Investigation reveals gun buys tied to cartel

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - New details are surfacing in a sweeping federal investigation involving gun buys from Beaumont to Pasadena, the Zetas Drug Cartel and the death of a federal agent on Mexican soil.

The investigation was spearheaded by agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Houston office and began nearly two years ago. Local 2 Investigates reviewed court documents and spoke with sources close to the investigation to uncover details of a network of unwitting cartel recruits and the men investigators said were behind the operation.

"We heard so many different stories, but we didn't know what to believe," said Mary Mendez.

Mendez said she remembers the day she had to identify her nephew. Police said Santiago Garcia was murdered over a debt in front of this Baytown home in November 2004.

"When I saw him, I panicked. I stayed paranoid you know," said Mendez. "He was out there smuggling, bringing people from Mexico, drugs and stuff."

It took Baytown police nearly eight years, but three men were eventually charged this year with Garcia's murder: Daniel Torres Jr., Juan Carlos Barrera-Magana and Arturo Chavez Jr. But Local 2 investigates discovered Garcia's murder is just part of a larger mosaic. 

Less than a month after being charged with Garcia's murder, Chavez was also charged in federal court. Documents obtained by Local 2 read Chavez went by the street name, "Veinte Uno," which is Spanish for the number 21. Federal investigators write Chavez provided money to a group of "straw purchasers." A federal criminal complaint reads the charges against Chavez "stem from his orchestration, funding of, and otherwise direct participation in a criminal conspiracy to provide untraceable firearms to member of the Los Zetas Drug Cartel in Mexico." Investigators further wrote in an indictment that while Chavez "would and did provide money for the purchase of firearms," and "Manuel Gomez Barba would and did organize the purchases of the firearms on behalf of Chavez."

Federal sources involved with the case told Local 2 that Barba recruited people he befriended in Baytown and the Chambers County area, who needed cash and had clean criminal records that would allow them to purchase weapons. Barba could not legally purchase weapons because of past criminal charges. Court records show Barba pleaded guilty to a charge of exportation of firearms and was sentenced to 100 months in prison. This sentence was on top of a previous 108-month sentence Barba received for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. Chavez is awaiting trial on charges filed in both federal and state court.

As part of this investigation, four other men were charged and pleaded guilty to buying the guns. The owner of JJ's Pawn Shop in Beaumont said he remembers two of the men well.

"They were just somebody who came in the door and wanted to make a purchase," owner James Hedrick, Jr. said.

Hedrick said he remembers the day ATF agents started asking questions about Blandon Shaffer. Court records read Shaffer bought 10 guns at JJ's Pawn. While answering questions about Shaffer's purchases, Hedrick informed agents about another, almost identical, purchase of guns by Robert Riendfliesh, an Iraq war veteran. Hedrick said both men passed federally required background checks, which allowed them to legally purchase the weapons.

"It did surprise me," said Hedrick. "The entire time I've been in business, this is the only thing like this."

Federal officials wrote that one of the guns bought by Riendfliesh in Beaumont made its way across the border, into Mexico, and was found at the murder of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Jaime Zapata.

Zapata was ambushed and gunned down in February 2011 while working in Mexico. Court records read that Riendfliesh's gun purchase was made on Aug. 20, 2010. Federal sources told Local 2 they did not learn of Riendfliesh's involvement until Sept. 29. A source involved in the case told Local 2 the guns bought by Riendfliesh were "long gone by the time we knew about it." Local 2's sources said they believe within 12 hours of each gun purchase, the weapons' serial number had been removed and the guns were on the way to Mexico.

Court records show Thomas Lawson and Sergio Escobedo were also charged with buying guns as part of this group. Court records show all four men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to five years probation.

When contacted at his home in Liberty, Riendfliesh would only say, "I had no idea who the guns were for."

When Local 2 tried to speak with Shaffer at his home just outside of Baytown, he declined to comment.

