Charges Dropped in Ariz Prison Plot
PHOENIX (AP) _ A judge has dismissed charges against three men accused of plotting to kill the Arizona prison director because a key prosecution witness refused to answer questions during cross-examination.
When asked about killings he committed while a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, Carlos Velez refused to testify Thursday unless he was granted immunity. Prosecutors denied the request and had no other evidence to present, so Judge Gregory Martin dismissed the case.
Velez claimed he and defendant John Alday twice were within moments of gunning down Corrections Department Director Terry Stewart last summer at a Phoenix restaurant in a plot directed by the other defendants, Michael Garcia and Raymond Llamas.
Prison gangs allegedly wanted Stewart dead because his policy of locking their leaders in solitary confinement was cutting into their control over inmates.
The three defendants were arrested in December.
Their attorneys said they didn’t believe the plot existed and doubted that Velez ever was a member of the prison gang. Instead, they said, Velez made up his story to get a reduced sentence for more than 10 unrelated crimes, including armed robbery and marijuana possession.
``There is nothing to indicate he was a member of the new Mexican Mafia. He has no tattoos, and no one came forward to say he was a member. He didn’t meet any criteria for what to look for in a gang member,″ said Dan Raynak, Garcia’s attorney.
Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, said Velez’s story and gang membership had been corroborated by police and witness testimony.
``We feel very certain that Mr. Stewart’s life was in danger and may still be in danger,″ FitzGerald said.
Still, prosecutor Barnett Lotstein said his office hadn’t known the witness was a ``mass murderer″ until Velez said as much on the stand.
FitzGerald said that in a plea agreement with prosecutors, Velez pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and two counts of armed robbery. All other charges were dropped, and Velez faces five to 10 years in prison.