.
What Jones did or did not do before 2005 is less clear-cut. In 2003, a driver for a drug-smuggling gang brought a minivan through Jones’ inspection lane (he was working overtime without his dog) twice in a row, at different border crossings—a confluence of time and place and people that Schopler said was like lightning striking. A trio of witnesses who certainly knew Jones well—his ex-wife, a fellow border inspector who was convicted of corruption charges in 2004 and Jones’ former financial adviser—all testified that he was involved in people-smuggling in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Schopler and his co-counsel, Mark Conover, appeared to think this evidence was strong enough to justify the shaky case for Jones’ continuing activity after 2005—which they needed to show, given the statute of limitations, to press the case at all. Judge Huff apparently agreed. She could’ve impeached a number of the witnesses—most notably the drug gang’s improbable ring leader, Beto Sanchez-Diaz, a jittery man with a bad stutter and a fondness for argyle sweaters, who lied on the stand about his cocaine habit and finally admitted he’d violated the terms of his parole into the United States and committed a felony by snorting coke the weekend before his appearance. But the judge let all the evidence stand, telling Jones that government employees hold a special position of trust.
“It is a sad day when an officer for the U.S. government is convicted of conspiracy,” she said at sentencing.
CityBeat’s investigation has revealed problems with more than just the testimony of the Mexican gangsters, however. The financial adviser, Jim Whitener, testified— under a grant of immunity that enabled him to hold on to his professional license— that he paid Jones to wave him through the border on an overtime shift in 2001 so he could smuggle in his undocumented Salvadoran fiancée and her children. But the government never produced the license-plate records and work-schedule data to demonstrate that Whitener had passed through Jones’ lane—even though license-plate numbers are always recorded and those records are kept indefinitely, according to the government’s own evidence.
Jones said his lawyer specifically asked for these records but received no response. “If the records showed that Whitener crossed in my lane,” Jones charged, “you can be sure the government would have produced them.” The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.
What the prosecution believed would be a compelling tale of official corruption—in which Jones supposedly held secret meetings in Mexico with gangsters nicknamed Cookie Boy and Fish Taco, took deliveries of wads of cash in suburban parking lots and blew his money on fine dinners, champagne, a boat and a private plane—has thus turned into an altogether more troubling portrait of justice at work, in which corners have been cut and cracks in the case papered over wherever necessary. It may be, in fact, that Hammer, a man whose forbidding prizefighter physique conceals a surprisingly gentle, easy-going personality, does not belong in prison at all.
Jones was first accused of immigrant-smuggling in the mid-1990s by a vengeful ex-wife who told Internal Affairs: “I want you to do something about him.” The complaint went nowhere—according to Jones, his ex refused to give her phone number and hung up after she was warned it was a felony to make a false report—but it did highlight his propensity to get himself in woman trouble. He was married and divorced three times before age 35, struggling first with the instability and frequent foreign assignments of life in the Marines and then with the challenges of a son with severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
“I was foolish,” he said in an interview shortly after sentencing. “I kept trying to be married, and it wouldn’t work. I wanted to give my son a life and a family.”
Never was he more foolish than when he met Leonor Calderon, known familiarly as Noni, a Mexican beauty-salon worker whom he first knew as the girlfriend of fellow border inspector and fellow former Marine Michael Taylor. Noni, as was later confirmed in court, had corrupted Taylor into taking money to wave carloads of immigrants across his inspection lane. But Taylor broke up with her—at least temporarily—so he could start a new relationship with her salon boss, who was offering him more money in a separate immigrant-smuggling racket.
Jones married Noni in 1999 after she told him, falsely, that she was pregnant, even though he suspected, correctly, that she was still involved with Taylor. In June 2000, he learned she was also having an affair with Jim Whitener and tried to divorce her, only to discover that she was still legally married to a Mexican ex-husband. Extraordinarily, he took Noni back after she gave him proof that she had quashed her previous marriage. In 2001, he went through a second wedding ceremony with her, only to learn days later that she’d invited her ex-husband to have sex with her on the floor of her beauty salon as a thank-you for signing the divorce papers. Somehow, they stayed together another two-and-a-half years.
