ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Former Columbus Police Chief Angelo Vega was getting paid more than $40,000 a year from the small village at the same time he was collecting $2,000 a month plus bonuses in $100 bills from the local Juárez Cartel representatives,in exchange for protection and help with smuggling drugs and guns, a former town official testified in federal court Wednesday.
Blas "Woody" Gutierrez, the former Columbus village trustee, told a federal court that former Police Chief Angelo Vega also received $1,500 each time he allowed the cartel members to use village vehicles, including police cruisers, for the syndicate's various crime to deliver drugs, pick up guns and deliver money from marijuana sales on top of the $2,000 s a month the cartel was paying him,
Vega testified Wednesday that he didn’t remember exactly how much he was paid or how long he worked for the cartel, but another witness testified later that Vega received $2,000 a month plus bonuses. But he admitted to running background checks on people seeking to buy drugs from local Juárez Cartel leader Ignacio Villalobos – Gutierrez’s boss and checking license plates at the request of cartel members along with buying military gear at law enforcement supply stores for members of the Juarez Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.
Vega is the key prosecution witness in the case against Danny Burnett, a former Carrizozo school superintendent who is charged with leaking information about a federal wiretap investigation to a Columbus gun and drug smuggling ring.
Burnett is the husband of Assistant U.S. Attorney Paula Burnett, who has not been charged with any crime. She formerly headed the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office but was walled off from the Columbus investigation once she learned Vega was a potential target.
Danny Burnett, took Vega under his wing when Vega was a troubled student, helped him graduate from high school and get jobs. Vega’s boss in the illicit operation.“Woody” Gutierrez, testified that he had village Mayor Eddie Espinosa approach Vega in 2010 to see if he was willing to work for the cartel. Gutierrez said Vega was receptive and began doing background investigations
It was the first time such details from the 2011 gun smuggling case have been made public since many of the defendants have pleaded guilty.
But most of Wednesday’s testimony dealt with how the cartel operated in Columbus.
Gutierrez said Vega told him that he had a friend whose wife worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office and that the friend told Vega their telephones were tapped.
Gutierrez said he was not sure Vega was telling the truth until the two men met in Columbus and Vega destroyed his new phone in front of Gutierrez.
"He did it to show he wasn't messing around," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said he took the information to his boss, Villalobos, and asked that Vega be paid a bonus. Villalobos hesitated because he wasn’t confident about the information.
Gutierrez said he paid Vega a bonus of $2,000 to $3,000 out of his own pocket.
He and Vega then started buying “throwaway” telephones – cellular phones without contracts using prepaid telephone cards.
The ring had previously used the “throwaway” phones, and Gutierrez said he had bought hundreds of them for use by members of the smuggling ring.
Assistant U.S. attorneys involved in the investigation testified that the quantity and quality of telephone conversations dropped after Feb. 17, 2011, the day Vega had lunch with Danny Burnett at an Albuquerque restaurant.
Gutierrez also testified that Vega claimed his friend could make the case go away for $20,000.
Other government witnesses testified that no one in the U.S. Attorney's Office could make a criminal case "go away" and that it would be impossible in an investigation as intensive as the one targeting the Columbus gun smuggling ring.
Gutierrez, Vega and former Mayor Eddie Espinoza were among more than a dozen defendants who pleaded guilty in the case.
Gutierrez faces 10 years in federal prison for his guilty plea to 37 counts of smuggling, illegally purchasing firearms and conspiracy linked to the case.