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U.S. judge denies motion to dismiss weapons smuggling case

Defense attorneys for three Filipinos accused in the sale of weapons had alleged that an FBI agent investigating the case had paid for prostitutes for their clients.

January 29, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times

Defense attorneys representing three Filipino nationals accused of weapons smuggling failed to persuade a federal judge to toss out criminal charges against their clients based on "outrageous government misconduct."

U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin on Monday denied a defense motion to dismiss the case. During a two-week hearing, defense attorneys accused FBI Agent Charles Ro of knowingly paying for prostitutes for the defendants.

While working undercover in the Philippines, Ro frequently met the defendants in karaoke clubs — where scantily clad and sometimes topless young women worked as hostesses — to discuss weapons deals, Ro testified. The bars are widely known to double as brothels, according to the defense.

"The fact that the agents met with defendants in such a place, while unsavory, is not conduct shocking enough to warrant dismissal of the indictment," Timlin wrote in a three-page order denying the motion.

The judge ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove Ro knowingly paid for prostitutes or that he engaged in prostitution himself during the investigation.

The defendants, Timlin wrote, were "willing participants in the activities" at the karaoke clubs, where patrons pay the hostesses to sit near them and then buy them drinks and food.

"The judge's ruling speaks for itself but no doubt can be viewed as vindication to agents who were unduly accused of illegal activity," Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, said in an e-mail.

In testimony, the agents denied the clubs were brothels. Ro, a 16-year FBI veteran, said the defendants never told him they had engaged in sex with prostitutes at the clubs, nor did the bills he paid indicate that sexual services were being provided.

One agent testified that he did have sex with an employee of a karaoke club but denied the woman was a prostitute. He gave her about $80 after they had sex, but he said the money was for her ailing father.

Sergio Santiago Syjuco, Cesar Ubaldo and Filipino customs official Arjyl Revereza have been charged with smuggling assault rifles, grenade launchers and mortar launchers from the Philippines to Long Beach in June 2011.

During the hearing, Syjuco and Ubaldo testified that they had sex with prostitutes paid for by Ro, who was posing undercover as a weapons broker for a wealthy Mexican drug cartel.

Deputy Federal Public Defender John Littrell, who represents Syjuco, said the judge's decision was "surprising and disappointing."

During his closing statements last week, Littrell said the hearing was a "credibility battle" between the agents and the defendants and accused the agents of lying about their knowledge of prostitution in the clubs.

Timlin has not ruled on another dismissal motion, in which defense attorneys say the government destroyed text messages from Ro to the defendants that could be used as evidence.

The defendants' trial is expected to begin this week.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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