SANTA ANA — In a move that could set the stage for the first federal death penalty trial in California, federal prosecutors have charged a Corona drug dealer with murder under a law reserved for drug kingpins.
Juan Benito Castro has been charged with slaying another drug dealer and dumping his body at the side of a remote canyon road in Anaheim Hills.
Justice Department officials have yet to say whether they will actually seek the ultimate punishment against 29-year-old Castro, who will go on trial before U.S. District Court Judge Gary Taylor in Santa Ana early next year.
Under federal regulations, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno must decide if the death penalty should be sought. If she decides to do so, prosecutors must file notice of their intention in federal court.
Castro is the first federal defendant in California to be charged under the federal drug kingpin law--the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988--which makes killing related to a continuing criminal enterprise a capital offense.
Since 1988, federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty against 50 people. The six who received the sentence have been convicted of running a "continuing criminal enterprise."
Castro has pleaded not guilty to murder, drug dealing and weapons violations. Three alleged underlings also face drug and weapons charges in the 14-count indictment. Castro's attorney, David M. Dudley of Los Angeles, describes the evidence against his client as "tenuous and weak."
Dudley has filed a motion for dismissal on the novel grounds that Castro was sufficiently punished for any misdeeds when authorities seized about $100,000 in cash, vehicles and other belongings after his July, 1993, arrest.
Any further prosecution would result in double jeopardy and violate Castro's constitutional rights to only be punished once for an alleged wrongdoing, Dudley argues.
Judge Taylor is expected to rule on Dudley's motion later this week.
But in a trial memorandum filed in court, Assistant U.S. Atty. Uttam Dhillon, the chief prosecutor in the case, painted a portrait of Castro as a heavyweight drug dealer who in 1993 alone used his Rialto upholstery shop as a front to distribute 300 kilograms of cocaine with a wholesale price of $4.5 million.
Dhillon also described in gory detail how Castro allegedly killed 28-year-old Aaron Todd Ricks of San Bernardino, whose body was found Nov. 5, 1991, in bushes along Santa Ana Canyon Road.
Dhillon said Ricks had gone to Castro's crack house in San Bernardino the day before to pick up a kilogram of cocaine, which Castro had agreed to sell for $15,000.
But shortly after Ricks' arrival, Castro allegedly ordered his "crime partner"--identified in court papers as Sean Maiden--to kill Ricks for somehow cheating Castro in a previous drug deal.
"Maiden shot Ricks three times--in the torso, arm and neck," Dhillon said. "None of the shots was immediately fatal. Ricks was also beaten, resulting in six [cuts] on his face and head." At some point, Castro noticed that Ricks was not dead and "ordered Maiden to finish him off. Maiden refused."
Castro took the 9-millimeter handgun from Maiden, "placed the barrel of the gun next to Ricks' right ear and pulled the trigger," Dhillon said. Although the shot was fatal, the autopsy showed that Ricks may have lived for as long as 20 minutes more, he added.
Castro and Maiden allegedly dumped Ricks' body in some bushes at Santa Ana Canyon Road, where a jogger discovered it the next day. Dudley, the defense attorney, said the prosecution lacks "forensic, circumstantial or eyewitness" evidence to prove the murder charge against Castro. Dudley said the government was relying on a hearsay remark that Castro allegedly made about Ricks' murder a few years ago to a paid federal informant.
"By throwing in this murder charge, they want to put blood and guts in front of the jury, for jurors to think badly of my client," Dudley said.
Dudley said agents with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had decided to pursue the charges against Castro because he had refused their offers to become a federal informant. "Because he has chosen not to go that route, they have piled the charges against him," Dudley said.
In February, when authorities decided to charge Castro with Ricks' murder, he was being held on charges that he and three underlings bought 20 kilograms of cocaine from undercover DEA agents in July, 1993.
The three, who face assorted drug and weapons charges, were identified as Maximiliano Hilario Rios-Meza, 55, of Riverside; Thomas Lee Galloway, 30, of Hacienda Heights, and Kipp Edward Townsend, 26, of Moreno Valley.
In court documents, Dhillon said that federal agents had launched a sting operation after intercepting a van loaded with 228 kilograms of cocaine in February, 1993. The van's driver told federal agents that Castro had agreed to reduce by $500 his drug debt if he drove the vehicle to Castro's Mr. Custom Upholstery Shop. After the sting operation, federal agents found four semiautomatic pistols at Castro's shop and home.
Castro has been twice convicted of selling crack cocaine, according to court documents. Prosecutors also plan to introduce evidence that he was a gang member.
Dudley denied his client's involvement in gangs, and said Castro's arrest on the drug and weapons charges was a "setup" by a paid federal informant.