When federal agents arrested dozens of members of the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang in 2008, they proudly displayed for the public what they'd seized: rifles, handguns, chrome-covered Harley-Davidson choppers and leather vests adorned with the club's insignia.
Nearly three years later, it's difficult to find out exactly what happened to guys with nicknames like "Reaper," `'Risky" and "Peligroso" in the legal system.
Nine of those charged with racketeering conspiracy had their plea agreements and sentencing records sealed and the gang's former national president Ruben "Doc" Cavazos was sentenced last Thursday in federal court behind closed doors. Only after repeated prodding by The Associated Press, did U.S. District Judge Otis Wright on Tuesday relay the information through federal prosecutors that he sent Cavazos to prison for 14 years.
No other details were given.
An AP reporter made repeated attempts over the past couple of months to find out when Cavazos was scheduled to be sentenced but was unsuccessful. Wright's Sept. 8 calendar mentioned two matters that were under seal and neither listed the defendant's name nor the case number. The hearing was closed to the public and it appears, according to the court docket, that the public and media weren't notified in advance.
While sealed plea agreements are the norm _ often to protect those who have cooperated with authorities _ keeping the sentence and the hearing confidential is highly unusual, several legal experts told AP.
"I don't know of any authority that would allow the court to keep that information from being part of the public record," said Michael Brennan, a law professor at the University of Southern California. "What the guy was sentenced to doesn't involve issues of confidentiality. I think the public is entitled to a number."
Email messages left for Wright's court clerk were forwarded to a court spokesman who didn't immediately respond to inquiries made by AP. U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins, the chief judge for the Central District of California, said it's not common practice to close a sentencing hearing but she would defer to Wright's determination.
"What I think is that whatever a judge decides is necessary for the safety of the litigants in his or her courtroom," Collins said. "I know this case involved some dangerous people."
Calls to Cavazos' deputy federal public defender, John Littrell, were not returned. Littrell requested the judge to seal documents regarding his client, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Brunwin. The reason for sealing was due to underlying issues that Brunwin couldn't talk about.
Seventy-nine Mongols were charged in federal court with various crimes, ranging from conspiracy to weapons possession, in October 2008. Prosecutors said the gang, which is mostly Latino, was involved in murder, torture and drug trafficking, and funded itself in part by stealing credit card account information.
Most notable was Cavazos, a former CAT scan technician at a Los Angeles hospital, who handed out the orders and brokered a deal with the Mexican Mafia over the collection of drug payments in areas controlled by that gang, according to a 177-page indictment.
Many of those charged have pleaded guilty, but their agreements were sealed, including the one for Cavazos, who pleaded guilty in January 2009 to one count of racketeering conspiracy that carried a maximum life sentence. AP asked another federal judge to unseal the plea deals, but its motion was rejected seven months later because of safety concerns for the defendants and their families. Federal prosecutors initially sought to keep the agreements sealed.
New York-based defense attorney Marc Mukasey, a former federal prosecutor who has handled drug cartel cases, said he's been involved in a couple of closed sentencing hearings in which the public was notified of when it would happen. However, he believes the public's right to know must be weighed against any security concerns a judge might have.
"The court has a duty to impose punishment and to take into account the general deterrence it will have on other people who think about committing similar crimes," Mukasey said. "The world should know about that."
Judges have kept sentencing hearings open for the most dangerous and notorious of defendants, including 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, mob boss John Gotti and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
In the same district where Cavazos was sentenced, even the suspected leaders of the violent Aryan Brotherhood prison gang were sentenced in open court five years ago.
A federal appellate court in May sided with media organizations arguing they are entitled to attend sentencing hearings. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a federal judge could not close the sentencing hearing of drug cartel kingpin Oziel Cardenas-Guillen without first giving news outlets and the public the opportunity to challenge that decision.
"We do not decide whether the district court's decision to close the sentencing proceeding was substantively wrong, but we reverse the order denying the motion to open the sentencing proceeding because the district court did not follow the required procedures before rendering its decision to close," the three-judge panel wrote in its decision.
Brennan said Cavazos' 14-year sentence indicates he probably gave valuable information about the Mongols to federal prosecutors that will allow him to be released from custody eventually.
"This is a deal that he obviously earned," Brennan said. "The government doesn't give anything away."