Third-strike drug offender sentenced to life in prison

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A man convicted of conspiring to move cocaine north from Mexico has been sentenced to life in prison under the federal "third strike" law.

Ricardo Cruzagosto was convicted by a jury in November on one charge of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and crack cocaine.

He was one of 46 people indicted in 2002 and 2003 in a drug bust involving hundreds of pounds of cocaine moved from Mexico to Los Angeles, then to Alaska. Cruzagosto was acquitted on two charges of drug possession.

Thirty-five others out of the 46 defendants have been sentenced to a total of more than 160 years in prison, including members of the key families involved, prosecutors said. Most of their sentences are in the one- to 10-year range for activities including drug dealing and handling drug money.

Cruzagosto was the only defendant who faced the prospect of a mandatory life sentence, said Deborah Smith, first assistant U.S. attorney. He had two prior felony convictions for dealing cocaine and heroin in New York, she said.

Unlike the other 35 defendants, Cruzagosto refused to negotiate a plea agreement with the government, Smith said.

Cruzagosto's attorney, Robert Leen of Seattle, said his client was a low-level participant in the drug ring. Cruzagosto was aware of the life sentence hanging over him, Leen said.

According to sentencing documents, Cruzagosto contended the government charged him with having more drugs than he actually had.

"Something seems wrong when a man is acquitted of all substantive charges and sentenced to life in prison for conspiracy, which is basically holding him responsible for what other people did," Leen said.

Smith said prosecutors tried to negotiate a plea agreement with Cruzagosto, even talking to him the morning his trial began. Cruzagosto refused. If he had agreed, he could have avoided the mandatory life sentence, she said.

"The stakes are high for someone making that determination, whether they're going to accept responsibility or put the government to the test of their evidence," she said.



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