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25 sentenced following Houston HSI Operation 'Prison Cell' RICO investigation

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Fourteen former Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) correction officers and 11 others were sentenced to federal prison this week following their convictions related to a large-scale racketeering case involving the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas.

These sentences were announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas.

These sentences resulted from a four-year investigation led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); other agencies in this investigation included: TDCJ's Office of Inspector General (OIG), Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigation; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Corpus Christi Police Department's Gang and Organized Crime Units; the U.S. Postal Inspection Service; the Bee County District Attorney's Office; and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

This investigation was a joint effort between federal authorities and TDCJ's OIG to attempt to break the "culture of corruption" that permeated the McConnell Unit Prison between 2005 to the present. State and federal authorities worked together in a determined effort to disrupt and dismantle the violent criminal gangs who were profiting by corrupting guards at the prison.

"'Operation Prison Cell' is a very appropriate name for this investigation since it describes where those responsible for the corruption, trafficking and violence uncovered in this case will spend a considerable portion of the rest of their lives," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of HSI Houston. "We expect convicted criminals to act like criminals. However, we will not tolerate those entrusted to serve the public to do the same. These sentences send an unmistakable message to both the corrupted and their corruptors that we will catch you and punish you for your crimes."

With the exception of Juan Ledezma, who was convicted following a two-day trial, 28 others pleaded guilty to varying counts of racketeering or other charges. U.S. District Judge Hayden Head, who accepted the guilty pleas and presided over the trial, handed down the sentences against 25 of those convicted from Tuesday through Thursday. Four others will be sentenced at a later date.

The below list includes the former McConnell Unit guards and their sentences after being convicted on one count of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO):

  • Emmanuel Cotto, 32, of San Antonio, five months;
  • Stephanie Deming, 24, of Beeville, 27 months;
  • Jaime Jorge Garza, 38, of Santa Elena, 15 months;
  • Lela Ysolde Hinojosa, 52, from Beeville, 21 months;
  • Oscar Juraidini, 25, of Brownsville, 22 months; and
  • Kimberly Koenig, 32, of Victoria, three years of probation;
  • Megan Brook Morales, 24, of Bulverde, 21 months;
  • Christy Nesloney, 27, of Cuero, 28 months;
  • Lakeisha Jeanette Reid, 25, of Austin, 24 months;
  • Arturo Salas, 23, from Beeville, 22 months;
  • Desiree Silguero, 43, of McAllen, five months; and
  • James Randal Standlea, 25, of Mathis, three years of probation.

The following other McConnell Unit Guards were sentenced after being convicted of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine:

  • Jamar Tremayne Green 30, of Refugio, five months in prison plus five months home confinement;
  • Justin Leonard, 24, of Cypress, five months in prison plus five months home confinement; and
  • Casey Simmons, 25, of Kenedy, three years of probation.

Seven of the 10 individuals considered "facilitators" convicted of RICO violations:

  • Maria Fernanda Hidalgo, 32, of McAllen, 12 months plus one day;
  • Juanita Beltran Mendez, 50, of Bishop, for five years' probation;
  • Nancy Star Onega, 27, of Hialeah, Fla., 60 months;
  • Maria Rose Rodriguez, 35, of Alamo, 66 months;
  • Yvonne Sandoval, 37, of Corpus Christi, 18 months;
  • Lindsey Elaine Savage, 30, of Copperas Cove, 38 months; and
  • Donna Sorise, 57, 71 months.

Craig Owens, 29, of Killeen, Texas, Karla Sanchez, 26, of Houston, and Melissa Lozano, 29, of San Antonio, Texas, will be sentenced Nov. 25.

The following final four charged in the case were considered "inmates" in the overall scheme and were at one time or another in TDCJ custody during the conspiracy: Aaron Trevino, 37, of Lockhart, Christopher Karl Owens, 33, of Killeen, Christopher Smith, 28, of Chester, and Ledezma, 40, of Brownsville.

Trevino pleaded guilty to the RICO count and received a total of 198 months in federal prison. Smith pleaded guilty to money laundering and received time served, about 10 months of incarceration. Ledezma – who was found guilty by a Corpus Christi federal jury of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana – will serve a total of 360 months in federal prison for the three counts of conviction. Christopher Owens will be sentenced in January 2014.

There are still two fugitives in this case; warrants remain outstanding for their arrests.

Correction officers assisted prisoners incarcerated in the TDCJ McConnell Unit Prison in Beeville, Texas, by smuggling cellular telephones and drugs into the prison system. The drugs and phones were then sold inside the prison to other inmates. The phones were used by inmates to assist them with coordinating criminal activities outside the prison.

During Ledezma's trial, the jury heard testimony that Ledezma acted as an intermediary between drug traffickers in south Texas and Mexico. He had connections to drug suppliers and – using the illegally smuggled cell phones – coordinated with other prisoners to organize drug deals inside and outside the prison. Jurors heard that prisoners had made phone calls to Ledezma while in the McConnell Unit. In these calls, Ledezma agreed to help arrange for six pounds of methamphetamine to be purchased in Corpus Christi and distributed in Arkansas. The buyers of the methamphetamine were to pay more than $20,000 per pound of the drug.

The overall investigation was initiated in 2009 when several Aryan Circle Gang Members were apprehended attempting to transport stolen vehicles from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, Texas. The vehicles were destined to be smuggled across the border and sold to Mexico Cartel members. The operation was coordinated by inmates incarcerated at the McConnell Unit by using the illegal cell phones.

A subsequent investigation led to a December 2010 federal indictment charging 14 alleged members and associates of the Raza Unida Street and Prison Gang with committing violent acts to support racketeering (VICAR). These violent acts included home invasions, shootings and conspiracy to commit murder. During the course of the investigation, agents and officers seized about 13 pounds of crystal methamphetamine with an estimated street value of more than $300,000. They also seized from the gang seven assault rifles, 14 pistols, five shotguns, five bullet-proof vests and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition. All were subsequently convicted; two were sentenced to life imprisonment.

This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Patterson and Michael Hess, Southern District of Texas.