Jesse Mendoza grew up a poor kid in St. Paul, rising to hometown stardom as a break dancer who performed widely at rented dance halls in town.
But he couldn't shake his poverty, turning to a life of drug dealing and chemical abuse early, his attorney said. With charisma to spare and a nonviolent approach, Mendoza, 45, eventually led a large, years-long drug trafficking ring that spanned half the country.
Mendoza "used everything and everyone he could to run his illegal enterprise," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Schleicher wrote in a court document. "He was successful, enjoying the benefits of large sums of seemingly unlimited money gathered in large part by others who now also face consequences. There was a price for defendant's friendship and generosity."
Mendoza, who admitted to moving as much as 66,000 pounds of marijuana during a five-year run, was sentenced last week to 21 years in prison. Nine family members and friends indicted alongside him have pleaded guilty, including his wife, her twin sister and a high school friend. All but three have been sentenced.
Mendoza spent lavishly on cars, especially vintage models, jewelry and lakefront property as a coterie of loyalists helped keep the operation quiet. He threw weekend-long parties at a home in Minnetonka that devolved into rampant drug use. Then federal authorities began circling in on him, secretly recording conversations with the help of a co-conspirator and digging through trash. Mendoza's empire began to crumble.
The government made more than $2 million off the sale of his forfeited belongings, including two custom motorcycles, a 1969 Oldsmobile and a single-engine Cessna plane. They also nabbed more than $800,000 in cash and about $700,000 in jewelry.
"The guy never had a real job and lived like a king," said Michael Saeger, an attorney who represented Mendoza's sister-in-law, Angela Cilek.
Court documents show Mendoza was generous with his co-conspirators and remains well liked by many whose lives were upturned by being associated with him. But memorandums filed by his co-defendants' attorneys imply that Mendoza also took advantage of their clients' vulnerabilities. His wife, Dawn Mendoza, 36, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for aiding and abetting money-laundering. Sentences for others range from probation to about six years in prison.
"Dawn has suffered physical and emotional abuse for many years," and the fact that she continues to struggle with completing the divorce proceedings "indicates that she has fallen into a pattern of typical abused wives, where they cannot act independently of their abusive husbands," read a memorandum arguing for the court to go light on Dawn Mendoza's sentence.
Her attorney, Paul Engh, declined to comment on the abuse.
Other attorneys claimed that past sexual abuse, troubled childhoods, addiction and financial problems made their clients especially vulnerable to Mendoza's influence.
Mendoza's attorney, Earl Gray, acknowledged his client's role as the leader, but said Mendoza did not force anyone's involvement. He pleaded guilty in July 2011 to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 5 or more kilograms of cocaine and 100 or more kilograms of marijuana and aiding and abetting money-laundering.
"Anybody that got into this scheme volunteered and requested to get involved because of the money," Gray said. "Everybody in this so-called conspiracy knew what they were doing, and they did it for the money, as Jesse did."
In a court memorandum, Gray had argued that Mendoza should receive 12 years in prison because he grew up in a poor environment with little education and turned to the easy life of drugs and money. "However, he always supported his family, relatives and close friends," Gray wrote.
Those relatives and close friends' loyalty helped the operation quietly operate from 2005 to 2010. Mendoza paid couriers to transport money and marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine between Minnesota and California via semitrailer truck, car and private plane. He paid others to store the drugs or apparently stored them himself in various locations in St. Paul, Forest Lake, Woodbury and Prescott, Wis., where records show he lived for a time. The drugs were sometimes kept in 55-gallon drums.
He supplied $100,000 to start an indoor marijuana growing operation and even paid for flying lessons for a co-conspirator, wrote Schleicher, the assistant U.S. attorney.
The amount of drugs seized during the investigation was small, Schleicher wrote, but Mendoza "agreed to the historic amounts that were attributable to him," 10,000 to 30,000 kilograms of marijuana (up to 66,000 pounds).
Gray wrote that Mendoza "made a deal with God" and quit selling cocaine, and credited him for never using violence or weapons to collect unpaid debts. The latter likely kept away the glare of police scrutiny.
"Usually, the drug world is rather violent," Engh said. "You usually see dead bodies along the way."
Mendoza was no stranger to the courts. He was arrested on federal drug charges in the early 1990s and cooperated with authorities by providing information on a drug source in Texas. But records indicate that authorities didn't begin closing in on his operation until a few years ago, when a paid informant gave authorities information about incidents in 2003 and 2004. In 2009, another informant reported that a semitrailer truck unloaded 55-gallon drums at one of Mendoza's homes.
In 2008, authorities obtained Mendoza's tax return information, showing that he didn't file a federal return from 2004 to 2006, and reported earning $44,700 in 2007.
The investigation came to a head on April 13, 2010, when a Wisconsin State Patrol trooper stopped one of Mendoza's couriers, Patrick J. Lauer, 53, for speeding in a semitrailer truck. A drug detection dog found prescription narcotic pills and a small amount of marijuana. Officers found about $500,000 locked in a safe.
Five days later, a uniformed St. Paul police officer encountered an apparently intoxicated Mendoza about 1:30 a.m. outside a SuperAmerica station on Maryland Avenue. Mendoza said he was kicked out of a car for not getting along with "some girl," court documents show. He then confessed to the officer that he had sold drugs but was quitting.
Lauer, a former Marine, began secretly recording conversations with Mendoza that month. Mendoza was charged in November 2010, and the co-defendants a few months later.
"It's a lot like pulling a loose thread," said Jeanne Cooney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota. "It just keeps unraveling and unraveling."
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib