- - Monday, November 26, 2012

PHOENIX — Two men were sentenced Monday for their roles in a gun-smuggling ring that was part of the U.S. government’s botched Operation Fast and Furious, an investigation that unraveled after illegally purchased weapons turned up at the scene of a Border Patrol agent’s fatal shooting.

Jacob Anthony Montelongo was sentenced in federal court in Phoenix to nearly 3 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and dealing guns without a license. Sean Christopher Steward received a nine-year sentence for conspiracy and making false statements to authorities.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Steward and Montelongo were among so-called “straw buyers” who illegally purchased weapons for traffickers and Mexican drug cartels in a wide-ranging Phoenix-based gun-trafficking ring.

In Operation Fast and Furious, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used a controversial tactic called gun-walking, where instead of intercepting all weapons thought to be purchased illegally almost immediately, they wanted to track the guns back to high-level arms traffickers who had long eluded prosecution, in an effort to dismantle their networks.

But federal agents lost track of many of the guns purchased at Arizona shops before they ended up in Mexico, where many of them have been recovered at crime scenes. The operation ultimately identified more than 2,000 illicitly purchased weapons, and some 1,400 of them have yet to be found.

CALIFORNIA

TransUnion: Late auto-loan 
payments rose in 3rd quarter

LOS ANGELES — More Americans fell behind on their auto-loan payments in the third quarter, when back-to-school shopping and other needs traditionally put a strain on consumers’ wallets.

But the uptick is likely only a seasonal blip in an otherwise multiyear decline in auto-loan delinquencies, reporting agency TransUnion said Tuesday.

The rate of U.S. auto-loan payments at least 60 days overdue rose to 0.38 percent from 0.33 percent in the second quarter, the company said.

That represents only a slight uptick from the second quarter, which marked the lowest delinquency rate on TransUnion’s records going back to 1999.

The July-to-September delinquency rate also was down 19 percent from the 0.47 percent rate a year earlier, the firm said.

FBI: Reward helped find fugitive murder suspect

LOS ANGELES — A murder suspect on the FBI’s most-wanted list gained weight and switched identities to evade authorities for 14 years, but his notoriety and a $100,000 reward finally led to his capture, the agency said Monday.

Jose Luis Saenz was arrested in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Thursday on suspicion of four killings and remained jailed in Southern California, the FBI said.

The operation involved U.S. and Mexican authorities.

At a Los Angeles news conference, FBI officials said Saenz, 37, had altered his appearance and was living in a modest apartment over a beauty shop when he was arrested.

Saenz, a former East Los Angeles gang member who once went by the nicknames “Peanut Joe” and “Zapp,” had been a fugitive since being named a suspect in two Los Angeles killings in 1998.

He was placed on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list by the FBI in October 2009, joining the likes of Osama bin Laden and Boston crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

RHODE ISLAND

Governor passes on lighting of tree after 2011 protest

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee won’t be hosting a tree lighting ceremony this season following last year’s hubbub over what to call the Statehouse spruce.

Mr. Chafee’s spokeswoman said Monday that instead of a tree lighting event, student choral groups will participate in a series of Statehouse performances leading up to Christmas.

Last year, protesters crashed Mr. Chafee’s tree lighting ceremony to criticize him for referring to the tree as a “holiday” tree. Mr. Chafee, an independent, said the term was meant to honor the state’s origin as a sanctuary of religious tolerance.

Critics claimed he was trying to secularize Christmas. They flooded his office with thousands of telephone calls of protest.

Mr. Chafee’s spokeswoman says he made his position on the tree clear last year and is focused on more important matters now.

Officers probed for making children do push-ups

NORTH PROVIDENCE — Four police officers in Rhode Island are being investigated for making five boys do push-ups on the side of a street as punishment for damaging a mailbox.

Acting North Providence Police Chief Paul Martellini said a woman called police Friday morning to report her mailbox was damaged. Officers soon found several teenagers inside a bright yellow sports car that matched one described by the woman, he said.

Mayor Charles Lombardi told WPRO-AM on Monday the officers thought the best way to reprimand the teens was to have them do push-ups.

OHIO

Obese inmate’s execution claim rejected by judge

COLUMBUS — A condemned killer trying to delay his execution because of his extreme weight hasn’t raised enough new issues to warrant the legal challenge, a federal judge ruled Monday.

Death row inmate Ronald Post, who weighs more than 400 pounds, is asking the courts to stop his January execution on the grounds his weight could cause him to suffer severe pain during the procedure.