Their bizarre relationship is at the heart of the criminal case. Jones says that he fell for Noni because he was genuinely fond of her four children and felt they could provide a stable environment for his troubled son. Noni, meanwhile, used him as cover for her smuggling activities, about which he knew nothing. Or so he says. According to the government, Noni recruited him in exactly the same way she recruited Taylor, and they worked together as a team.
A more serious Internal Affairs complaint was lodged in 2000 by one of Noni’s friends from beauty school, Irma Curiel, who was dating another Customs officer and told him she’d heard Noni was smuggling immigrants with her boyfriend, assumed to be Jones. (Jones emphasized several times that he was Noni’s husband at this point, not her boyfriend, and suspected Noni’s partner-incrime was still Taylor.) An investigation led nowhere, but Jones was now on the government’s radar—as was Taylor, who abruptly quit the border service and fled to France in 2001 after another of his many girlfriends, Daphiney Caganap, assistant San Diego area port director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, warned him that the heat was coming down on him.
And so a case was built. The cell number and the picture were used to build Sanchez-Diaz’s bona fides and gain him entry into the United States. Aguilar was granted immunity. Deals were cut with Aguilar’s brothers, Cookie Boy and Fish Taco, although only Fish Taco, aka Rafael Aguilar Figueroa, ended up testifying. (The government had Cookie Boy, aka Fernando Vasquez, on the witness list but wouldn’t say what happened to him.)
Noni Calderon was arrested crossing the border in September 2010 and promptly cut a deal—without the help of a lawyer, according to legal sources who’ve seen the paperwork—to testify against Jones without being prosecuted herself. She led the government to Whitener, who was also given immunity and encouraged to testify that he helped launder Jones’ ill-gotten gains—something he backed away from at trial because there was no evidence of it. The government never found any evidence, in fact, of a money trail leading to Jones. The only signs of high living it could point to were some dinners at the Westgate Hotel, a single bottle of Cristal given to Whitener as a gift, some hours logged in a small plane when Jones, a trained pilot, was taking advanced flight lessons and Jones’ Chargers season tickets, on which he usually broke even because he sold tickets to games he did not attend.
The government’s willingness to cut multiple deals with known criminals to pursue a single prosecution raised eyebrows in the San Diego legal community and led to some private criticism of Ed Weiner, the assistant U.S. attorney who mounted the case then retired shortly afterward. Noni Calderon was clearly in the smuggling business up to her neck, but she received both full immunity and encouragement to apply for U.S. citizenship, which she received in 2012 even though, as emerged at trial, she lied on her application form about her criminal history.
The part of the case intended to demonstrate Jones’ corruption after 2005 was in trouble from the start. Neither the government nor the witnesses could decide, at first, whether they thought Jones had manned an inspection lane at Otay Mesa cargo or if, as a dog handler, he had a way of clearing any truck that was referred for secondary inspection. They ultimately chose the latter, describing Jones as the gang’s “insurance policy” even if he didn’t actually do anything.
The original criminal complaint claimed that a single driver employed by Sanchez- Diaz’s gang made 35 tractor-trailer crossings at the Otay Mesa cargo facility in 2006 and ’07, and that “on all these occasions” Jones was there working with his dog. The worksheets entered into evidence, however, indicated that Jones was on duty at Otay Mesa cargo no more than three times out of 35 and, given that he spent the first hour or so of each shift picking up his dog at the kennels, may not have been there on any occasion except the one time in May 2007 when the marijuana load was caught.
These inconvenient facts were artfully concealed from the jury until the last day of trial, when Ward Clay got the government to admit in writing that Jones had not been present at the cargo port between February and June 2006, missing three of the tractor-trailer crossings, because he was away training a new dog. Still, the jury was not told—although official records exist and have been seen by CityBeat—that from the time of Jones’ return to the border until September 2006, he was on disability and limited to light office duties away from the entry lanes. That took him out of the picture for another 19 tractor-trailer crossings.
