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United States of America v. Vincente Carrasco Espinoza

July 13, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wollman, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: April 19, 2012

Before WOLLMAN, BYE, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

Vincente Carrasco Espinoza, Jr. (Carrasco) appeals his conviction for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine (count one), in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A) and 846, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and methamphetamine (count ten), in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1),

(b)(1)(A), and (b)(1)(B). We affirm.


Because one of Carrasco's principal points on appeal is his challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, it is necessary to discuss that evidence in some detail.

The government presented evidence of a drug conspiracy in which Carrasco distributed multiple pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine from a "stash house" located on East 7th Street in Des Moines, Iowa. Juan Antonio Toledo Ayala was sent from Chicago, Illinois, to Des Moines to run the stash house beginning in August of 2008. Shortly thereafter, Ayala was introduced to Carrasco, who said he was "a friend" of an individual named "Eivar" who had sent Ayala to Des Moines. Tr. 99, 54. Carrasco, Ayala, and Eivar all shared family ties to the same town in Mexico. Carrasco and Eivar directed the flow of drugs and money to and from the stash house.

Carrasco bought and resold seventeen pounds of methamphetamine that had been stored at the stash house by the time of Ayala's arrival in Des Moines. Carrasco's purchases usually occurred in one or two pound increments, at $20,000 per pound. Ayala sent the proceeds of these sales to California or Arizona as directed by Eivar. In November or December of 2008, Eivar sent a courier to Iowa with a kilogram of cocaine, met the courier, and brought the cocaine to Ayala at a hotel. Ayala in turn sold the shipment to Carrasco for $29,000 and helped Carrasco sell the cocaine. Some of the cocaine was sold to "Chava," who was later identified as Salvador Rios, Sr. For the transaction with Rios, Sr., Carrasco picked Ayala up from the stash house, took him to Rios, Sr.'s apartment, and had Ayala deliver the cocaine. Additional sales to Rios, Sr. followed, though Carrasco rarely delivered the drugs himself.

In late 2008, Eivar shipped an additional eleven pounds of methamphetamine to Des Moines for distribution from the stash house. Carrasco arranged for the sale of seven pounds of the shipment. Because Eivar was dissatisfied with Carrasco's inability to sell the remaining four pounds, he did not immediately send additional drugs to the stash house. At that point, Carrasco arranged for drug deliveries from a different source. Between January and April of 2009, Carrasco and Ayala obtained three or four shipments of methamphetamine brought to Iowa by a female courier traveling via Greyhound bus. Each shipment brought four to five pounds of methamphetamine.

In April or May of 2009, Eivar resumed sending drugs to the stash house. This time, the drugs were delivered in a semi-tractor trailer. Ayala retrieved the drugs from the trailer, took them to the stash house, and distributed the drugs as ordered by Carrasco. The first trailer delivery contained eleven kilograms of cocaine and three pounds of methamphetamine; the second delivery contained eleven kilograms of cocaine. From these deliveries, Carrasco was able to arrange for the sale of one kilogram of cocaine and two pounds of methamphetamine. Twenty kilograms of cocaine were returned unsold, and the rest of the drugs remained in the stash house.

Law enforcement learned of these illicit drug operations after Ayala was arrested on an outstanding warrant during a traffic stop on June 4, 2009. Police found two mobile phones and a bag of money orders in Ayala's car. The next day, agents obtained and executed a search warrant for the stash house. Agents found methamphetamine, cocaine, money orders, buckets of MSM, packaging materials, *fn1 digital scales, drug notes, and more than $30,000 in cash at the house.

Ayala agreed to cooperate with authorities and described in detail his drug activities, as well as those of Carrasco, Eivar, Rios, Sr., and others. Further investigation corroborated Ayala's description of the drug ring. Ayala kept a ledger to document expenses from the stash house operation, several entries in which matched seized money order receipts. The ledgers also reflected money owed by "Chava," which was Rios, Sr.'s nickname. Ayala also described Carrasco's truck and told agents where Carrasco lived. Agents verified that the house belonged to Carrasco and observed the truck Ayala described parked at the residence.

Authorities already had been investigating Rios, Sr. before Ayala's arrest. Between December of 2008 and April of 2009, police made several purchases of cocaine from Rios, Sr and his son through a confidential informant. These sales led to Rios, Sr.'s arrest on federal drug trafficking charges.

