LAREDO, Texas (CN) — A decorated Coast Guard veteran claims in a federal lawsuit that he was wrongfully indicted on heroin smuggling charges and he’s now classified in a criminal database as “armed and dangerous” due to the inept investigative work of DEA agents, who had the wrong man.
Osbaldo Garcia, 42, and his wife Juana Edith Garcia sued the United States on Wednesday in Laredo Federal Court.
Garcia, a truck driver, says he had just finished hauling a load on Feb. 1, 2017 and was backing his truck into his driveway at an RV park in the northern Houston suburb of Tomball when DEA agents, red and blue lights flashing on their cars, pulled up and surrounded him.
They jumped out with guns drawn and ordered him to get on the ground. Garcia says he thought it had something to do with a ticket he was fighting in court so he was confused and frightened.
He says he asked the agent who handcuffed him, “Don’t you guys think this is a little excessive for a ticket?”
According to the lawsuit: “An agent replied, ‘You know what this is about. This is about the heroin in Pennsylvania.’ Mr. Garcia, still confused but instantly realizing the gravity of the situation, responded, ‘Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ To which an agent replied, ‘You should know better, you’re a Coastie.’”
Garcia is represented by Norberto Cardenas III of Laredo. Neither Cardenas nor the Justice Department responded to requests for comment early Thursday morning.
The agents took him to an immigration prison in Conroe, Texas that also houses people facing federal charges.
He called his wife at their home in the South Texas city of Harlingen late that night and told her in Spanish, “I am going to tell you something. You’re going to think it’s a joke. I’m being one hundred percent serious. They are confusing me. I’m arrested. I will not be able to leave.”
Garcia says that at his initial appearance in Houston Federal Court the next day he broke down in tears when a magistrate judge told him he was facing life in prison and $20 million in fines for charges of conspiracy with intent to distribute and possession of 1 kilogram or more of heroin.
He says he told his public defender over and over, “They have the wrong guy.” But the prosecutor said, “They were 100% sure he was the one.”
Garcia was released on bond but had to wear an ankle monitor and abide by travel restrictions that forced him to turn down lucrative trucking contracts, he says. Wracked with so much anxiety he could not work, he says, the stress made him break out in hives.
The government transferred his case to the border city Laredo, as his mother, wife and two teenage children live in South Texas.
“On one occasion while out on bond, Mr. Garcia was traveling through a CBP checkpoint. Due to his pending charges and their severity, Mr. Garcia was handcuffed by CBP agents and detained for an hour. He was fingerprinted and interrogated,” the complaint states.
Garcia served with the Army National Guard, enlisting after he graduated from high school in 1995, until 1999, when he joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
He rose up the ranks to Boatswain’s Mate Third Class and he and his unit received commendations for their work helping catch drug runners in speedboats off the Florida Straits.
He then returned to the Rio Grande Valley and worked as a Border Patrol agent there and in Iraq, training Iraqi police, from 2004 to 2010.
He says the checkpoint detention took him to the edge.
“Garcia never dreamed that he would face these issues passing a routine CBP checkpoint as a military and CBP veteran. … Unable to cope with these overwhelming thoughts, Mr. Garcia contemplated taking his own life,” the complaint states.
Garcia says he hired Laredo defense attorney Roberto Balli for $12,000. After Balli and a federal prosecutor listened to recordings of phone calls with a confidential informant, the basis of the government’s case against Garcia, they had Garcia meet with them in Laredo.
“During this meeting, Mr. Garcia was asked to speak in Spanish so that his Spanish and voice could be compared to the voice contained in the audiotapes created by the defendants. The voice on the audiotapes was clearly not Mr. Garcia’s —and the government agreed,” the complaint states.
Prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the indictment and Garcia was set free on March 7, 2017, 35 days after his arrest.
But Garcia says the damage to his reputation is ongoing because his case record can be viewed on PACER, a publicly available database.
Garcia says the man listed as his co-defendant in the case, Mexican national Daniel Rodriguez Reyna, pleaded guilty to a heroin conspiracy charge in April 2017 and was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
According to his plea deal, Rodriguez brought a white bag containing three clumps of heroin, wrapped in cellophane and electrical tape, in his semitruck across a Laredo port of entry on March 19, 2014.
Working with a confidential informant, DEA agents saw Rodriguez deliver the drugs that day to the informant near a warehouse in Laredo.
A federal grand jury indicted Rodriguez and he was arrested at the Laredo port of entry in January 2017.
According to his plea agreement, Rodriguez acknowledged he had been smuggling drugs across the border for more than two years, but said he did not know what kind of drugs they were.
“Rodriguez Reyna stated that he would get paid between $100-$200 per trip. Rodriguez Reyna admitted that he would smuggle the drugs inside grocery bags given to him in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which he would hide in the cab of the tractor under his seat,” the plea agreement states.
It continues: “Rodriguez claimed that unknown individuals would deliver the grocery bags to him in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico and that once he crossed into the United States this [sic] unknown co-conspirators would let him know who to deliver to in Laredo.”
As for Garcia, he says he interviewed for a job with the FBI in 2018 and learned that he is classified as “armed and dangerous” in the law enforcement database National Center for Information on Criminals.
Still driving a semitruck, he says he fears that if police pull him over for any minor traffic stop it could “escalate to a traumatic situation” because of his record.
Garcia and his wife seek more than $13 million in damages for violations of the Fourth Amendment protection from illegal seizures, Fifth Amendment due process rights and the Controlled Substances Act. He also wants his record expunged.
“While the plaintiffs agree with aggressive enforcement of the drug laws — Mr. Garcia risked his life, after all, while in the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Border Patrol combating illegal drug trafficking — the plaintiffs disagree that this aggressiveness should be such that the U.S. Constitution is pushed aside and ignored,” the complaint states.