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12/29/2011

Leader of South Texas 'straw purchasing' ring lands 10-year prison sentence

MCALLEN, Texas – A South Texas man was sentenced on Thursday to 10 years in federal prison for possessing an unregistered silencer and for his leadership role in a weapons "straw purchasing" ring, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas.

Manuel Tijerina-Herrera, 48, a U.S. permanent resident residing in McAllen, Texas, was sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa. The prison sentence will be followed by a three-year term of supervised release.

This investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The investigation into Tijerina-Herrera began in 2008 when it was discovered that four co-defendants (Aaron Aleman, Priscilla Trevino, Gustavo Aleman and Schubby Ramirez) had lied on ATF Form 4473 when they purchased firearms for Tijerina-Herrera. Evidence showed that Tijerina-Herrera gave money to the co-defendants to purchase firearms. The co-defendants then each lied on ATF Form 4473 when they stated that they were the actual purchasers. This illegal practice is commonly referred to as "straw purchasing." Upon returning the firearms to Tijerina-Herrera's restaurant, "El Tiburon" in McAllen, Tijerina-Herrera then paid them $150 for the purchase.

In March 2010, ATF special agents were alerted to a suspicious firearm purchase and followed Jesse Gonzalez from a local federally licensed firearms dealer to Tijerina-Herrera's businesses, the "Palmas Sports Club" and "Klub Infinity." Agents witnessed a firearm being transferred from Gonzalez into Tijerina-Herrera's truck. The agents followed the truck as the firearm was taken back to Tijerina-Herrera's home. Agents also followed and interviewed Gonzalez at which time he admitted to lying on three ATF Forms 4473 to purchase three firearms for Tijerina-Herrera. Afterward, agents then secured a federal search warrant for Tijerina-Herrera's residence and recovered a 9mm Beretta pistol with a threaded barrel and compatible firearms silencer.

On Sept. 26, 2011, after 3.5 days of trial and about two hours of deliberation, a federal jury returned guilty verdicts on all five counts charged against Tijerina-Herrera. Chief Judge Hinojosa sentenced Tijerina-Herrera on Dec. 29 to five years for each of three convictions of making false statements (straw purchasing), five years for conspiracy to make false statements, and 10 years for possessing an unregistered silencer. The sentences will be served concurrently. Tijerina-Herrera will also be required to pay a $5,000 fine.

In arriving at the sentence for Tijerina-Herrera, it was determined that he had been involved in straw purchasing 39 firearms, some of which had obliterated serial numbers. It was also determined that firearms were being trafficked and used or possessed for another felony offense. The sentencing guideline range was further enhanced since other people were recruited to commit the offenses. Tijerina-Herrera has been in custody since Sept. 23, 2011, for a pretrial release violation. He will remain in custody pending transfer to a Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

Gonzalez, 20, of San Juan, Texas, along with Trevino, 21, Aaron Aleman, 21, Gustavo Aleman Jr., 23, and Schubby Jay Ramirez, 21, all of Hidalgo, Texas, pleaded guilty to one count of lying on ATF Form 4473 to purchase a firearm (straw purchasing). They are scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 30. They are currently on bond pending that hearing.

One remaining co-defendant, Oscar Martinez Jr., was taken into custody on Oct. 5. His case is still pending. He is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Schammel and Juan Alanis, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted these cases.