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United States v. Gomez

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 16, 2019


          Mona K. Majzoub Magistrate Judge



         Mario Gomez was a passenger in a car in which Michigan State Police troopers found three kilograms of methamphetamine. At trial, the government's theory was that both Gomez and the driver of the car were couriers for a drug transaction planned near Detroit. The defense theory was “mere presence”-that Gomez had joined the trip to pursue legitimate business opportunities in Michigan, and that he was unaware drugs were in the car. A jury thought otherwise, finding Gomez guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The Sixth Circuit affirmed his conviction, and he now moves to vacate his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the reasons that follow, Gomez is not entitled to relief.


         In January 2015, after observing some minor traffic offenses, Michigan State Police Trooper Ben Sonstrom stopped a car containing Mario Gomez and Matias Silerio. (ECF No. 127, PageID.587.) The pair had left Texas the day before, driving over 1, 500 miles in 32 hours. (ECF No. 127, PageID.562.) When the trooper asked Gomez and Silerio to account for their long trip, the pair offered conflicting explanations. (ECF No. 127, PageID. 597, 598, 601, 639.)


         The trial testimony of several co-conspirators shed light on why the men made the trip: to deliver a significant amount of crystal meth to a buyer in Detroit. Bertha DelaGarza testified that the supplier for the drugs at the center of the conspiracy was a man named “Gordo” in Guadalajara, Mexico. (R. 129, PID 912-15.) She said she introduced Gordo to Juan Mendoza-Castillo, who had a buyer in Detroit looking for crystal meth. (R. 129, PID 914.) According to DelaGarza, by January 2015, Mendoza-Castillo and Gordo had arranged to ship crystal meth to Detroit. (R. 129, PID 915.) Importantly, she testified that she understood that Gordo had arranged for his two usual crystal meth couriers to transport the drugs. (R. 129, PID 915-16, 20.)

         And she believed at least one of them had either a familial connection to Gordo or owned the drugs. (ECF No. 129, PageID.926-928.)

         So Mendoza-Castillo could collect his finder's fee, he arranged for Denise Alvarado to fly to Detroit to receive the money after the drug transaction (and then take it back to Texas). (Id. at PageID.858-860, 918.) For his part, Mendoza-Castillo had no idea who the couriers were. (ECF No. 129, PageID.864.) But DelaGarza gave him a phone number to reach the couriers, and Mendoza-Castillo was in communication with them via phone and text before and after they left. (ECF No. 129, PageID.864-868.) Mendoza-Castillo even tracked their progress north and texted the couriers an address in Canton, Michigan where they would meet Guerro. (ECF No. 129, PageID.867-868.)

         The couriers left Texas on January 28, 2015 and were supposed to arrive in Canton on January 29. (ECF No. 129, PageID.878.) But by evening on January 29, neither Mendoza-Castillo nor Alvarado could reach the couriers. (ECF No. 129, PageID.868-869.) Later, DelaGarza found out from Gordo that the couriers had been arrested (ECF No. 129, PageID.926.)

         Earlier in the day on January 29, Sonstrom stopped Gomez and Silerio on I-275 near Canton. The pair gave Sonstrom reason to become suspicious. (ECF No. 127, PageID.601.) Silerio told Sonstrom the pair were headed to Canton, Michigan to purchase a tractor or an excavator. (ECF No. 127, PageID.639.) Gomez said he had no idea where they were headed, but he thought the pair were looking for kitchen equipment or maybe construction equipment. And the pair offered different explanations for who owned the car in which they were riding. (ECF No. 127, PageID.588.)

         Sonstrom asked if there were drugs in the car. (ECF No. 127, PageID.602.) Gomez said no and consented to a search. (ECF No. 127, PageID.602, 623-624.) In short order, a dog alerted to the presence of drugs. (ECF No. 127, PageID.610.) And after an exhaustive search of the car, troopers found three kilograms of methamphetamine hidden in a compartment above the driver's side rear wheel. (ECF No. 127, PageID.609-610.) All of the above was captured on Sonstrom's dashcam and shown to the jury. (ECF No. 127, PageID.602, 605, 610.)


         Silerio and Gomez were arrested. (ECF No. 127, PageID.642.) After their arrest, the state police turned the pair over to the DEA. (ECF No. 127, PageID.673-674.) It turned out Mendoza-Castillo's drug-trafficking activity had been the subject of a long-running DEA investigation. (ECF No. 127, PageID.670-671.) DEA Agent Michael Brouillard interrogated Gomez. (ECF No. 127, PageID.674.) Brouillard said Gomez did not attempt to explain why he travelled to Michigan. (ECF No. 128, PageID.694.) But Brouillard did remember Gomez saying, “I want to help [myself], but I don't want to get myself in trouble.” (ECF No. 128, PageID.695.) And Gomez said his brother was a DEA agent. (ECF No. 128, PageID.698.) It turned out Gomez's brother was not a DEA agent, exactly, but a DEA telecommunications analyst. (ECF No. 128, PageID.697.) Even so, Brouillard interpreted Gomez's comment as a plea for leniency. (ECF No. 128, PageID.698-699.) Beyond that, Gomez remained silent. (ECF No. 128, PageID.699.) So Brouillard concluded the interrogation.

         The DEA also seized Gomez's and Silerio's cellphones. (ECF No. 128, PageID.700, 703, 811.) Silerio's phone contained texts and calls to and from Mendoza-Castillo's phone. (ECF No. 127, PageID.659-62.) On January 28, Mendoza-Castillo texted Silerio an address near I-275 and Ford Road in Canton, Michigan. (ECF No. 128, PageID.704-705.) There, Mendoza-Castillo said Silerio could expect to meet Guerro and Alvarado (known to Silerio only as “the lady”). (ECF No. 128, PageID.706, 710.) On January 29, Silerio and Mendoza-Castillo exchanged texts tracking the couriers' progress north. (ECF No. 128, PageID.707-709.) For his part, Gomez's phone did not have any contact with Mendoza-Castillo. But it did have a navigation app, and only one entry in the app was for an address outside Texas. (ECF No. 128, PageID.816-818.) The non-Texas address was 275 Ford Road, Carleton, MI. (ECF No. 128, PageID.815; see also ECF No. 142-5, PageID.1228.) And other than the Ford Road address, Gomez's phone had no connections with Michigan. He had no 313 or 248 contacts, no calls to or from 313 or 248 numbers, no searches for Michigan businesses, and no other Michigan addresses entered into his search history or navigation app. (ECF No. 128, PageID.816-818.)


         Gomez was ultimately charged with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and conspiracy to do the same. (ECF No. 59.) He went to trial. And at trial, the jury heard from DelaGarza, Mendoza-Castillo, and Alvarado. They also heard from Sonstrom and Brouillard. They saw the video of the traffic stop, the text messages from ...

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