In the wake of the plane crash that killed Latina pop singer and reality show star Jenni Rivera, attention quickly turned to the company that owned the plane and an executive at the firm with a long history of brushes with thelaw.
It's not the first time Christian E. Esquino Nuñez has been embroiled in a controversy involving high-profile entertainers and a plane.
Los Tigres del Norte, a San Jose-based norteño band originally from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, rose to international fame with its accordion-laced ballads portraying life on the border, including homages to drug traffickers. In 2001, the group sued Esquino over an airplane sale gone awry.
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The band planned to buy an airplane from Esquino "to meet the needs of their extensive performance travel," according to a statement released through a spokesman for the group.
The group put down a $400,000 deposit after agreeing to pay about $6 million for a Gulfstream Model G-11SP airplane, according to court documents. A document outlining the agreement also specified that the band would be allowed to use a "comparable aircraft for charter purposes" until the sale was complete.
But after Esquino delivered the plane, the band said the aircraft did not live up to the contract and demanded its deposit back. When Esquino refused, the band sued for breach of contract and fraud. Esquino countersued, arguing that the band owed him more than $600,000 for the flights it took before deciding not to go through with the sale.
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After a lengthy battle, Esquino agreed in 2005 to give the band $200,000, but never paid up. Esquino said in a telephone interview that he had agreed to the judgment "basically to get them off my back." At the time, he was preparing to serve a prison sentence for conspiring with associates to falsify records documenting the history of planes they bought and sold. After serving two years, he was deported to Mexico.
The lawsuit complaint by Los Tigres del Norte did not specify what was wrong with the airplane that Esquino attempted to sell the band, other than to say that it "did not meet the specifications set forth in the Agreement, the proposed purchase price was not as set forth in the Agreement, and the proposed aircraft was otherwise unacceptable to the Plaintiff."
A person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for Los Tigres del Norte, said the plane delivered was not the same one the band had been testing and was "in pretty shoddy shape," and band members were worried that it was unsafe.
Esquino disputed those accusations.
"Everybody now is going to say they have safety concerns about everything they did with me," he said. "In essence, there was absolutely nothing wrong with that airplane. We ended up selling it later to someone else, and it flew fine and never had a problem."
Esquino told The Times that at the time of the fatal crash, Rivera had been in the final stages of buying the Learjet 25 she was riding in for $250,000. The plane belonged to Las Vegas-based Starwood Management, a company associated with Esquino, although his position in the company is unclear.
Nevada employment records list his sister-in-lawas the company's sole corporate officer. Esquino described himself as the company's operations manager. A lawsuit filed in October by an insurance company described Esquino as the "alter ego" of Starwood and said he had signed numerous documents on the company's behalf.
Federal Aviation Administration records show that Starwood Management did not have proper certification to carry paying passengers. Esquino said Rivera's flight was a free test demo, which would not require such certification, and that the company did not carry passengers for hire.
Esquino and Starwood are also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which seized two of the company's planes in the last year, one in Texas and one in Arizona. A DEA spokeswoman said she could not disclose details of the probe because it is ongoing.
Authorities continue to investigate the cause of the plane crash that killed the pop star and six others in a remote, mountainous area in Mexico.
Born in Long Beach, Rivera began her music career as a teenage mother selling records at a swap meet, but went on to build an empire, selling millions of CDs and starring in the popular bilingual cable reality show "I Love Jenni." She was preparing to make her American network television debut at the time of her death.
The Rivera family announced plans to hold a public memorial service — which they termed a "Celestial Graduation" — from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk. A private burial will be held separately.
Times staff writers Meg James, Dan Weikel and Tony Perry contributed to this report.