Friday, 29 May 2009

Victor Hugo Lopez maintained that he wasn't aware of how 32 kilograms, or more than 70pounds, of cocaine was hidden away in tires

Victor Hugo Lopez maintained that he wasn't aware of how 32 kilograms, or more than 70pounds, of cocaine was hidden away in the tires of a passenger bus on a 2007 trip from Mexico to the Triangle.Lopez was sentenced Thursday to 22 months in prison by Wake Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway, who veered away from the mandatory three-year prison term to give the defendant a sentence equaling the amount he had spent in jail awaiting a trial.Lopez, who is in the country illegally, was given credit for the months he spent in jail and will face deportation to Mexico, likely within three days.Ridgeway presided over a trial last month of Gerardo Vilchez, 51, Lopez's co-defendant and the driver of the bus, who was freed from his 21-month stay in jail after a jury cleared him of several cocaine trafficking charges. Vilchez is a U.S. citizen who lives in Mexico.Though he pleaded guilty Thursday, Lopez did so under what's known as an Alford agreement. An Alford agreement allows a person to enter into a guilty plea if it is in his or her best interest, but the defendant still does not admit committing the crime.Lopez maintained from the time of his arrest throughout his nearly two-year stay in the Wake County jail that he didn't know about the $3.2 million worth of cocaine elaborately stowed away in the bus tires, said Robert Padovano, Lopez's court-appointed lawyer, and David Sherlin, the Wake assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case.
Lopez and Vilchez were arrested in July 2007 and charged with drug trafficking violations that could have hit both men with at least a 14-year prison sentence.
At the time of their arrest in the summer of 2007, the two had driven to the Atlanta area to drop off passengers and then were instructed by a dispatcher for the Texas-based bus line to head to Raleigh to pick up more passengers and return to Mexico. Vilchez had driven the bus from Monterrey, Mexico, and Lopez boarded in Houston.
But the bus was having mechanical problems, and the two were diverted by the dispatcher to a small tire shop, Solis Tires, in downtown Zebulon to have the brakes and heating system of the bus looked at, Sherlin said.On their way to the tire shop, they were pulled over by a Wake sheriff's deputy who found it odd that a bus with Texas plates was driving around Zebulon's streets with no passengers, Sherlin said. At the same time, a Wake sheriff's detective assigned to a Drug Enforcement Administration task force received a tip from a confidential informant: Cocaine hidden in the tires of buses was being off-loaded at the shop, Sherlin said.
Staff members at Solis Tires did not respond Thursday afternoon to a request for comment about the case.Deputies and investigators, with the help of a dog trained to detect drugs, then found the cocaine wrapped in several layers of material to prevent detection and bolted to the inside of the tires. It took several hours to extract the cocaine from the tires.Vilchez and Lopez were the only people to be arrested in connection with the cocaine seizure. Sherlin said the investigation is still open.



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