Selling lies (cont.)
Luis Orlando Lopez was a player.
When federal agents broke up a major cocaine ring in 1991, Lopez, who is no relation to Hector Lopez, was carrying 114 kilograms of cocaine and a small cache of weapons in his car.
Lopez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to about 27 years in the Federal Correctional Institution at Miami.
Then, he stumbled upon his ticket to freedom. In exchange for his cooperation, he discovered that his prison term could be reduced dramatically. Lopez turned to Reuben Oliva, a Miami attorney whose law practice specializes in negotiating deals for those who provide substantial assistance to prosecutors in exchange for sentence reductions.
During a court hearing, Oliva pointed out that Lopez provided critical information to four federal agencies, helping them win guilty pleas against arms dealers, fugitives, hit men and drug traffickers. "His cooperation has resulted in the arrest of 13 persons, and he has provided information regarding two others," Oliva said. "He has provided information regarding state and federal fugitives, arms dealers, narcotics traffickers, violent organized crime members, and he has done so at great risk to himself and his family."
Because of the help Lopez provided, a Florida federal judge, in December 1996, reduced his sentence by 12 years. Lopez will be eligible for parole next year.
Case closed. But there was a problem. The crimes committed by eight of the men whom he testified against took place while Lopez was in prison.
How, then, could he have helped prosecutors? The answer is simple, said Oliva. Federal prosecutors allowed Lopezs brother to gather evidence outside the walls of prison. The prosecutors then credited Luis Lopez with providing them with substantial assistance that helped him win his sentence reduction.
That part of the story was never put on the court record, even when the judge asked a prosecutor how an imprisoned man such as Lopez could know so much.
In a letter to the U.S. Attorney General and to Lopezs judge, inmate Ramon Castellanos wrote that Lopez told him hed paid $60,000 to another inmate, a government informant with a pipeline inside the federal bureaucracy, for confidential information gleaned from federal agents who needed additional witnesses to buttress their cases.
Castellanos said that Lopez then gave the information to his brother, who gathered corroboration on the outside, but Castellanos said he has a government memo that proves at least some of the information Lopez provided was bogus. The memo in support of yet another sentence reduction states that another man, Orlando Marrero, provided information about a federal case that was identical to what Lopez provided.
Oliva said Castellanos account concerning Lopez is generally accurate, but he said he does not believe Lopez paid money to anyone for information. "I do not believe Luis or his family have that kind of money," said Oliva.
Lopez did not respond to a written request for an interview. Neither the Justice Department nor the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida responded to written questions the newspaper posed about concerns raised in this series.
In his letters, Castellanos provided documents concerning nine other "jump on the bus" cases that he said he had firsthand knowledge about. In each of those cases, inmates gave prosecutors bogus information in exchange for reductions in their sentences, he said.
Castellanos, who is serving a 30-year sentence for cocaine distribution, said a sentence reduction is not the reason he has come forward. "Let there be no mistake about the motivation behind this complaint. I am not seeking a sentence reduction. I am seeking a balance of justice," he wrote. "Im not an angel, only a human being whos made a mistake and is capable of paying the price.
"However, other similarly suited individuals with cartel connections and the aid of DEA and U.S. Customs are circumventing and manipulating the U.S. justice system. The big guys are still dealing their way out of prison while the little guy serves full-term sentences," Castellanos wrote.
In an interview earlier this year, Castellanos said he has provided specific instances of this scam to FBI agents from South Florida. He told them that he would go undercover to expose this process. He said he was interviewed twice about it in the past year.
The agents havent contacted him in months, and Castellanos said he doubts they ever will.
The federal government was also aware of the activities of Pappas and Fierer.
Pappas had been out of jail for only seven months when he established Conviction Consultants Inc. in the offices of Fierers downtown Atlanta law office, and from October 1995 to February 1996, investigators were secretly recording some of their conversations about "jump on the bus" schemes after an imprisoned man in Kentucky tipped off the agents.
During its investigation, the government uncovered several instances involving perjured testimony before indicting Pappas and Fierer.
According to that indictment, Bruce Young, a convict from Nashville, Tenn., paid $25,000 to Fierer and Pappas in September 1995. After that, Fierer wrote a letter to a prosecutor in Tennessee saying he had an informant who "had some affection for Bruce Young and wanted to help." According to the indictment, in a recorded conversation a few months later, Pappas told Young: "You sat in jail and didnt do anything except pay money to buy freedom."
The government also recorded conversations between Pappas and inmate Peter Taylor, who was serving a 13-year sentence in Miami for smuggling marijuana. Pappas told Taylor that a facade had to be created to make prosecutors believe Taylor knew an informer whom he was going to join in testifying in a case against another.
According to the indictment, Pappas encouraged Taylor to tell a prosecutor he and the informer were "lifelong friends or something." In February 1996, Fierer told Taylor the entire deal would cost him $250,000: $150,000 for the consulting company, $75,000 for Fierer and $25,000 in expenses.
Rodney Gaddis also sought Pappas help. Pappas contacted Gaddis, a convicted bank robber, and told him he had found an informant willing to provide exculpatory information about Gaddis. He told Gaddis to tell federal prosecutors that he had known the informant for nine years and that he looked like "Howdy Doody." Gaddis and the man, however, had never met.