Monday, January 31, 2005

A Mexican national extradited to the United States on Saturday after U.S. officials waived a possible death sentence to facilitate his return will be arraigned Monday in the 1994 killing of an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

Augustin Vasquez-Mendoza is accused in the June 30, 1994, murder of DEA Special Agent Richard E. Fass, 37, killed in Glendale, Ariz., during an attempted drug buy that erupted into gunfire.

An initial hearing was held 2 a.m. Sunday to determine whether Vasquez-Mendoza needed an attorney. He was ordered held without bail pending the arraignment Monday.

Mexican authorities took the drug smuggler into custody in 2000, and he remained there despite an immediate extradition request sought by the DEA. A legal battle stalled the extradition when the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the nation’s constitution forbade the extradition of suspects who faced life sentences in the United States.

The Mexican high court held that everyone is capable of being rehabilitated and that a life sentence precluded the possibility. To facilitate the extradition, U.S. officials waived a possible death penalty for Vasquez-Mendoza, recommending instead a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Mr. Fass was shot three times in the head and once in the chest. The shooting occurred on his last day of undercover work. He had been assigned to a DEA desk job in Monterrey, Mexico, and his wife and four children had been waiting for him to go shopping for the move when he was killed.

He had worked undercover for seven years and was considered one of the DEA’s most effective agents.

According to federal authorities, Mr. Fass arranged to purchase 22 pounds of methamphetamines from Vasquez-Mendoza and a partner, Augustin Cuevas-Cordova, for $160,000. But U.S. and Mexican officials said the two drug smugglers planned to kill the agent and several informants who accompanied him during the undercover operation so they could take their money.

To carry out their plans, Mexican officials said, Vasquez-Mendoza invited Juan Rubio-Vasquez to take part in the robbery and murder plot. Later, Mr. Fass and his informants met with Cuevas-Cordova and Rubio-Vasquez to close the methamphetamine deal.

Once the DEA agent showed them the money, the officials said, Cuevas-Cordova and Rubio-Vasquez telephoned Vasquez-Mendoza, who ordered them to steal the money and kill the agent.

Court records show the two men opened fire on the agent in the parking lot of a strip mall. The agent returned fire and shot Cuevas-Cordova. Rubio-Vasquez was arrested at the scene. Cuevas-Cordova escaped, but he was captured later. Both were tried and convicted.

The DEA and the FBI initially offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to Vasquez-Mendoza’s capture, although the total was increased to $2.2 million by the State Department through a counternarcotics rewards program established in 1986 by Congress to aid in the capture of major drug traffickers.

DEA officials said Vasquez-Mendoza was removed from Mexico City by DEA agents and transported to Phoenix, where he will stand trial to answer a July 5, 1994, grand jury indictment charging murder, conspiracy, armed robbery, attempted murder, attempted armed robbery, kidnapping and burglary.

DEA spokesman Ed Childress said Vasquez-Mendoza was the head of a criminal organization that owned and operated several clandestine methamphetamine laboratories in the Mexican state of Senora and smuggled methamphetamines into the United States.

“More than a decade ago, DEA Special Agent Richard Fass was killed in cold blood trying to put violent wholesale methamphetamine traffickers out of business,” said DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy. “After a relentless six-year manhunt, the mastermind behind Agent Fass’ murder is returned to the scene of the crime to face justice.”

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