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United States v. Ramirez-Maldonado

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 26, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff- Appellee
Gregorio Ramirez-Maldonado; Alejandro Llamas-Delgado; Erick Parra-Salazar Defendants - Appellants

          Submitted: March 12, 2019

          Appeals from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota

          Before GRUENDER, BENTON, and GRASZ, Circuit Judges.


         Alejandro Llamas-Delgado ("Llamas") and Erick Parra-Salazar ("Parra") appeal their convictions for drug trafficking crimes. Parra and another co-defendant, Gregorio Ramirez-Maldonado ("Ramirez"), appeal the sentences the district court[1]imposed after trial. We affirm.

         I. Background

         In May 2017, law enforcement officials arrested Llamas, Ramirez, and Parra following an extensive investigation into a suspected drug conspiracy to distribute substantial quantities of methamphetamine and cocaine. Because both Llamas and Parra challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, many of the facts introduced at trial regarding that investigation are recounted below.

         A. Facts

         For purposes of this case, the investigation began in 2014 when the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") intercepted a transport truck in California that was hauling a 2005 Mini Cooper automobile. Earlier, Omar Ornelas-Garcia ("Ornelas") and A.L., a confidential informant who testified at trial, had met Llamas at an auto body shop in southern California that had constructed hidden compartments in the Mini Cooper. A.L. later picked up the Mini Cooper after Ornelas told him that he had loaded it with 22 pounds of methamphetamine and seven or eight kilograms (15.4 or 17.6 pounds) of cocaine. A.L. met with a truck driver to load the Mini Cooper onto the transport truck and subsequently sent a text to Llamas to tell him the Mini Cooper was on its way. The DEA learned about the transport truck and set up a "controlled delivery" of the Mini Cooper. The DEA met the truck driver at a parking lot in Plymouth, Minnesota, unloaded the vehicle, parked it, and disabled it. The truck driver then called someone named "Oscar," whom he had been told to call when he arrived.

         The DEA encountered Llamas during the controlled delivery of the Mini Cooper. Almost an hour after the truck driver's phone call to "Oscar," Llamas and a woman pulled into the parking lot. Llamas met with the truck driver, put California license plates on the Mini Cooper, and unsuccessfully tried to start it. Llamas eventually returned with several other people and a tow truck. They loaded the Mini Cooper on the tow truck and departed. The DEA did not arrest anyone but had local police seize the Mini Cooper from the tow truck.

         In September 2015, the DEA again saw Llamas when agents were at the Albertville Outlet Mall just west of the Twin Cities. Llamas sat on a park bench holding two cell phones. A short time later, Eric Winter drove into the parking lot. Llamas walked directly to Winter's vehicle and got into the front passenger seat. A few minutes later, Llamas got out of the vehicle, walked to his own vehicle, and drove off. Police officers stopped Llamas and Winter. The officers found about an ounce of methamphetamine in the center console of Winter's vehicle and $1, 880 cash on Llamas. The record indicates they arrested Llamas but does not indicate whether any further proceedings occurred.

         In January 2017, police officers began extensive surveillance that included watching two houses linked to Llamas. These houses were a large, single-family home on Bellvue Lane in Brooklyn Center (the "Bellvue House") and a small rambler-style home on Dupont Avenue in Minneapolis (the "Dupont House"). The officers also identified several vehicles linked to Llamas, including a Chevrolet Silverado and a GMC Sierra. Between January and May 2017, Llamas often drove between the two houses. Llamas would meet with various people and engage in "short term traffic," only staying at residences for a short time. The officers testified Llamas would travel to locations using non-direct routes and side streets and would circle around the block in a manner consistent with one conducting counter-surveillance. They did not observe Llamas engage in any conventional work activities.

         In February 2017, police officers encountered Llamas and Ramirez when tracking a cell phone that Llamas has previously contacted. The officers had set up surveillance at a travel plaza near Albert Lea, Minnesota. They spotted Ramirez driving a Honda registered to Jacqueline Myra Machuca-Arana ("Machuca") with a passenger they later identified as Machuca. The officers followed the vehicle to the Dupont House. Llamas arrived and met with Machuca and Ramirez. Machuca returned to the Honda and drove into the garage. Soon after, Llamas left the residence carrying a duffle bag and headed toward the garage. Llamas then drove away in another vehicle, while Ramirez and Machuca drove off in Llamas's Chevrolet. Ramirez and Machuca returned to the Dupont House later that night. The next evening, the officers located Ramirez and Machuca out driving the Honda, stopped the car, and seized $20, 000 in cash from a modified storage area in the rear seat.

         In March 2017, police officers received information from investigators in California that Llamas would be meeting with a money courier. The officers tracked Llamas and an unknown male to a hotel near the Mall of America in Minnesota. They also noted a car parked at the hotel: a Honda Odyssey with California plates registered to Hubert Cuevas. Cuevas and Llamas talked 28 times by phone that day. Two days later, officers ...

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