Lawson also declined to comment and Escobedo was not reached for comment.

"People will do things for money, not thinking of the long-term consequences," said Hedrick.

Federal sources involved in the case told Local 2 other so-called "straw purchasers" from the Baytown and Chambers County areas were involved in purchasing guns, but those individuals' level of cooperation in the case appeared to help them avoid criminal charges. Local 2 tried to speak with one of these individuals but only received a text message reading, "I can't talk to you because it will put my family in danger. I can't take the chance."

Beyond the charges filed, Local 2 also examined the timeline of this investigation. Sources involved in the case told Local 2 they first received a call from a clerk who wanted to report a suspicious purchase at a gun show in Pasadena in June 2010. However, Local 2's sources said when federal agents questioned the clerk, the individual recanted, but agents kept the name of the supposedly suspicious buyer in their notes. Court records show that same month ATF agents launched an investigation into Katy Arms, a licensed firearms dealer in Katy. Court records read the investigation into the business involved "maintaining unlawful records, conducting illegal sales and making numerous sales to individuals who provided the firearms to prohibited individuals." An affidavit filed in federal court shows agents raided the business in August 2010 and seized more than 1,500 guns kept in inventory. The owner of Katy Arms, Lazaro Gil, was never charged with any crime but the seizure of the weapons shut the business down. Gil denies ever making an improper sale and believes he is the victim of an over-zealous government coming down on him for what he terms paperwork "mistakes."

"You make mistakes like anybody else," said Gil.

"You didn't seem to fight this -- seized all your weapons and essentially put you out of business," Local 2 investigator Robert Arnold said.

"Why am I going to fight a fight I'm going to lose?" said Gil, who claimed he sought legal advice and was told fighting the seizure would be expensive and very difficult to win. "If you lend me the money, I'll fight it."

During a review of records seized at Katy Arms, federal sources said they came across the name of the person who supposedly made that suspicious purchase at the Pasadena gun show in June 2010. By the end of August 2010, agents found and interviewed that person. Local 2's sources said that person admitted buying the guns at the behest of an acquaintance and Barba. Sources told Local 2 agents then questioned that acquaintance, who also implicated Barba. Neither of these individuals was criminally charged. During a deeper search of seized records from Katy Arms, court documents read Shaffer, Escobedo and Lawson also purchased weapons from Katy Arms. During September 2010, agents interviewed numerous individuals connected to gun purchases and on Sept. 29 questioned clerks at JJ's Pawn. Federal sources tell Local 2 they were following gun purchases made by Shaffer at the Beaumont pawn shop. Sources involved in the case said it was during this meeting they learned Riendfliesh's name. During the first eight days of October 2010, agents interviewed Riendfliesh and served a search warrant at a Baytown home were Barba was living at the time. Sources involved in the case told Local 2 that Barba was not home at the time the search warrant was executed and items seized during the search were not particularly fruitful to the overall investigation. Federal sources said in November of 2011 agents came across another suspected "straw purchaser" who also implicated Barba. Agents continued to interview and re-interview those suspected of being involved in gun purchases and on Feb. 8, 2011, Barba and four "straw purchasers" were indicted by a federal grand jury.

Barba was arrested on Feb. 16, coincidentally one day after the murder of Zapata in Mexico. Federal sources tell Local 2 the ATF's Houston division was informed on Feb. 25, 2011, that the gun purchased in Beaumont by Riendfliesh was found at Zapata's murder.

"The drug cartels operate on both sides of the border," U.S. Rep. Ted Poe said. "People who think drug cartel crime stops at the border really are living in Never Neverland."

Poe said this entire investigation highlights a point has been trying to impress upon some of his colleagues in Washington for years.

"It is more than a border security issue," said Poe. "It's a national security issue. That's what this is all about, the drug cartels coming into the United States any way they can."

Poe said he will continue pushing for more federal resources to be devoted to the southern border.

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