In the summer of 2009, buried in court documents filed by federal prosecutors was the revelation that Ruben "Doc" Cavazos, the former national president of the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang who they say helped orchestrate murders, extortion and robberies, had pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, which carried a maximum life sentence.
The discovery showed that Cavazos had entered his plea six months earlier, and only three months after federal agents arrested him and dozens of other Mongols members, which meant he was one of the first to enter his guilty plea.
Since then, finding out what has happened to him in court and what jail or prison he's in has been virtually impossible. It was only after repeated prodding by The Associated Press did U.S. District Judge Otis Wright, who sentenced Cavazos last Thursday, relay through federal prosecutors this week that he sent the biker to prison for 14 years.
The AP made repeated attempts over the past couple months to determine 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.
Nine of those charged with racketeering conspiracy had their plea agreements and sentencing records, including Cavazos, his son and his brother.
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 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."
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.