Skymaster defendant freed with clean record
Prosecutors erase charges against Carlos Rojas
By JOE DANBORN
A man who pleaded guilty 12 years ago in a plot to smuggle Colombian cocaine into Alabama walked out of jail late Friday with a clean record after prosecutors in Mobile erased the charges against him.
Carlos Rojas, who had about three years left on his sentence, was set to board a plane to join his family in Miami this morning, said his lawyer in Mobile, Dom Soto.
It's a killer win,» said Soto, who represented Rojas and others caught in a hugely successful but troubled U.S. Customs Service sting called Operation Skymaster that began in 1987.
Skymaster, which remained in action at least as recently as 2000, involved Customs agents in Mobile posing as small-time importers who smuggled big-time drugs on the side. Leaning on paid informants like most undercover officers do, the agents convinced Colombian cartels to send bulk quantities of cocaine and marijuana into the country through Mobile. The area's port, rural airstrips and seeming harmlessness helped close the deals.
Skymaster has netted more than 200 arrests and seizures of at least 20 tons of drugs, millions in cash and dozens of vehicles, including several airplanes and 18-wheelers. Officials would not say Friday whether it was still in operation.
Federal prosecutors in Mobile declined to comment on the case. A spokesman at the Customs Service's regional office in New Orleans did not return a telephone message or a page late Friday.
A federal grand jury in Mobile indicted Rojas, a native of MedellŽn, Colombia, in 1990 along with several other people. One of those co-defendants, Frank Ordo ez De long, was convicted by a jury, largely on the testimony of a Skymaster informant, Antonio Aizprua. The prosecutor in the case, repeating what Customs agents told him, told defense lawyers -- and Delong's jury -- that the government paid Aizprua $5,000 to snitch.
As it later turned out, that figure was off by hundreds of thousands of dollars, because the informant was paid -- as the government now concedes -- a total of $250,000 for his services in this criminal investigation,» then-U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer Jr. wrote in an order last year.
This guy that's the linchpin of the whole case was paid a quarter of a million dollars,» Soto said.
The payments to Aizprua, once a pilot for former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, came to light during Noriega's own drug-running trial. Aizprua earned another $245,000 for testifying in that case, records show.
Delong appealed on the grounds the jury should have been able to consider the large payments when judging Aizprua's credibility; Vollmer cut Delong's nearly 22-year sentence almost in half. The time limit for Rojas to appeal on the same grounds, however, had passed, so he was stuck.
After a series of filings Soto ini tiated more than three years ago, however, Vollmer last November gave the U.S. attorney's office 60 days to release Rojas or take his case to trial.
I thought it was pretty courageous of the judge to say, This isn't fair. This guy deserves a new trial,'" Soto said.
Rojas was set to go to trial late next month.
Soto claims prosecutors offered to ask the judge to re-sentence Rojas to time served if Rojas pleaded guilty anew to the felony conspiracy charge, but Rojas refused. Prosecutors came back with an offer to let Rojas plead guilty to a related misdemeanor, but he again turned them down, Soto said.
Rojas finally signed a waiver Friday agreeing not to sue the government, Soto said. Prosecutors then took the extraordinary step of notifying the court that they had altogether dismissed the indictment against Rojas.
It's nice,'cause he needs to go home and get it over with,» Soto said.
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