When Howard County police detective Mike Mui saw a vehicle driving too fast on Robert Fulton Drive in Columbia on May 22, he notified officers Doug Catherman and Tom Townsend, who pulled it over and found the driver had no registration or rental agreement. Within minutes, a K-9 unit arrived and the drug-sniffing dog alerted officers to the presence of drugs. A quick search turned up approximately 50 kilograms of cocaine in two duffel bags.
The snappy policing suggests that the Howard County cops suspected coke was in the vehicle, but that's not what court documents say. Instead, the sworn narrative charging the driver, Sergio Nunez, chalks the case up to only his speeding in a vehicle that lacked proper documentation. The federal prosecutor on his case, James Warwick, said in court during May 29 proceedings that Nunez faces a possible life sentence due to two prior drug-dealing convictions-dire consequences for his slip-ups behind the wheel while in possession of such a large quantity of blow. During the proceedings, he was described by his defense attorney, public defender Premal Tarun Dharia, as the owner of real-estate business in California.
There have been bigger coke cases in the Baltimore area-more than 150 kilos at the Port of Baltimore in 2004 ("OK, But It's Probably Like the Third-Biggest Drug Bust Ever. At Least," the News Hole, March 2, 2009), nearly 400 kilos flown in from California over a six-week period in 2011 ("Bringing It Back Home," Mobtown Beat, Feb. 2, 2011), 136 kilos in a tractor-trailer that arrived in Jessup in 2011 ("Too Rich," Feature, Feb. 20)-but a 50-kilo traffic stop is unusual. The contents of the two duffel bags would wholesale at about $1.5 million and its street value would come to about $5 million.
Nunez, despite wearing maroon prison garb, appeared suave and professional, with a full head of well-groomed, wavy black hair atop his tall, robust frame. Warwick said that Nunez, before the traffic stop, had flown into Philadelphia from California, that circumstances "suggest that he had obtained [the cocaine] here-he didn't fly in with it," and that Nunez "occupied a position of trust" in that "he had a lot of responsibility for a very valuable commodity." What's more, Warwick added, "Nunez did tell the agents that he expected to be paid for what he was doing" and that "he knew what was in the bags."
Dharia told U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Gauvey, who presided over the May 29 detention hearing, that Nunez's wife and brother had flown in from California to be present for the hearing. Dharia stressed that Nunez is a U.S. Navy veteran and has a "stable home in California," that he "walks his two children to school in the morning," and that, since court supervision for his last drug-dealing conviction ended in 2007, "he started his own business and succeeded in it." Dharia described the business as "real estate," including "construction." "He has very strong family and community ties" back in California, Dharia said in an effort to convince Gauvey to allow Nunez to be on supervised release pending trial.
Gauvey, noting that Nunez had failed to overcome the government's presumption that the defendant presents a flight risk and a danger to the community, told him, "I am going to detain you." She supported her decision by noting the "very large quantity of drugs" found in his possession, his "acknowledgement" that he expected to be paid for his role in handling them, his "two prior drug-distribution convictions," and "the weight of the evidence" against him.
During the hearing, Nunez's wife occasionally cried softly, putting her head down to her knees. After it was over, while in the courthouse hallway, she declared: "He's really not a bad person. He's a stupid person, but he's not a bad person."