Post is prohibited from challenging his execution by injection because he raised similar claims in his first set of federal appeals in 1997, Judge Lesley Wells said Monday in Cleveland.

In general, death row inmates are allowed only one federal appeal when alleging the same set of facts.

Post, 53, was sentenced to die for the 1983 shooting death of hotel desk clerk Helen Vantz in Elyria. His execution is scheduled for Jan. 16.

FLORIDA

Coroner: Swallowing roaches killed man during contest

MIAMI — A Florida man choked to death after downing dozens of live roaches to win a contest earlier this year in which the grand prize was a python, according to an autopsy released Monday.

Edward Archbold, 32, of West Palm Beach, died as a result of “asphyxia due to choking and aspiration of gastric contents,” according to the report released by the Broward County medical examiner’s office. It said his airway was obstructed by the roach body parts, which caused him to not be able to breathe.

“There is a flap called the epiglottis that is supposed to stop objects from going into the lungs,” medical examiner Craig T. Mallak wrote in an email to the AP. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. In the video you could see him trying to swallow and breathe at the same time. We can’t do both simultaneously.”

Lab tests for drugs came back negative. The death has been ruled an accident.

MICHIGAN

Suspect finally charged in deaths of 4 women

STERLING HEIGHTS — Prosecutors on Monday charged a man arrested in May with first-degree murder in the killing of four suspected escorts whose bodies were found stuffed in the trunk of abandoned cars in Detroit last year.

James Brown, 24, has been in custody since his spring arrest on lesser charges, and prosecutors have since been building their murder case against him. The victims, traveling in pairs, had visited his Macomb County home. Their bodies were discovered on two different days last December, miles away in Detroit, Sterling Heights police Detective Mary Whiting told a judge.

Mr. Brown said little in court and allowed his attorney to enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.

At least three of the four victims promoted themselves as escorts-for-hire on Backpage.com. Investigators think that’s how Mr. Brown made contact with them.

NEW YORK

Some Sandy victims dream of $425M Powerball riches

LONG BEACH — Forget FEMA, insurance adjusters and construction cleanups. Some of the people hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy are hoping one thing this week answers their prayers: a $425 million Powerball jackpot.

Wednesday night’s drawing is one of the biggest multistate lottery takes in U.S. history, and the high hopes for walking away with multimillion-dollar checks extended to some New York and New Jersey communities hardest hit by last month’s storm. Many residents said that if they won, they’d even give back to the recovery effort.

With so much money in the jackpot, it would be particularly special if several victims of the storm could split the winnings, said Long Beach, N.Y., retiree Raymond Parker.

“A lot of people should win, not just one,” he said at a stationery store in Long Beach where he frequently buys lottery tickets. He said his plan was to stick with his usual $4 purchase of two Powerball tickets and that if he won, he would give money to his nieces and nephews to pay for their college educations and donate to the Red Cross as thanks for their relief efforts in Long Beach.

Wednesday’s jackpot was the record for a Powerball drawing, said Christy Calicchia, a spokeswoman for the New York Lottery.

MINNESOTA

Man says he ‘fired more shots than I needed’

LITTLE FALLS — A Minnesota homeowner who shot two unarmed teenagers in the midst of an apparent Thanksgiving Day break-in told authorities he feared they had a weapon, but acknowledged firing “more shots than I needed to” and appeared to take pride in “a good clean finishing shot” for one teen, according to investigators.

Byron David Smith, 64, was charged Monday with two counts of second-degree murder in a criminal complaint that was chilling for the clinical way investigators said he described the shootings.

Mr. Smith told investigators he shot Haile Kifer, 18, several times as she descended a stairway into his basement, and his Mini 14 rifle jammed as he tried to shoot her again after she had tumbled down the steps.

Though Miss Kifer was “already hurting,” she let out a short laugh, Mr. Smith told investigators. He then pulled out his .22-caliber revolver and shot her several times in the chest, according to the complaint.

“If you’re trying to shoot somebody and they laugh at you, you go again,” Mr. Smith told investigators, according to a criminal complaint filed Monday.

Mr. Smith is also charged in the death of Miss Kifer’s cousin, Nicholas Brady, 17.

Minnesota law allows a homeowner to use deadly force on an intruder if a reasonable person would fear they are in danger of harm, and Mr. Smith told investigators he was afraid the intruders might have a weapon.

From wire dispatches and staff reports