Owner of Rivera plane being investigated by DEA

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Esquino eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of concealing money from the IRS. He said he has never had any drug involvement and only pleaded to the charge to avoid a much lengthier sentence in the narcotics case.

Joseph Milchen, Esquino’s attorney at the time, said the case eventually revolved around his client “bringing money into the United States without declaring it.”

However, Milchen acknowledged that a plane purchased by Esquino was “used to smuggle drugs.”

Esquino, too, said he later learned the plane he sold to Castoro for about $220,000 was used to smuggle drugs, but said he had no knowledge of that and was only involved in the aircraft transaction.

“I wasn’t any part of that,” he told the AP. “I pleaded guilty just to get the DEA off my back.”

As for Castoro, who Esquino claims implicated him in the smuggling operation, he said, “He’d throw his own mom under the bus if he could get time off his sentence.”

Court filings also indicate Esquino was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to committing fraud involving aircraft he purchased in Mexico, then falsified the planes’ log books and re-sold them in the United States. He now denies that charge, as well.

Also in 2004, a federal judge ordered him and one of his companies to pay a creditor $6.2 million after being accused of failing to pay debts to a bank.

As the years passed, Esquino’s troubles only grew.

In February this year, a Gulfstream G-1159A plane the government valued at $500,000 _ Esquino says it’s worth $1.5 million _ was seized by the U.S. Marshals Service on behalf of the DEA after landing in Tucson on a flight that originated in Mexico

Four months later, the DEA subpoenaed all of Starwood’s records dating to Dec. 13, 2007, including federal and state income tax documents, bank deposit information, records on all company assets and sales, and the entity’s relationship with Esquino and more than a dozen companies and individuals, including former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank-Rhon, a gambling mogul and a member of one of Mexico’s most powerful families. U.S. law enforcement officials have long suspected Hank-Rhon is tied to organized crime but no allegations have been proven. He has consistently denied any criminal involvement.

He was arrested in Mexico last year on weapons charges and on suspicion of ordering the murder of his son’s former girlfriend. He was later freed for lack of evidence.

The subpoena was obtained by the U-T San Diego newspaper.

Esquino said Hank-Rhon’s involvement with his company was only through renting planes.

In September, the DEA seized another Starwood aircraft _ a 1977 Hawker 700 with an insured value of $1 million _ after it landed in McAllen, Texas, from a flight from Mexico.

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