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Jenni Rivera jet linked to troubled company and executive

December 12, 2012|By Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times

Starwood formed in March 2007, two months after Esquino was released from prison. He probably knew, federal officials said Wednesday, that he would be unable to receive a license to buy and sell U.S.-registered aircraft following the federal charges and his deportation. Nevada employment records list Esquino's sister-in-law, Norma Gonzalez, as the sole corporate officer of Starwood. But according to allegations contained in court documents, it was Esquino — who has operated at times under the name Eduardo "Ed" Nunez — who was actually running the show.

According to a lawsuit filed in October in Nevada by an aviation insurance firm, Esquino is the "alter ego" of Starwood and had signed numerous documents on behalf of Starwood, including applications for insurance.

Stephen S. Kent, a Reno attorney who represented QBE Insurance Corp. in the main Starwood case, alleged that Esquino launched Starwood specifically to "get around" the rules restricting a foreign national's ownership of U.S.-registered aircraft.

Esquino has disputed that characterization in court, and said Wednesday that he was stumped by what he described as a fixation over his role at the company. He said that Gonzalez, who could not be reached for comment, is indeed the owner of the company, but that "I'm the one with the expertise."

Esquino had been tangled in legal problems for years. In 1993, he had pleaded guilty in federal court, according to his attorney, of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. Later in the 1990s, according to court documents, his attorney acknowledged that Esquino knew that he had been the target of a DEA investigation into drug trafficking; he was not charged in connection with that investigation and Esquino said Wednesday that the notion he has ever been involved with trafficking is "absolutely wrong."

In 2000, he was accused of helping to drive an air charter company that had operated out of the Chino, Calif., airport into bankruptcy; that company obtained a restraining order against him. Last year, according to published reports, he testified to Mexican authorities that Starwood had been hired to fly relatives of Moammar Kadafi out of Libya.

"His whole history is kind of intriguing," said Joseph Milchen, a San Diego defense attorney who has represented Esquino.

Asked about Esquino's personality, Milchen said what several of those interviewed for this article said — that Esquino was in trouble time and again, and still managed to come off as charming in the end. "He's a very likable person," Milchen said.

John Williams, a South Carolina doctor who has been a pleasure pilot for most of his adult life, thought the same several years ago when he bought a 1981 Cessna from Esquino and associates for roughly $120,000. At the time, Williams was a little troubled when he learned that the plane's logbook was not available. It was only after he received the aircraft that he learned that the plane's logbooks had been falsified.

"Logbooks are a very important thing when you buy an airplane," he said — and not having a legitimate history of a plane can reduce its value by as much as 40%. As part of Esquino's guilty plea to falsifying the documentation of used planes he bought from the Mexican government and sold to private pilots, he was ordered to pay $435,000 to four defrauded victims.

Esquino, according to court documents, was ordered to pay Williams $100,000. So far, Williams said, he has received $1,300.

scott.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writers Meg James, Richard Fausset, Dan Weikel and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.

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