PHOENIX — Over the past two years or so, politicians in Washington have focused on what went wrong in the botched gun smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious and how those failures contributed to the fatal shooting of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.
All the while, prosecutions against the investigation’s targets have progressed steadily and will culminate this month when eight of the smuggling ring’s straw buyers are set to be sentenced. A judge in a separate but related case also is set to sentence a man in March for his part in Agent Brian Terry’s death during a 2010 shootout north of the Arizona-Mexico border. Two rifles bought by a ring member were found at the shootout scene.
Robert Heyer, Terry’s cousin and leader of a foundation that bears the agent’s name, said the Terry family has found a measure of comfort in the progress of the prosecutions, but won’t rest until the cases are completely resolved and steps are taken to ensure that the failures are repeated.
“It has been a long time coming,” Heyer said. “We are happy to see these straw buyers sentenced.”
Federal authorities conducting the Fast and Furious investigation have faced tough criticism for allowing suspected straw gun buyers for the ring to walk away from gun shops in Arizona with weapons, rather than arrest the suspects and seize the guns there.
The investigation was launched in 2009 to catch trafficking kingpins, but agents lost track of about 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons. Authorities say the ring was believed to have supplied the Sinaloa cartel with guns. Some guns purchased by the ring were later found at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.
The probe’s failures were revealed — and later examined in congressional inquiries — after two rifles bought by a ring member were found at the scene of the Dec. 14, 2010, shootout that mortally wounded Terry. The firefight was between border agents and five men who had sneaked into the country from Mexico for the purpose of robbing marijuana smugglers.
The case against the gun smuggling ring has progressed in court much faster than the case against the men accused of killing Terry.
So far, 15 of the 20 people charged in the gun case pleaded guilty to charges. Most of those who admitted guilt are straw buyers who said they falsely claimed that guns they bought were for them, when they were actually purchased for the ring. One of the ring’s organizers also has pleaded guilty.
Three people who pleaded guilty in the case will be sentenced on Dec. 10, while six admitted straw buyers — including one who bought two guns that were found at the shootout scene — will be sentenced on Dec. 12.
Heyer plans to speak on behalf of the Terry family at the sentencing of Jaime Avila, who admitted buying the two guns found at the shootout scene and faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and dealing guns without a federal license. Avila isn’t charged in Terry’s death.
Candice Shoemaker, Avila’s attorney, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Authorities have declined to say whether the murder weapon in Terry’s death was linked to a purchase from the investigation.
Records show a Jan. 3 trial has been set for five other alleged ring members, including a man accused of being a ring leader, two alleged recruiters and a straw buyer who is accused of illegally buying 245 guns.
Adrian Fontes, an attorney for Manuel Fabian Celis-Acosta, who is portrayed by others who have pleaded guilty as the ring’s leader, said the congressional inquiries have made it harder for his client, because politicians have been revealing key details of the case. “At this stage in the game, how do you think my client can be fairly tried given the exposure and details?” Fontes asked.
Authorities brought a separate case in federal court in Tucson against five men charged with murder in Terry’s death.
So far, one man has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. The plea allowed Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, of El Fuerte in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, to avoid the death penalty through his plea. He could face life in prison when he’s sentenced on March 1.
Authorities haven’t said which member of the rip-off crew was believed to have fired the fatal shot at Terry. Osorio-Arellanes told investigators he raised his weapon toward the agents but didn’t open fire. Clay Hernandez, Osorio-Arellanes’ lawyer, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Of the five men accused in Terry’s killing, two are in custody, and three others remain fugitives.
FBI spokeswoman Jennifer Giannola said the agency is actively pursuing the three fugitives, but declined to elaborate on those efforts. The agency has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the capture of each of the three fugitives.