A federal trial shows how Mexican cartel drugs get to Baltimore street corners
Photoillustration by Frank Hamilton; photo by Frank Klein (www.citypaper.com / January 26, 2015)
As for the scanner, Shutt testified that Coats said, “’I got it from K-Mart and it came with those frequencies,’” adding, “We kind of laugh at that, because that’s not true.”
Later, as Coats was being loaded onto the police transport to take him to lockup, Shutt told the jury, “He stops, turns around, and says, ‘There’s your side of the story, there’s my side of the story, and there’s the truth. We’ll see what the judge believes.’”
Shutt and his crew hightail it to the hotel, Coats’ three IDs in hand. When they get there, the hotel staff checks the registry and finds that Coats has rented Room 943. Shutt, his crew, and hotel security go up to the floor and walk down the hallway toward the room—a “fatal funnel,” Shutt explained, since “we don’t have any place to hide to shield ourselves from being shot.” His “senses are heightened” and he believes “we need to act swiftly and tactfully at this point,” but the hotel security staff balk at letting them in without a warrant. So they knock on the door, screaming “Police!” Cavazos answers it, and “could not have been” more cooperative and agreeable in what was a very tense situation.
Shutt’s second mistake was harmless, but telling. According to Cavazos, Shutt screamed “We got kilos! We got kilos!” after he’d found a bag of vacuum-packed, heat-sealed blocks wrapped in aluminum foil in Cavazos’ room. “He was jumping up and down,” Cavazos recalled on the stand, and “people next door were complaining about the noise.”
Shutt’s account was more muted. “I get very excited, because I think I just found kilos,” he told the jury.
But Shutt was wrong.
After reading Cavazos his Miranda rights, Shutt testified, “Mr. Cavazos informs me it’s not drugs, it’s money,” adding that Cavazos admitted to him that “he is just the money counter,” “that there are no drugs here yet,” and that “I count the money to make sure it’s right, and then the drugs come.” And there was a lot of money—all told, about three-quarters of a million dollars, found in the hotel room and in Cavazos’ minivan, parked in the hotel garage.
Cavazos, however, testified that all he told Shutt was, “That’s my money,” and nothing else.
Shutt’s third mistake, though, goes to his credibility. Shutt admitted under cross-examination that, in June 2009, he misled a federal grand jury about the case. Contrary to his trial testimony, he told the grand jury that neither Coats nor Cavazos made any statements after being read their Miranda rights. Confronted on this by Coats’ defense attorney, Ivan Bates, Shutt meekly contended that he “may have been confused by the question from the grand jury.”
The most acute vulnerability of the case against Coats and Cavazos was not Shutt’s conflicting testimony or his tactical errors. It was, instead, the case’s most hard-fought legal issue during the many months before it came to trial: former HIDTA Group 54 detective Mark Lunsford’s involvement in the investigation, and to what extent information about Lunsford’s crimes—in which he falsely credited information to a paid informant, with whom he would split the proceeds, and stole valuables from suspects—should be available for the jury’s consideration.
The question even led to the cancellation of a previously scheduled trial in the case, for which a jury was seated and then dismissed in October 2010. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge William Quarles, who presided over the trial, blocked defense attorneys’ efforts to have Lunsford take the stand before the jury. But, on the last day of testimony, the two sides agreed to stipulate for the jury that Lunsford was in prison after a conviction for theft and lying, that a watch belonging to Coats had been found in his possession, and that he had given clothing that belonged to Cavazos to a cooperating source in the FBI investigation that ultimately led to the September 2009 charges against him.
The defense team exploited the Lunsford factor as best it could. Since there were discrepancies in the investigative record about the amount of money recovered from Cavazos’ hotel room and minivan, there was room to create doubt about whether Lunsford had helped himself to some of it. Shutt had testified, after all, that Lunsford was left alone for hours in the hotel room and with the minivan. This meant that when Cavazos testified, and told the jury that all that money was not for cartel drugs, but was actually his winnings in an illegal Texas Hold ’em poker game that took place over a four-day period in Baltimore just prior to his arrest, he could boldly state that he’d been robbed by the police.
“They stole over $200,000,” Cavazos told the jury. “It was taken by the police. . . . They lied and they stole.”
Shutt shared his feelings about Lunsford’s crimes with the jury. After a long, thoughtful pause, he said: “I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, and I don’t tolerate anyone who does. It was a black mark on my police career because someone I worked with, without my knowledge, was committing criminal acts. It has taken a toll on me personally and professionally.”
After arresting Coats, Cavazos, and Brown, and conducting search warrants all over town in connection with their suspected drug-dealing scheme, Shutt knew there was more yet to find. The first order of business was to try to secure Brown’s cooperation. That was obtained immediately; given Brown’s serious criminal background, which would expose him to a severe sentence in this case, he was eager to help himself in any way he could in order to gain the possibility of leniency. But Brown’s help only went so far—he could say he had gone into business with Coats, selling about five to 10 kilograms of cocaine Coats had provided him in 2008 and 2009, but he didn’t know who Coats’ supplier was, and he’d never even heard of Cavazos. Based solely on the fact that Cavazos was a Hispanic male from Texas, Shutt suspected cartels in the picture, but he had nothing to prove it.
So Shutt started going through what he had so far. He had a flash drive from Coats’ briefcase that contained photos of two people Brown did know: associates of Coats, whom Brown called “Jimmy” and “B.” By following other clues—records of phone calls, text messages, financial dealings, airline flights, and the like—he established numerous links between Coats and Cavazos. But who were “Jimmy” and “B”?
Shutt told the jury that communications are drug dealers’ “weakest link,” and narcotics investigators such as himself are trained to exploit them. In Coats’ phone, he found something to exploit: phone calls and a text message from James Bostic, all right around the time Cavazos was staying at the Baltimore Inner Harbor Marriott. The text message read: “Home boy is alright. I’m about to head up.” Shutt’s interpretation of this, he explained to the jury, is that Bostic is letting Coats know that Cavazos has arrived at the hotel, and that Bostic is taking the elevator up to meet him.
The Bostic angle was tantalizing. Shutt was able to learn that Bostic owned a house in Dover, Pa., outside of York, two doors down from one owned by Coats and his fiancee, Shannon Best. He was able to determine that the man Brown called “Jimmy” was, in fact, Bostic. He knew Bostic was involved somehow, but he needed a break.
Shutt’s big break came in December 2009, when the FBI in Dallas called him shortly after they’d arrested a man in Texas with nine kilos of cocaine. This man, the FBI said, had immediately begun to cooperate, and had provided intelligence that James Bostic was Wade Coats’ partner. This man, of course, was Mendoza-Cano, and Bostic did not yet know Mendoza-Cano had been arrested. Neither did the Mexican cartel for whom he had been working. The investigation suddenly kicked into high gear to nab Bostic—and to establish with unexpected clarity that, despite its origins as a routine drug bust of a run-of-the-mill Baltimore drug dealer nicknamed “Truck,” this case was really about the far reach of ruthless Mexican cartels.