Yusef Casanova has sat in a prison cell for 27 months — charged with federal drug and gun offenses after his arrest in a 2016 undercover sting operation in Albuquerque. On Dec. 20, his attorney will drive him to the Four Winds Recovery Center, a drug rehabilitation facility, just outside Farmington. It’s an unusual turn of events: A federal judge ordered the release of Casanova, who is facing decades in federal prison if he’s convicted. Casanova was swept up in an undercover operation that arrested a highly disproportionate percentage of black people.
Former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez will stay in his $118,000 job despite heated demands from Albuquerque police reform activists and others to fire the longtime lawman, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller told NMID Friday afternoon. The mayor added that Martinez’s role in a controversial 2016 law enforcement operation that spawned allegations of racial profiling never came up as he deliberated whether to hire him for a sensitive city police department job. “I respect their input,” Keller said of critics calling for Martinez’s firing, many of whom campaigned for the progressive Democrat last fall. “If there’s any differentiation between what he’s trying to do and my vision for the city and what I can do, then obviously it’s not gonna last long.”
The controversy over Martinez’s hiring flared over the weekend after the Keller administration announced it last week. The protests had to do with his oversight and participation in a four-month undercover operation by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in southeast Albuquerque in the spring and summer of 2016.
Leonard Waites was surprised. The executive director of the state Martin Luther King Jr. Commission had just learned from a reporter that Mayor Tim Keller had hired former U.S. Attorney and defeated congressional candidate Damon Martinez as a senior policy adviser for the Albuquerque Police Department. Waites, who is black and also serves as chairman of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board, was outraged last year by the results of a large-scale federal law enforcement operation. Overseen by Martinez, agents had arrested a grossly disproportionate number of black people for relatively minor crimes in 2016. “I have very, very serious concerns about this,” Waites said Monday of Martinez’s hire, adding that he had heard nothing about it from the Keller administration.
Over the last 18 months NMID has closely examined the ATF sting operation, its design, its impact and the legal wrangling that continues to play out in federal court in more than two dozen stories.
Of the 103 people arrested 28 — 27 percent of the total — were black. That’s compared to the city’s 3 percent black population. Further, black people made up just 5 percent of defendants in gun and drug cases in New Mexico’s federal courts during a 10-year period. Racial profiling allegations and admonitions from federal judges have followed the team that descended on Albuquerque around the nation, NMID found.
A new federal court filing indicates the practice of secrecy at New Mexico federal courts expands beyond the improper sealing of documents to improperly closing off court proceedings from the public. Assistant Federal Public Defenders John Robbenhaar and Aric Elsenheimer filed a document last week alleging that an Aug. 3 court hearing was sealed — meaning no one besides parties to the case could enter during the proceeding — without their knowledge. A transcript of the hearing also was sealed without their input, the filing says. On Sept.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers have shielded records from public view without a judge’s order in New Mexico’s federal courts, an apparent violation of the U.S. District Court of New Mexico’s own rules, New Mexico In Depth has learned. Judges, not lawyers, are supposed to decide which documents are made available to the public and which should remain secret through an established protocol based in part on decades of case law: Attorneys must submit a written request asking a judge to seal records and a judge must consent before records are sealed. Despite this well-known standard, in numerous instances spread among three criminal cases, the New Mexico offices of the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Public Defender have decided unilaterally to make documents secret without a judge’s order, according to a review of federal court records by NMID. It is not clear how many of the thousands of federal court records each year have been sealed this way, but one federal public defender says the practice has gone on for years. “There has been a long-standing practice in the District of New Mexico for parties to elect to file a document under seal, without prior approval of the district court,” attorney John Robbenhaar wrote in an emailed response to questions from NMID.
The secret filing means the public cannot view — or scrutinize — the U.S. Attorney’s defense of Yusef Casanova’s arrest, which federal public defender Brian Pori has challenged. Last month Pori argued in a motion that he had enough evidence to prove ATF agents and informants targeted Casanova because he’s black and asked Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker to drop methamphetamine trafficking and illegal firearm possession charges.
In a filing Wednesday afternoon prosecutors noted their reason for responding to Pori’s original motion under seal, writing it “identifies by name a number of uncharged subjects of the (operation) and references the content of other sealed filings.”
But Pori told NMID the government did not need to name people who had been identified for investigation but not arrested. Prosecutors could’ve blacked the names out of the document, but left its defense of Casanova’s arrest for the public to see, he noted.
Yusef Casanova believes he has enough evidence to prove federal law enforcement targeted him because he’s black. Casanova, whose case NMID highlighted in a May 2017 investigation, is asking a federal judge to drop federal drug and gun charges from a controversial monthslong 2016 sting operation in Albuquerque and give him his freedom back. The motion, filed last month in federal court, contends there is evidence that shows agents and informants of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) racially profiled Casanova and other African Americans in the operation. Casanova sold an ounce of meth and a gun to an undercover ATF agent in June 2016; he was arrested weeks later and has been locked up pending trial ever since. His white supplier — who was present when Casanova brokered the drug sale — was never arrested.
