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In a similar case in Ramsey County last year, DEA agents arrested 18 people and confiscated nearly 12 pounds of meth, a pound of cocaine and 30 pounds of marijuana. Federal agents identified cartel operatives who were later convicted in a St. Paul murder, and officers working the case came under gunfire from drug couriers just off Interstate 94 in St. Paul last year. Guilty pleas have been entered by many of the defendants.
Cooney says Jones’ office has tackled plenty of complex cases despite limited resources. One example is the Native Mob case now on trial in Minneapolis, where 24 defendants were indicted for drug dealing and more than 200 witnesses are expected to testify about a violence spree that has terrified Indian families statewide.
In addition to federal investigators, two Minnesota judges have also challenged Jones’ priorities. During a sentencing hearing in 2010, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said Jones’ office compromised “the interests of justice” by making and then breaking a plea agreement with a gang member who testified before a grand jury in return for a lighter sentence. Frank said the action put “the line prosecutor in harm’s way,” according to a court transcript, and “[damaged] the justice system.”
Cooney declined to discuss specifics of that case but said: “Prosecutors have their jobs and judges have their jobs, and sometimes they’re at odds with each other.”
A second jurist, Scott County Judge Rex Stacy, said he will no longer hear heroin cases investigated by federal task forces because Jones’ office hasn’t supported concerted pursuit of interstate heroin wholesalers. “We had the impression that the U.S. attorney was interested in cases that had large amounts of hard drugs, gangs and weapons. We were wrong,” Stacy said.
“Mexican cartels are pumping high-grade heroin to establish a customer base with the kids,” added Stacy, whose own daughter died of a heroin overdose several years ago. “Unless you prosecute these conspiracy cases federally, this is how you get a turf war with heads winding up in Dumpsters.”
Cooney said federal attorneys believed the defendants before Stacy were not significant enough under Jones’ policy and that some were already in jail. She also said Jones’ staff actually prevented the deportation of one dealer after Stacy argued that he should face prison time in the United States.
At a meeting last spring, tensions between Jones and top federal agents came to a boil. Two people in attendance, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear they risk losing their jobs, say Jones would not be second-guessed about the Ayala case and others. They say he pounded his fist on the table and told them that if they didn’t like his decisions, they could take the case “across the street” — to Hennepin County prosecutors.
The FBI did just that, and last fall Ayala was convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Last December, Ayala found himself standing before a county judge for sentencing. She said she was treating him as if he’d been convicted in federal court, and not under state guidelines that might give him seven years. Ayala received 30 years in prison — the longest drug sentence in state history.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745