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8 plead guilty to smuggling or purchasing 2,200 pounds of marijuana found in Mexican pottery

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Eight individuals from southwest Michigan and northern Indiana pleaded guilty on Tuesday to importing more than a metric ton (2,200 pounds) of marijuana from Mexico into the United States. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted the investigation.

Terry Lynn Ottman, 31, of Elkhart, Ind., was the last of eight to enter a guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh W. Brenneman Jr. Ottman admitted to purchasing the marijuana from co-defendant Humberto Mota, 34, also from Elkhart, Ind., and for distributing marijuana to others in 2005 and 2006. Ottman was not involved with importing the ton of marijuana that Mota and others arranged to have delivered to an Edwardsburg, Mich., warehouse in January.

Six other defendants entered guilty pleas in federal court in May 2008. Specifically, four Elkhart, Ind., residents, pleaded guilty to distributing and possessing with intent to distribute the more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana; they are: Jose Sandoval, 19; Roberto Mota, 27; Roberto Hildalgo, 21; and Antonio Herrera-Espinoza, 30. Three others, Juan Carlos Torres, 19, also from Elkhart, Ind.; and Gavin James Herremans, 25, and Christopher James Johnson, 29, from Cass County, Mich., pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

The investigation began in January 2008, after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Baltimore discovered marijuana in 193 pieces of vase-shaped Mexican pottery. Two Baltimore ICE agents, posing as employees of a commercial trucking company, delivered the shipment to an Edwardsburg, Mich., warehouse.

At the warehouse ICE agents met with Herremans, Roberto Mota, Hildalgo, Herrera-Espinoza, Torres, Sandoval, and a juvenile. Herremans signed for the shipment using a fictitious name, while the others unloaded the truck, placing the marijuana-filled pottery in two U-Haul trucks. All were apprehended as they tried to leave the warehouse. Several, including Herremans, tried to flee to avoid apprehension. Herremans is a U.S. citizen, and Sandoval is a legal non-resident alien from Mexico. Roberto Mota, Hildalgo, Herrera-Espinoza, Torres, and the juvenile are citizens of Mexico unlawfully residing in the United States. ICE detainers have been placed on all the illegal aliens.

The ultimate consignee of the shipment was an Elkhart, Ind., business associated with Humberto Mota.

"ICE will continue to pursue organizations that smuggle and distribute commercial quantities of illicit drugs," said Brian M. Moskowitz, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Detroit. "ICE uses our broad and unique law enforcement authorities and expertise to dismantle these criminal groups to help ensure the integrity of our nation's borders, and to help keep illegal drugs off of our streets."

Humberto Mota remains at large.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian P. Lennon, U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Michigan, is prosecuting this case.