A former California Highway Patrol officer went on trial in federal court Wednesday, charged with taking part in the theft of nearly 650 pounds of cocaine from an evidence locker at the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement office in Riverside.
Prosecutors say George Michael Ruelas, 43, was one of three rogue law enforcement officers who staged a fake burglary while the bureau's office was closed over the July 4, 1997, holiday weekend.
It remains the largest drug theft from any law enforcement agency in California, investigators say.
The mastermind was Ruelas' half brother, Richard Wayne Parker, 47, a veteran state narcotics agent assigned to the Riverside office. Convicted in 1999, he is serving a life prison term.
Also taking part was Ruelas' former CHP partner, Michael Wilcox, 42, of Fresno. He pleaded guilty in the case and is expected to be the government's star witness against Ruelas.
"These were smart, savvy, sophisticated law enforcement officers who thought they were committing the perfect crime," Assistant U.S. Atty. Lisabeth A. Rhodes said in opening remarks to the Los Angeles federal court jury.
Ruelas' lawyer, Joel Levine, said his client "emphatically" denies taking part in the break-in or in several smaller drug thefts blamed on the three men.
Levine said Ruelas was driving to Tucson on the day of the theft. He said the defense will produce a dated receipt from an Arizona gas station to support Ruelas' alibi.
The defense attorney accused Wilcox, who has yet to be sentenced, of lying to save his own skin. He also said the FBI targeted Ruelas because he was a loyal "cheerleader" for his half brother, regularly attending his 1999 trial in a show of support.
Ruelas, who is a charged with conspiracy and possession of cocaine for sale, faces a possible life prison term if convicted.
The case against the three former officers and close friends began taking shape July 2, 1998, when FBI agents on a routine stakeout followed a suspected drug dealer from Manhattan Beach to Pasadena, where she handed over an envelope with $47,000 in cash to a stranger in a pickup truck.
The stranger turned out to be Parker. His truck was registered to the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. After arresting him, FBI agents recovered $599,000 in cash along with drug transaction ledgers at his San Juan Capistrano home.
A month after Parker's conviction, federal agents arrested Wilcox in Fresno on charges of structuring 13 cash deposits, each just under $10,000, to skirt bank reporting requirements.
Once in custody, Wilcox confessed to taking part in the Riverside cocaine theft and implicated Ruelas, according to an FBI affidavit. He said he and Ruelas carried out the actual theft, using keys and the access code provided by Parker. Because Parker would probably come under scrutiny, he said it was decided that Parker should stay away so he could prove he was elsewhere.
Afterward, Wilcox said, he drove back to Fresno with the cocaine and hid it. Periodically over the next year, he said, Ruelas would drive there, pick up several kilograms of cocaine and pay Wilcox his share from the previous sale.
Wilcox agreed to arrange a meeting with Ruelas, wearing a concealed recording device provided by the FBI. During that meeting, prosecutors said, Ruelas coached Wilcox on what to say if questioned by the FBI.
Days later, Ruelas was arrested.