Rios, Sr. cooperated with authorities. He corroborated Ayala's account of Carrasco's drug operation. Initially, Rios, Sr. bought drugs directly from Carrasco. Later, Carrasco introduced Rios, Sr. to Ayala, who took over the job of delivering *fn2 drugs for Carrasco. After Ayala's arrest, Rios, Sr. again dealt directly with Carrasco, who then sold "ice" methamphetamine instead of cocaine to Rios, Sr. Tr. 279-80. Carrasco mentioned his drug connections, telling Rios, Sr. that he had a brother with "good relationships with the people of Michoacan." This left Rios, Sr., who was aware of a drug cartel in Michoacan, Mexico, known as "La Familia," "a little" scared.

Rios, Sr.'s account of his drug involvement was corroborated by his son and one of his regular customers, Sandra White. In addition, observations made by agents during their investigation matched Rios, Sr.'s descriptions of events, as surveillance officers watched Carrasco pick Rios, Sr. up, drive him around the block, and drop him off at the same location at which he had been picked up moments earlier.

Seized phone records and text messages provided more evidence of Carrasco's participation in illegal drug trafficking. Ayala explained that he and Carrasco used coded text messages to communicate - substituting the word "car" for "methamphetamine," "tires" or "hours" for "ounces," and "pages" for "money." Some of these text messages remained on Ayala's phone at the time of his arrest. In one, Carrasco asked Ayala if he already had added a cutting agent to a pound of methamphetamine. In another, Carrasco informed Ayala that he had spoken to a customer who wanted two ounces of drugs. Similar text messages were exchanged between Ayala and Rios, Sr. In addition to the text messages, police also seized phone records showing more than 100 contacts between Carrasco and Rios, Sr. during the course of the conspiracy.

Police executed a search warrant at Carrasco's house on August 5, 2010. Carrasco was in Mexico at the time, but his wife and children were home. No drugs were found at the house, but agents did find large amounts of expensive apparel, such as "at least a dozen jeans that still had the price tags affixed, and the prices varied, but were mostly over $300." Agents also found expensive vehicles at the house, including a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and a Polaris ATV. Further investigation revealed that Carrasco had paid several thousand dollars in cash as a down payment for the ATV. Agents also found a number of firearms and ammunition in the home. At trial, the government presented testimony that guns are known tools of the drug trade, used to protect assets or property.

Carrasco testified at trial and denied any involvement in drugs. He admitted that his father and brother in Mexico were involved in the drug trade and had fled the United States to avoid prosecution. He also admitted that law enforcement correctly attributed various phone numbers to him. He insisted, however, that all his contacts with other members of the conspiracy were innocent.

Carrasco denied knowing several people who appeared frequently in his call history and were linked by other evidence to the conspiracy. For example, Rios, Sr. testified that Carrasco introduced him to a customer for "ice" methamphetamine named "Ramos." Carrasco denied knowing anyone by the name of "Ramos," despite the fact that phone records showed contact between his phone and the phone of "A. Ramos" twenty-six times in a two-week period. As another example, one of the money orders seized from the stash house showed $400 going to an "Alfredo Callejri" in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tr. 186, Exh. 38. Carrasco's phone was in contact with a phone belonging to Callejri 130 times between January and May of 2010. Carrasco, however, claimed that he did not know Callejri and had no idea why he would have contacted Callejri 130 times.

Carrasco denied that his handwriting appeared on drug notes found at the stash house, though he was confronted at trial with marked similarities between the handwriting on one note and the handwriting on one of his employment applications. He also denied any drug trading occurring during his brief drive around the block with Rios, Sr. that was witnessed by surveillance teams. Instead, he insisted that he had simply given Rios, Sr. a ride as requested, and he had no explanation for the short duration of the ride or for why the destination of the ride was the same as its origin.

The jury found Carrasco guilty of counts one and ten. The district court*fn3 denied Carrasco's motions for judgment of acquittal and a new trial and sentenced him to 240 months' imprisonment on both counts, to be served concurrently.


A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

Carrasco argues that the evidence at trial was insufficient to convict him either of conspiracy as charged in count one, or of possession with the intent to distribute, as charged in count ten. Challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence are reviewed de novo. United States v. Payton, 636 F.3d 1027, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). "[W]e view the evidence in the light most favorable to the guilty verdict, granting all reasonable inferences that are supported by that evidence." United States v. Milk, 447 F.3d 593, 598 (8th Cir. 2006) (citing United States v. Cline, 570 F.2d 731, 733 (8th Cir. 1978)). "We must affirm a jury verdict if, taking all facts in the light most favorable to the verdict, a reasonable juror could have found the defendant guilty of the charged conduct beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Balanga, 109 F.3d 1299, 1301 (8th Cir. 1997) (citing United States v. Matra, 841 ...

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