Federal law enforcement’s goal was to “infiltrate” local gun- and drug-dealing organizations supplied by Mexican cartels when they descended on Albuquerque in 2016. But the four-month sting, whose cost likely topped $1 million in taxpayer money, rounded up mostly low-level drug users and few, if any, hardcore dealers. That didn’t stop the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from pushing the operation as a “template for future operations” nationwide. And Damon Martinez — U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico at the time and current candidate for the state’s First Congressional District — was so pleased he “asked and offered to travel to the city selected for the next” operation to “sell the … product” to that city’s top federal prosecutor. The stated purpose, budget and Martinez’s enthusiasm are among the revelations found in a heavily redacted “executive summary report” about the 2016 operation — named “Gideon IX” — obtained by New Mexico In Depth after a federal judge ordered its release.
New Mexico In Depth notched two wins competing against the largest newspapers, radio and TV stations in the four-state region of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The awards, part of the annual Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest, were announced last week at the Denver Press Club.
NMID’s Deputy Director Marjorie Childress won first place in the political enterprise reporting category for newspapers whose circulation tops 75,000 and large-market radio and TV stations. Her September 2017 story Realtors and developers give big money to ABQ mayoral candidates took the prize. Using data analysis, Childress examined campaign finance data and then did additional reporting to conclude the real estate and land development sector had given roughly $1 of every $4 raised in the Albuquerque mayoral race as election day neared.
A debate over how so many black people came to be arrested in a 2016 gun- and drug-sting operation in Albuquerque is playing out in the city’s federal courthouse. Following months of silence from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a narrative is beginning to emerge. It’s a story of good police work. According to this version, a pivotal moment happened a few days after the operation started in April 2016. Albuquerque Police Department detective Vic Hernandez handed ATF Special Agent Russell Johnson two sets of documents.
On her last day as chief of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico in February, Judge Christina Armijo granted a motion from the lawyers representing Lonnie Jackson and Diamond Coleman. Prosecutors, the order said, must turn over all background checks run through the National Crime Information Centers (NCIC) database during a 2016 law enforcement sting operation in Albuquerque. Jackson and Coleman, two of the 28 black people arrested in the federal Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF)’s operation, are trying to prove the agency racially profiled them in a massive undercover operation. Armijo’s order represented a step toward that goal. The NCIC queries, not only for the 103 people arrested during the four-month operation but everyone ATF agents investigated but did not pursue, would enable them to test their theory.
Days before federal prosecutors and law enforcement officials announced more than 100 arrests from an undercover operation in Albuquerque in 2016, the sting’s lead agent was thinking about who, exactly, had been arrested.
“If anybody ever asks if we are going after the worst of the worst or righteous targets, show them this list,” Special Agent Russell Johnson of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) wrote in an Aug. 4, 2016, email to colleagues.”These are people for our second wave takedown.”
The email names 24 individuals and notes each person’s probation or parole status: 14 had successfully completed their obligations to the state, two were listed as “current and compliant probationer/parolee,” three had never been on probation or parole and four were “absconders.”
The 24 names are blacked out, as are the sender and recipients of the email and a handful of other words. Eight days after Johnson dashed off the email, a phalanx of high-ranking local, state and federal law enforcement officials told the press they had taken “the worst of the worst” off the city’s crime-ridden streets. The controversial operation has come under scrutiny over the past year for the highly disproportionate number of black people who were arrested. Meanwhile, the sting netted few, if any, of the hardened, repeat violent criminals supposedly targeted.
How and even whether the Albuquerque Police Department was involved in a 2016 undercover federal drug and gun sting has lingered for more than a year under scrutiny from legal scholars, defense lawyers and New Mexico In Depth. Police and city officials under previous Mayor Richard Berry’s administration denied the department was involved. Now, with a new mayor at City Hall and new leadership at APD, the city is acknowledging the department had a “minimal role” in the sting, which was led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF). That included “cross-commissioned” APD officers who have long worked as part of an ATF task force assisting the federal agency during the operation. Whatever the size of APD’s role, the department’s involvement appears to have led, in part, to one of the more controversial aspects of the sting operation: the arrest of black people at a rate highly disproportionate to their population in the city.
Jennifer Padilla has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute meth in return for a two-year federal prison sentence. If a federal judge accepts the plea deal, the 39-year-old mother of five could be free in less than a year because of the 13 months she’s already spent in the Santa Fe County jail. Friday’s proposed sentence represents a significant reduction from the 10 or more years Padilla was facing behind bars. The plea agreement, negotiated between Padilla’s Santa Fe-based lawyer, L. Val Whitley, and federal prosecutors, came less than two months after Padilla alleged misconduct by a confidential informant in a 2016 operation conducted by the federal bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter detailed Padilla’s allegations last month in a story that included her claims of entrapment and “outrageous government conduct” — two legal arguments Whitley made in a pair of court motions in late July.