When Rivera reached Arizona, agents in Los Angeles drove east to intercept him. One parked his unmarked car on the shoulder of Interstate 40 near Flagstaff.
The agent had never seen Rivera or his big rig. All he had to go on were DMV photographs of several of Roman's suspected truckers.
A purple truck whooshed past with a plastic human skeleton plastered to its grill. A Halloween prank, the agent thought. More trucks passed.
When the agent called for Rivera's latest location, he was surprised to hear that the truck was now west of him. The agent made a U-turn and sped back toward California.
He followed two trucks to a rest stop. Another check of the phone's GPS signal placed Rivera close by.
The agent saw the purple truck with the skeleton on the front. A man who resembled the picture of Rivera got out of the cab. The agent notified the California Highway Patrol and took off.
The plan was for the CHP to intercept Rivera at an agricultural checkpoint just inside California. That way, the DEA's cover wouldn't be blown.
After pulling Rivera over, the CHP officer opened the door of the trailer. It looked empty. A drug-sniffing dog jumped inside.
DEA agents sitting in their cars a mile away waited anxiously. After 30 minutes, a CHP officer called. No drugs, he said, but the dogs had found 155 plastic-wrapped bundles hidden in the trailer's ceiling panels.
Each contained about $20,000. The total seizure: $3.1 million.
No more help
The bust wiped out what little credibility Roman had left with his bosses. He was soon so broke he couldn't pay his utility bills. His California wife lugged buckets around their dusty Hesperia neighborhood, asking for water.
On Dec. 5, 2006, Roman called Villalobos. He used to tip her as much as $2,000 for a $20 reading, but now he said he was penniless.
She offered no sympathy.
"Sometimes one digs one's own grave," the psychic said. "I am not going to ? continue with an ungrateful person."
"Don't be like that," Roman responded.
He offered to show her the police report on the money seizure, proof that he wasn't holding out on her.
She dismissed it. She didn't care that he was broke now. She felt he had cheated her when times were good.
"Listen carefully to what I am going to tell you: How many years did we work together? How many trips did we make together? Seventeen trips?"
She went on: "With me helping, everything worked out perfectly for you."
"That's right," Roman said.
"I was helping, made you boss of bosses. Where is the money?" she said. "You screwed me when you didn't need me anymore."
In May 2007, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Roman on cocaine-distribution and money-laundering charges. Among the potential witnesses: Lupita Villalobos.
Prosecutors flew her to New York, but she wouldn't leave her hotel. They leaned on her to testify. She refused.
In the end, her cooperation wasn't necessary. Roman pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years.
Rios, the stash house operator who fled to Culiacan, re-entered the U.S., was arrested and pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
Rivera, the trucker, was accused of conspiracy, but the charge was dropped.
Villalobos was never charged. The psychic stuck to her story: She was a simple businesswoman trying to make a living.
"These people give me money and I tell them what they want to hear," she said. "I don't know the future."
MORE: The players | Evidence, wiretaps and testimony | How the drug pipeline worked
Read Part One: Unraveling Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel
Read Part Three: Clear skies and cocaine
Part Four: Showdown in Sinaloa
About this story
For several years, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration put the distribution side of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel under a microscope. This series describes the detailed picture that emerged of how the cartel moves drugs into Southern California and across the United States. Times staff writer Richard Marosi reviewed hundreds of pages of records, including DEA investigative reports, probable-cause affidavits, and transcripts of court testimony and phone surveillance. He also interviewed DEA agents, prosecutors and local law enforcement officers serving on DEA-led task forces, as well as two cartel operatives convicted in the investigation.