By Margaret Wright
— Jury deliberations in the Reese family gun smuggling trial may have concluded in early August, but high drama around the case continues to unfold.
Events took a strange turn this month when defense attorneys went before U.S. District Judge Robert Brack and asked for the immediate release of Rick and Ryin Reese. A revelation reported in the Albuquerque Journal on Dec. 14 cast a cloud over the proceedings: Sealed federal documents were filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in November, and they could have had an impact on the trial, according to the defense.
The Reeses argued that prosecutors withheld the documents during their trial in violation of the family’s constitutional rights. (Courts can only seal records under special circumstances, such as in matters of national security or to protect active investigations.) Brack denied the motion to release Rick and Ryin Reese. Their defense attorneys are seeking a retrial.
The case is a fascinating examination of gun control policy, border conflict and constitutional rights. A diverse cast of personalities surrounds the Reeses’ ordeal: Some are fighting for self-preservation, some for ideological agendas. Others maintain powerful political ties. The New Mexico Compass breaks it down for you.
For 17 years, Rick, his wife Terri, and their sons Ryin, 25, and Remington, 20, ran a successful gun store and shooting range on their property southeast of Deming, N.M. Their business had a strong working relationship with members of local law enforcement, who shopped there frequently.
The day all four were arrested on Aug. 30, 2011, federal agents raided the family’s compound and seized most of their assets and several hundred thousand dollars in firearms, cash, gold and silver. The Reeses faced a total of 30 felony charges, including money laundering, conspiracy and knowingly making sales to a straw buyer—someone who illegally purchases weapons on behalf of someone else.
Most of the charges didn’t stick. Rick and Terri were convicted on one count each of making false statements on federal paperwork. Ryin was convicted on two counts, and Remington was fully acquitted. While awaiting sentencing, Terri, healing from surgery to remove a tumor in her leg, was allowed to return home with Remington. Meanwhile, Rick and Ryin remain in custody.
The State’s Witness
According to trial testimony, the Reeses first had contact with Jose Roman-Jurado, a Mexican national with permanent U.S. resident status, in their store when he bought a handgun and ammunition for his own use. Roman-Jurado testified on the stand that he began working for the Juárez La Linea drug cartel as a smuggler. Cartel associates came to his house in Mexico, he said, “making me understand that if I didn’t work for them, they would cause harm to me, my family, my children.”
Roman-Jurado’s first task was to pick up bundles of marijuana dropped by the cartel’s light aircraft in the desert outside Deming and transport them to distributors, he said. He hired other people to pick up the loads of drugs, and on two occasions, he added, his associates were caught by law enforcement. After that, said Roman-Jurado, the cartel didn’t trust him with drug pickups, so they switched him over to gun buying.
He testified that in several instances, he paid others to purchase ammunition, handguns and AK-47s from the Reeses’ store so that his name wouldn’t be listed on federal paperwork. Roman-Jurado said he’d help the straw buyer pick out the guns in the shop, they’d pay in cash he’d given them, and he would smuggle the weapons across the border to his contacts in the cartel.
In January 2011, federal agents took Roman-Jurado into custody on charges of gun and drug trafficking. He cut a deal with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives, and collaborated with undercover agents who posed as straw buyers to gather evidence against the Reese family.
Robert C. Brack was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as a U.S. District Court judge and confirmed by the Senate in 2003. Sen. Pete Domenici—whose son is one of the Reeses’ defense attorneys—backed Brack’s nomination.
In 2008, ABC News ran a profile of Brack, “the busiest federal judge in the United States.” That ranking persists today. Brack is the only district judge presiding over prosecutions originating across a wide swath of the U.S.-Mexico border, including thousands of illegal border-crossing cases. To date, he has sentenced more than 7,000 defendants.
At the outset of the Reeses’ trial, their attorneys introduced a motion to dismiss all charges of conspiracy. They alleged that the charges stemmed from “outrageous government conduct,” as well as a government attempt to generate positive press for U.S. Attorney Gen. Eric Holder’s office in the wake of the fatally flawed Fast and Furious gunwalking operation out of Arizona.
Judge Brack was quick to shut down the premise.
“No one in the country’s defending Fast and Furious,” he told the defense sharply. “I’m looking for the link, and there’s no evidence here that guns were allowed to walk … If I don’t have the link, I don’t want to hear any more about Fast and Furious.”
Besides, Brack added, it wasn’t outrageous for the government to bring indictments forward for good press: “The government does that all the time.”
Brack was also the judge in another notorious border town gun smuggling case. In June, he sentenced the former mayor of Columbus, N.M., Eddie Espinoza, to 51 months in federal prison. Espinoza and other town officials, including the former chief of police, pled guilty to smuggling weapons to Mexico—and into the hands of the Juárez La Linea cartel.
The Head Prosecutor
U.S. State Attorney General Kenneth Gonzales said in a news release that the Reeses’ case “serves to put firearms dealers on notice that they will be held accountable for any failure comply with federal firearms laws.”
Raised in New Mexico, Gonzales was appointed by President Obama. He was sworn into office in May 2010, and on Nov. 14, the president nominated Gonzales for a federal district court judgeship. Thirteen days later, he appeared alongside Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, to announce the launch of a federal investigation into the Albuquerque Police Department.
Members of the Luna County Tea Party Patriots have been strong supporters of the Reeses throughout their legal travails, faithfully attending court proceedings, then posting detailed summaries on their website.
The case has also caught the attention of staunch Second Amendment advocates Jeff Knox, director of the Firearms Coalition, and David Codrea, field editor of Guns Magazine and a blogger at Examiner.com. Both Knox and Codrea have been instrumental in heralding the Reese case as a cause célèbre for supporters of gun rights.
Knox, whose father Neal was an officer for the NRA and lobbyist against gun control policies, has called the government’s case against the Reese family an act of hypocrisy. He wrote in August that “absent an accounting for Fast and Furious, aggressively going after gun dealers whose primary crimes appear to have been either paperwork errors or a lack of a psychic ability to read a buyer’s mind is an outrage.”
Codrea has been credited with being a key figure in bringing the Fast and Furious debacle to the public’s attention. He may be hoping to do the same for the Reese case, but his reporting—including a Dec. 19 story that a key government witness in their trial is under investigation—relies on sources that are unnamed and can’t be verified.