In the hours before Andrew Braun was killed, Maria Luna bought the BB guns that she, Santana Valdez and another man planned to use to scare him into paying his debt.
Luna, Valdez and their cohort lived under bridges. They left the church where they ate a free meal and walked to Braun’s St. Paul home to again try to collect about 5 p.m. on March 18, 2012.
They’d later say they were under pressure from their own drug boss and fearing for their lives if they didn’t get that cash, an estimated $12,000.
“Oh, you’re here,” Braun said, and they all entered his house in the 700 block of East Lawson Avenue.
Planning to rob him, the dealers launched an assault that could only end in death, Prosecutor David Miller had told jurors.
Friday, Ramsey County jurors convicted Valdez, 36, of two counts of second-degree murder. He led the attack by wielding a screwdriver and Samurai sword to slay Braun, who also was attacked with his own bayonet and hammer.
The murder of Andy Braun has not only devastated his family but also represents a societal problem that continues: the flood into the Midwest of cheap, pure methamphetamine from Mexico.
Braun’s murder was tied to a cartel delivering and distributing large amounts of cocaine, meth and marijuana.
Braun’s mother, Linda Braun, said she had worried about her son after learning he was using meth, and then, not long before his death, she got an inkling that he might have begun selling it to help pay his mortgage after he lost his job on a barge crew.
Ramsey County, the St. Paul Police Department and the Safe Streets Task Force, composed of federal, state and local agencies, all were involved in the case said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
The two others involved had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Valdez.
Carlos Yobani Flores Amador, 38, is serving a 25-year sentence. Luna, 49, has yet to be sentenced for being an accomplice after the fact. She’s now in prison for dealing drugs.
“The illegal use of drugs is not one of those crimes that some people try to characterize as victimless,” Choi said. “When people are out there buying marijuana or in this case, methamphetamine, there’s a whole host of illegal activities that are associated with it.”
Those include auto thefts, robberies and murder fueled by addictions, he said.
Statewide, about 40 percent of arrests by task forces in 2011 involved methamphetamine.
“There are few places you can go in the state where everybody doesn’t know someone who has been impacted by the meth problem,” said Bob Bushman, former statewide gang and drug task force coordinator.
“It’s the collateral damage that everyone has to deal with,” said Bushman, now president of the National Narcotic Officers’ Associations’ Coalition. “Some of these people came from good families but made bad decisions. It affects the families. It affects the schools. It affects our courts and criminal justice system. It affects our insurance companies. It affects our employers.”
The trial that began last week before Judge Gregg Johnson told of undocumented immigrants coming from Mexico.
Valdez came illegally to the United States at age 18. His attorney, Ellen Seesel, said he began selling meth after Luna’s brother asked him to get some. Guys at the body shop where he worked helped him.
Meth was the common denominator between the parties involved in the case and why the lives of Valdez and Braun’s intersected, Miller said.
Braun, a father and new grandfather, was using and selling meth for the midlevel dealers: Valdez and Luna.
The couple worked for a man called Truncas, later identified as Fidel Orozcocibrian, 27. He’s now serving an 86-month prison sentence for selling meth worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in St. Paul.
Police and federal drug agents began watching the cartel in January 2011. Six months later, they identified Valdez as selling cocaine, meth and guns.
A state trooper stopped Valdez and Luna that June. She shoved packages of meth down her pants. Police searched their apartment at 1865 E. Magnolia Av. and found more meth. Valdez and Luna agreed to cooperate with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and were given money to cover the value of the seized drugs to pay to their dealer.
Investigators set up surveillance outside a restaurant and watched as Valdez met with Orozcocibrian and again, as Valdez and Luna met with him. He wanted his money.
“They wanted to hit me and kill me, so I was hiding,” Valdez would later tell a St. Paul police sergeant in a videotaped interrogation. “The officer told me he was going to help me, and he never did. The officer gave me money two or three times.”
Investigators stopped using Valdez as an informant for reasons that remain unclear. In November, he, Luna and Orozcocibrian were charged with selling drugs.
Braun also was arrested that November after police found 98 grams of meth hidden in his bathroom door frame. During questioning, he admitted using meth.
“There is some Mexican guys having me hold onto that for them as part of a deal for me buying that car,” he told police.
Valdez and Luna fled to Louisiana. Amador showed up. The drug boss ordered the couple to return to Minnesota in early 2012 to clean up the “mess” with Braun’s debt.
Luna’s daughter had run off with about $8,000 intended for the drug boss from Braun, worsening Braun’s plight.
Braun kept putting Valdez and Luna off when they tried to collect. On the morning of March 18, the trio rode a bus to Braun’s house but he told them to come back. They were back about 5 p.m.
Valdez carried his pocket knife, plastic gloves, a can of hair spray and a screwdriver.
In court, each would later minimize his or her role. Amador testified Luna, who translated for the men, gave a signal, and he and Valdez jumped on Braun. Amador said Luna tried to stuff a sweatshirt into Braun’s mouth as he yelled.
“It was the three of us,” Amador testified. “He (Valdez) was hitting him on the head ... with the sharp end of the screwdriver.”
Braun was trying to fight off Amador as he was stabbing him from the front while Valdez was hitting him in the head from behind with the screwdriver, Miller said.
Valdez swung Braun’s Samurai sword and chopped into his right arm at the elbow, rendering it useless.
Virtually every part of Braun’s body was covered with wounds; he bled to death, Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee would later testify.
Valdez and Luna ransacked the house but found no money. The three were arrested a week later, under a bridge.
After the guilty verdicts Friday morning, jurors returned to deliberations and found aggravating factors that will allow Judge Johnson to give Valdez a longer sentence than called for under state sentencing guidelines. Sentencing will be April 3.
Valdez still faces five felony charges in connection with trafficking drugs, and immigration officials have placed a hold on him as an undocumented immigrant. He will likely face deportation after serving his sentences in Minnesota.
“This case is a perfect example of what happens when the drug trade is in your community,” Choi said. “People wind up dead.”