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United States v. Escobar

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

November 26, 2018

United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
Walter Ronaldo Martinez Escobar Defendant-Appellant United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
Jose Manuel Rojas-Andrade Defendant-Appellant United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Jason Allen Jackson Defendant-Appellant United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Trinidad Jesus Garcia Defendant-Appellant United States of America Plaintiff-Appellee
Catarino Cruz, Jr. Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: February 14, 2018

          Appeals from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - St. Paul

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, MURPHY and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges. [*]


         A jury convicted Walter Ronaldo Martinez Escobar, Jason Allen Jackson, and Catarino Cruz, Jr., of federal crimes related to a methamphetamine distribution operation. Jose Rojas-Andrade and Trinidad Garcia pleaded guilty to counts related to the same operation. The district court[1] imposed sentences of 137 months to 330 months. These five appellants appeal a variety of issues related to their convictions and sentences. We affirm.

         I. Background

         A. Underlying Facts

         Following a lengthy investigation, 13 people-including the five appellants-were indicted in a large drug-trafficking conspiracy. The investigation focused on Jesse Garcia ("Jesse"), a multi-pound methamphetamine distributor.

         In June 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) became involved in the Dakota County Drug Task Force and St. Paul Narcotics Unit's ongoing investigation of Jesse. The DEA learned that these local law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance at Jesse's residence on approximately May 25, 2015, and stopped a vehicle believed to have recently left a residence associated with Jesse. Rojas-Andrade and Juan Noyola-Garcia ("Noyola") were in the vehicle. Law enforcement searched the vehicle and recovered $45, 000 from under the passenger seat.

         On June 16, 2015, law enforcement responded to a call from the Northwood Inn and Suits in Bloomington, Minnesota, relating to a customer's claim of theft. Trinidad Garcia ("Garcia"), Jesse's brother, was a maintenance worker there. A witness identified Garcia as the suspect. Law enforcement arrested Garcia for an active warrant on an unrelated matter. During the booking process at the jail, law enforcement recovered 39.34 grams of methamphetamine (36.58 actual grams of methamphetamine) from Garcia's underwear. Garcia possessed the methamphetamine with the intent to distribute it to others. Authorities connected Garcia's drugs to Jesse as the supplier.

         During the early stages of the investigation, law enforcement placed GPS trackers on several vehicles that Jesse used. These GPS trackers enabled law enforcement to identify a house in rural Wisconsin ("Wisconsin stash house") as a location that Jesse and other coconspirators frequented. Law enforcement installed a pole camera. It was determined that Jesse's supply came from the Wisconsin stash house operated by a Rojas-Andrade, Noyola, and a third coconspirator. These individuals worked for a Mexican man and his girlfriend, Guadalupe Garibay Sanchez, to supply Jesse and others with methamphetamine. They used the Wisconsin stash house to store drugs and money. Rojas-Andrade recruited Noyola and Escobar to assist him with the methamphetamine operation.

         Law enforcement discovered that Jesse changed his phone about every 30 days. Law enforcement attempted to obtain wiretaps on four of Jesse's phones but were able to intercept only two of the phones-"TT2" and "TT4." The interception of TT2 lasted only three days-July 17 to July 19, 2015. During those days, law enforcement intercepted calls between Jesse and two of his distributors, including David Bennett. The interception of TT4 lasted about one week-August 12 to August 19, 2015. The intercept enabled the seizure of 50 pounds of methamphetamine from Jesse and a seizure of another 30 pounds from the Wisconsin stash house, which ended the investigation.

         After interceptions of TT4 began, on August 12, 2015, law enforcement intercepted a call between Jesse and Cruz, who was one of Jesse's sources of methamphetamine. In the call, Cruz explained that he was "checking" on Jesse. Appellee's App. at A-79 (Ex. 18). Jesse updated Cruz on the status of his drug trafficking, telling Cruz that it was "kind of slower right now 'cause ah, we lost some people and shit, so it's kind of slowed down a little bit." Id. Jesse's description of having "lost some people" referred to arrests earlier that summer of two of Jesse's distributors, John Schatz and William Chevre. Cruz replied, "That's fine. I was just checking in with you." Id. at A-80 (Ex. 18).[2] Based on this call, law enforcement believed that Cruz was a methamphetamine source for Jesse, and Jesse was informing Cruz that Jesse was not ready for any additional methamphetamine at that time. Additionally, surveillance and tracking devices on Jesse's vehicle confirmed that Jesse traveled to Cruz's residence on May 5 and June 11, 2015.

         On August 13, 2015, law enforcement intercepted multiple calls between Jesse and Jackson, a methamphetamine distributor. During their conversations, Jesse and Jackson discussed Jesse's recent financial losses and Jackson's repayment of his debt to Jesse. Jesse told Jackson he had to "go switch up cars," id. at A-87 (Ex. 26), and "grab them things," id. at A-86 (Ex. 26), before meeting with Jackson. This meant that Jesse was going to get a car (a Kia) that he often used when he had methamphetamine with him and get the methamphetamine before meeting Jackson. Jackson confirmed that he had all the "paper" (money) "[t]owards the whole . . . debt." Id. at A-88 (Ex. 26). They agreed to meet that day at a restaurant. Jesse arrived in the Kia, and Jackson arrived in another vehicle. Both vehicles thereafter left the restaurant's parking lot, with Jackson returning to his residence. He was observed exiting his vehicle with bags. Right after meeting with Jackson, Jesse contacted Cruz, stating, "I probably need to see you like tomorrow or the next day." Id. at A-90 (Ex. 30). Cruz responded, "Are they paying or what?" Id. Jesse then explained that none of them were getting paid yet and that he would only need "half of that maybe." Id.

         On August 14, 2015, Bennett called Jesse about meeting to complete a drug transaction. Jesse asked Bennett if Bennett wanted "[j]ust the one." Id. at A-93 (Ex. 33). Jesse explained that he only had "three of 'em left" and that he was "just buying cash right now." Id. Jesse had "lost so much money [that he was] pretty much down to . . . just grabbing." Id. (ellipsis in original). Bennett told Jesse to "bring two, just in case," and Jesse asked that Bennet "let [him] know for sure if [Bennett] need[ed] two of them. Id. Later, Jesse and Bennett completed the drug transaction in a residential neighborhood.

         Jesse and Bennett met again on August 15, 2015, and conducted another drug transaction in the neighborhood. Prior to their meeting, Jesse traveled to a residence on Case Avenue, entered the residence for approximately five minutes, and exited the residence with something in his hand. Jesse then drove to meet Bennett. Following their meeting, Bennett was pulled over by the Minnesota State Patrol. Law enforcement recovered over a pound of methamphetamine and two stolen handguns from his vehicle.

         After meeting with Bennett, Jesse called Cruz, telling him that he had "picked up some {cash}" and Cruz should "come grab it tomorrow." Id. at A-99 (Ex. 48) (alteration in original). They spoke before 6 p.m. on August 16, 2015, and agreed to meet at Jesse's residence in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. At 6:00 p.m. on August 16, 2015, law enforcement intercepted a call between Cruz and Jesse in which Cruz informed Jesse that he was outside. At the same time, a minivan arrived at Jesse's residence. Cruz's stepdaughter, Sanchez, was the driver, and Cruz was the passenger.

         Within an hour of the meeting between Jesse and Cruz, Jesse spoke to his Mexican source of supply. During the call, Jesse explained that he was traveling to Duluth, Minnesota, "taking like five up there right now" and that he has been using an alternative source of supply, "working, with some other (dudes} right now." Id. at A-101 (Ex. 58) (alteration in original). Jesse explained to his Mexican source that he needed to buy from this alternative source (Cruz) because Jesse "lost a lost of money and you guys had been out." Id. at A-102 (Ex. 58). Jesse feared that his "people [would] go somewhere else" if he did not obtain more drugs. Id. Jesse told the Mexican source, "[I]f I don't keep making money then shit, I'm gonna go broke, you know what I'm saying? So . . . so I been somewhere else right now. Just getting like ten at a time, cash money, you know?" Id. (ellipsis in original). Jesse and the Mexican source also discussed Jesse's outstanding debt to the Mexican source. Jesse stated, "I just lost a lot of (money}, but yeah, I got the twelve, you know?" Id. (alteration in original). Jesse asked the Mexican source to have one of the Wisconsin stash house operators, Rojas-Andrade, contact him the next day to meet at the gas station near the Wisconsin stash house to collect the money. On August 17, 2015, Jesse went to the gas station near the Wisconsin stash house and provided Escobar and Noyola approximately $6, 000.

         The Mexican source had indicated to Jesse that he would be able to provide Jesse with a large quantity of methamphetamine. On the morning of August 18, 2015, Rojas-Andrade called Jesse to determine when Jesse would pick up the methamphetamine. Rojas-Andrade gave the phone to Escobar, and Escobar explained to Jesse that there were "fifty special for you." Id. at A-106 (Ex. 67).