Monica Williams, who works as an FBI liaison at Customs and Border Protection, was the key witness on Jones’ schedule, and she tried to explain away the numerous occasions when he was marked as being somewhere other than Otay Mesa cargo as a costcode issue, for internal budgeting purposes with no bearing on his actual whereabouts. But, of course, that undermined the reliability of the three times he was marked as being at Otay Mesa cargo. If the K9 CO designation (for canine, cargo) was just a cost code, who’s to say he was actually there? It’s not a point his lawyer thought to raise.
Arguably the biggest bombshell came in another written stipulation negotiated between the two sides on the final day. It was a summary of evidence from a U.S. government informant inside Sanchez-Diaz’s gang who didn’t want to risk a court appearance. The informant said he’d heard Sanchez- Diaz talking on the phone with his corrupt inspector—his “golden ticket”—and the inspector spoke Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent. Jones does not speak Spanish at all.
Was the “golden ticket” someone completely different? CityBeat was told by a law-enforcement source that the informant operation was not directed at Jones but at another suspect inspector, possibly a Cuban American. (Cubans and Puerto Ricans speak very similar Spanish.) Interestingly, Sanchez-Diaz and his brother Raul Cortez said on the stand that the private nickname they had for their corrupt inspector was not “Hammer” but “El Gusano.” That’s Spanish for “worm,” but it’s also the word Cuban exiles use to insult suspected Castro sympathizers.
Many other aspects of the case look less solid on closer scrutiny. The gang witnesses claimed that Jones crossed into Mexico many times in 2002 and ’03 to set up the smuggling arrangement, but the government never produced records proving a single border crossing by Jones. Jones himself said he’d never been to Mexico—too dangerous, because he’d caught smugglers and intercepted many drug loads in his years as a customs officer. His green van crossed several times, but he said it was Noni who drove it over. Many times, he was at work, and the worksheets confirmed that.
Another example: Lorena Aguilar testified that she and Jones talked on the phone regularly to discuss money drops, but Aguilar speaks no English and Jones no Spanish. The phone records entered into evidence by the government don’t show a single phone call made by Jones to Aguilar’s number. Aguilar’s phone records were not presented at all.
What this indicates is not just that the witnesses were unreliable, but that the government knew it and let them go ahead and testify anyway. That was plainly upsetting to Judge Huff and downright infuriating to Jones, who didn’t say a word during the trial—he was not called to testify—but was itching to let loose once it was all over.
“This is a dirty case, and it’s been a dirty case since day one,” he thundered. “There’s no such thing as justice. The only thing that’s accepted are bartered deals with the government, and they hold all the cards. As long as they get a conviction, they are willing to do anything.”
Lawyers with knowledge of the federal courts offer two scenarios of what may have happened since Jones was sentenced. One is that Jones has been cooperating with the government and earned himself some time. That would explain the secrecy, but not Raul Cortez’s postponed return to Mexico or the government’s reluctance to say whether the case is over. It also seems unlikely that Jones would have granted hours of interview time to a reporter and repeatedly attacked the government if in fact he had made a secret deal with them.
The second scenario is that something has come to light about one of the witnesses—something that has undermined his or her credibility in a way that could have made a material difference to the jury. Since the “Pinocchios” were already discredited at trial and plainly disbelieved, we are most likely talking about a government witness. Perhaps Jones and his lawyer found definitive proof that one of them was lying; perhaps one of them is now under criminal investigation.
What would be the upshot of that? One possibility, the lawyers suggested, is a renewed negotiation over the length of Jones’ sentence. Another is dismissal of the case, with or without the option of a retrial. Since a new surrender date has been set, the former seems more likely. But it remains to be seen if Jones reports to federal prison any more punctually this time around.
Whatever happens, Jones has good reason to feel bitter. Taylor served just three years in prison after agreeing to tell the government everything he knew, and Noni and Jim Whitener have escaped unscathed. Jones, though, is not a bitter man. He knows he was a fool for marrying Noni Calderon, and an even bigger fool for marrying her twice. Whatever misadventures she led him into or concealed from him, he understands that the original decision is on him.
“I’m not innocent; I’m guilty by association,” he said. “With Taylor, with Noni, with Whitener. I let corruption into my own house, and I take responsibility for that.
“Hell,” he laughed, “if the government had only given me seven-and-a-half years for marrying Leonor, I’d do my time with no complaints at all!”
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