Men Who Refused To Testify In Drug Case Sent To Prison
TAMPA - Two men who changed their minds about testifying against their co-defendants were sentenced today to 10 years in prison for their role in a 2006 Spring Hill marijuana growing operation. After the two men refused to testify, the government's case against nine co-defendants collapsed during their trial in May, and U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara granted judgments of acquittal for all of them, preventing the case from even going to the jury. Today, Lazzara said the two men, Orlando Matisas Mesa and Eduardo Diaz-Soler, had obstructed justice. Had they testified, they would have faced sentences of from two to three years, one attorney said. The judge said, however, that their breach of the plea agreement required that he sentence them to 10 years. Lawyers said the men backed down because they didn't want to testify against the defendants who were their relatives, although they were willing to implicate others.Attorney Matthew Farmer said his client, Diaz-Soler, didn't want to provide information against his sister, Maria Masullo. Mesa didn't want to provide information about Luis Chavez, who is the cousin of the mother of Mesa's child, said attorney Stephen Iglesias. All the defendants were charged with participating in a conspiracy to manufacture marijuana in six houses in Spring Hill. To prove the charge, the prosecution had to prove all six houses were connected and that the defendants were part of an organized operation, rather than just seeking advice from each other, said attorney Robert Laney Hambrick, who represented Raquel Leon-Faife during the trial. He said the prosecution also had the burden of proving that the operation had at least 1,000 marijuana plants, although less than 800 plants were seized. Hambrick said he thinks the prosecution would have had trouble proving its case, even with testimony from Diaz-Soler and Mesa, but without the testimony there was no case at all. All of the male defendants in the case "were readily agreeing they had knowledge about and were going to accept responsibility for the marijuana that was in each of their houses," Hambrick said. "The men had gone to extraordinary means to protect their women from exactly what happened." His client's husband, he said, kept the plants in a sealed garage, locked with a key only he had. "The women involved in the case were basically saying, "We didn't know about this. If we did know, we had no control over it, nor were we part of any conspiracy." Hambrick said it pained the judge to toss the conspiracy charges. In rendering his ruling, the judge talked about how "these folks had come to America from Cuba and abused the freedom they have been given here," Hambrick recalled. "By law, he had to do what he was doing. He felt it wasn't the fault of the government...It was just a terrible thing for him to have to grant this motion when it was clear to him that at least some of these people were up to no good." The government didn't charge the defendants initially with marijuana possession, so the failure to prove the conspiracy left the defendants cleared. After the acquittals, however, prosecutors brought possession charges against four of the defendants: Amaury Santiago, Osvaldo Cabello, Milko Masullo, and Luis Chavez Perez. Acting U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said his office has no dispute with the judge's decision to acquit the nine defendants. Asked whether the government had erred when it failed to charge anyone with possession originally, O'Neill said, "Obviously, in retrospect, it should have been included." After he was sentenced, Diaz-Soler exclaimed, through an interpreter, "I'll kill myself! I'll just kill myself!" Then as he was about to be led away, he said, "This is an abuse!" "No!" the judge said. "The only abuse that took place here is your abuse of the justice system."
Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837 or [email protected]