         Following the call, Jesse contacted a number of coconspirators to inform them of the imminent arrival of 50 pounds of methamphetamine. Jesse told Cruz, "I guess those guys got the shit in now for me, so um . . . I don't know . . . when I need something next. I don't know yet. When I go check out see what they got and shit . . . hopefully it's good." Id. at A-112 (Ex. 72) (ellipses in original). He also notified his distributors, Chevre and Jackson. He told Chevre, "I gotta get going here, get building back up man, but I need you on my team for sure . . . . These dudes just [expletive] came through with the other one so I gotta pick up like fifty of them." Id. at A-116 (Ex. 77). Jesse told Jackson, "[T]hese fools are ready to go, they got fifty of them for me man, but they want us to [expletive] get on our hustle and shit in a major way. . . . [T]hey want me to come with some paper though to grab these fifty." Id. at A-110 (Ex. 71). Jackson met with Jesse the evening of August 18, 2015, and provided him with just over $16, 000.

         Following Jesse's meeting with Jackson, Jesse spoke with the Mexican source of supply. The Mexican source wanted to know if Jesse would be able to handle receiving 50 pounds of methamphetamine. Jesse replied, "I don't know I mean I was gonna take less than that cause like right now, I'm slow as hell right now, but I just picked up some money but I'm gonna go count it right now so I don't know how much I got right now." Id. at A-118 (Ex. 78).

         Jesse counted the money he received from Jackson on August 19, 2015. Jesse called Jackson and told him that the cash amounted to "[s]ixteen thousand, twenty dollars." Id. at A-125 (Ex. 82). Jackson responded that there "should've been like twenty six [thousand]." Id.

         Earlier in the day on August 19, 2015, Cruz had called Jesse to find out whether Jesse had gone to the stash house to inspect the methamphetamine. Cruz reassured Jesse that he was still available as a methamphetamine source if the Mexican source fell through.

         While Jesse was preparing to receive 50 pounds of methamphetamine, 91 pounds arrived at the Wisconsin stash house. Escobar and Noyola met the load driver at a nearby gas station and brought the methamphetamine back to the Wisconsin stash house. Shortly thereafter, Rojas-Andrade arrived in Wisconsin and packaged the drugs. After delivering 2 of the 91 pounds to another customer, Rojas-Andrade, Escobar, and Noyola went back to the Wisconsin stash house. On their way, Martinez spoke to Jesse and told him that they had 50 pounds of methamphetamine for him.

         After speaking to Martinez, Jesse drove in his Kia to the Wisconsin stash house and picked up a suitcase with 50 pounds of methamphetamine inside. After leaving the house, state troopers stopped Jesse's vehicle. Fifty pounds of methamphetamine were recovered from the trunk.

         In anticipation of Jesse traveling to Wisconsin to retrieve the methamphetamine, law enforcement established a perimeter at the Wisconsin stash house and obtained an anticipatory search warrant. After hearing that Jesse had been stopped and that 50 pounds of methamphetamine were recovered, law enforcement saw Escobar and Noyola leaving the area and stopped them. Officers then executed the search warrant. During the search of the Wisconsin stash house, approximately 29 pounds of methamphetamine was recovered from a dining room freezer. One firearm was recovered from Escobar's bedroom, and the other firearm was recovered from Noyola's bedroom. The firearm recovered from Escobar's bedroom was between the mattress and box spring and was loaded. Weeks prior, Rojas-Andrade had given Noyola a gun for protection.

         Law enforcement subsequently executed additional search warrants, including at the Case Avenue residence. At that residence, law enforcement seized five more pounds of methamphetamine from a duffel bag on the garage floor. Because the Mexican source of supply had been out of drugs for some time, the five pounds of methamphetamine seized from the Case Avenue residence was supplied by Cruz.

         Jackson remained a fugitive until October 26, 2015, when he was located at a residence in West St. Paul, Minnesota. Following a high-speed chase, law enforcement arrested Jackson. The rental vehicle Jackson was driving was towed to an impound lot. Shortly after Jackson's arrest, he placed a phone call from jail to his parents. In that call, he indicated that "all [his] stuff [was] in the trunk" of the vehicle. Appellee's Br. at 22 (quoting Appellee's App. at A-131 (Ex. 111)). Deputy U.S. Marshals returned to the impound lot after listening to the phone call and searched the vehicle. They seized 445.8 grams of methamphetamine (440.45 grams of actual methamphetamine) from under the carpet inside the vehicle's trunk.

         B. Proce ...

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