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Charges filed in 2019 killing of federal witness

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Author : Brunswyk


Colleen Heild

Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

After seven years of dismantling the ultra-violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang in a massive racketeering prosecution, the FBI had one prominent SNM-related homicide left to solve: the 2019 fatal shooting of a government informant whose testimony a year earlier helped put top gang leaders and members away for rackeetering and murder.

On Thursday, a four-count federal indictment was made public, charging alleged Las Vegas, New Mexico, drug trafficker Robert “Fat Head” Padilla and his alleged accomplice, Gary Coca, 49, in the slaying of Leroy “Smurf” Lucero the night of July 22, 2019. Both face one count of retaliation against a witness, victim or informant.

Padilla, 45, faces three additional charges: killing while engaged in drug trafficking; brandishing and discharging a firearm during the slaying; and using physical force and the threat of physical force more than a year later against an unidentified man to keep him from communicating with a law enforcement officer about drug trafficking and “the murder of a federal witness.”

At the time of the alleged threat, Padilla had been incarcerated at the Cibola County Correctional Center awaiting trial on federal drug-trafficking charges filed by the DEA in the fall of 2019 as part of a parallel investigation.

That case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque. Attorneys for the men in the murder case couldn’t be determined from court records on Thursday.

In a notice filed with the court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria Y. Armijo stated that, although the defendants are charged with “capital eligible” crimes, the United States would not seek a death sentence in the case.

Padilla has previously been alleged to be an associate of the SNM gang, but SNM isn’t mentioned in the indictment.

The case against Padilla and Coca is related to other SNM prosecutions, Armijo wrote in another notice, because “the theories of prosecution, facts, evidence and witnesses (involved in the prior cases) are substantially common to one another, and the cases arise out of the same racketeering investigation involving the same enterprise.”

That investigation, dubbed Operation Atonement, was launched by the FBI in 2015 after an SNM murder plot to kill top state Corrections officials was uncovered, and resulted in the prosecution of more than 160 SNM members and associates. More than 120 SNM members and associates were charged with federal violations and 50 defendants were charged with federal racketeering violations.

Of those, 12 received life prison sentences for their roles in gang-related homicides. The plot to kill the Corrections officials was foiled.

The SNM gang had controlled the majority of New Mexico prisons and Hispanic street gangs since its formation after the deadly Santa Fe Penitentiary riot in the 1980s. It also has had significant influence on the streets of New Mexico, enlisting members for drug trafficking and other illicit work after their release from prison.

SNM members have been responsible for the slayings of four New Mexico police officers over the past 30 years, according to court records filed by lead FBI case agent Bryan Acee.

Lucero, 48, was among numerous former SNM members and leaders called by federal prosecutors during federal trials in 2018 to depict the inner workings of the gang and its violent criminal history. On the witness stand, most all testified that they knew they would be targeted by the SNM for death because they violated a cardinal gang rule of not cooperating with law enforcement.

Padilla surfaced as a suspect in the FBI murder investigation within weeks after Lucero was gunned down in his driveway in Las Vegas.

Some 14 months earlier, Lucero had testified against several SNM members during a lengthy racketeering trial in Las Cruces and federal authorities believe he became marked for death in retaliation.

The night of his death, Lucero, a former leader in the SNM, went outside his home to talk to people who pulled up in a dark sedan.

Lucero was shot once as he stood by the passenger side, and Padilla is alleged to have exited the vehicle and shot him a second time before he and the driver — believed to have been Coca — fled, according to court records. Lucero’s 12-year-old son ran out of the house at the time of the shooting and saw what happened, court records state.

Before he died, Lucero crawled toward his house, and told his wife he had been shot and to call for help.

Court records state that, after his work as a government witness in 2018, Lucero relapsed and began using heroin again. He was also selling heroin for Padilla, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit filed in 2019. Padilla is alleged to have researched Lucero’s most recent federal conviction and was suspicious he had done too little time in prison, and that he had not been “hit by the feds.”

Acee and other FBI agents interviewed Padilla on Sept. 5, 2019, after he was arrested in the DEA case in which 11 others were charged in September 2019 with possession with intent to distribute fentanyl and cocaine, and conspiracy.

At a pretrial hearing last year, Acee testified about the interview with Padilla, which was recorded and transcribed.

Early in the interview, Padilla told the agents, “If you think I’m involved in any murder, you’re (expletive) out of your (expletive) mind.”

Acee testified he had not mentioned the Lucero murder investigation at that point, adding, “I just said I wanted to have a long conversation with him.”

Padilla then got specific, bringing up the name “Smurf,” Acee testified.

Padilla denied shooting Lucero, stating at the time he had five witnesses who would say that he was in bed having sex with Lucero’s cousin at the time of the fatal shooting.

Padilla’s drug-trafficking organization spanned central and northern New Mexico, according to an FBI affidavit filed in 2019. The organization was responsible for distributing bulk quantifies of controlled substances for many years, and built a “fearful reputation on the streets through intimidation and his boastful association to such violent enterprises as the SNM and the Bandidos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang,” the affidavit stated.

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(c)2022 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com

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