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March 23, 2009

CONVICTION IN KIDNAPPING CONSPIRACY AND MURDER-FOR-HIRE PLOT INVOLVING FEDERAL JUDGE

(HOUSTON) - Joel Lopez Sr., 51, has been convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and one count of murder-for-hire, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced today. The jury returned a verdict after two hours of deliberation. Lopez is currently serving a federal life sentence for a February 2006 drug conviction. 

United States District Judge Melinda Harmon presided over the four-day trial which began on March 17, 2009. During the trial, the jury heard numerous hours of recorded conversations and the testimony of several witnesses. 

The evidence proved that in June 2007, Lopez approached a fellow inmate at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in Houston who was affiliated with the Almighty Latin King Nation. Lopez asked this inmate to murder a federal judge in McAllen for $2 million and a woman who lived in Roma, Texas, for $1 million. According to the testimony, Lopez believed the murder of the federal judge who had given him the life sentence for drugs would assist his pending appeal of that sentence.

Lopez instructed the inmate to contact his wife, Aracely Gonzalez, once he was released from federal prison. The inmate was in custody on pending escape charges. Lopez provided the inmate with Gonzalez’s contact information including two phone numbers and her home address. Lopez told the inmate that the Roma woman was related to a member of a popular Tejano band and allegedly owed Lopez approximately $100,000 for a drug debt. In August 2008, Lopez was transferred to a federal prison in Pollock, La. After that transfer, back at the FDC, the inmate received word through the toilet system piping from another floor that he was supposed to contact Lopez’s wife. After this notification, the inmate contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.

The inmate later became an FBI source and placed numerous recorded phone calls to Gonzalez beginning in September 2007 and ending March 2008. Meanwhile, in September and December 2007, Lopez discussed the inmate with Gonzalez during several recorded phone calls. On Sept. 11, 2007, the inmate sent a coded letter to Joel Lopez at the direction of the FBI that discussed the murder of the judge and the woman from Roma.

After Lopez told Aracely Gonzalez about the inmate in December 2007, the inmate and Gonzalez met on two occasions to discuss the kidnapping and the murder for hire plot. They met at Gonzalez’s residence in Roma, so Lopez could contact the inmate on Gonzalez’s home phone without having to add the inmate to Lopez’s calling list at Pollock prison – which Lopez believed would draw scrutiny from prison officials and potentially expose the plot. During these meetings the FBI was able to confirm that Lopez had not solicited anyone else to kill the federal judge or the Roma woman. In addition, during the meetings, the inmate and Lopez’s wife discussed the logistics of the kidnapping as well as the ransom price.

After those meetings on Dec. 15-16, Gonzalez traveled to Pollock, La., to discuss the plot with Lopez. During this visit, Lopez gave the go ahead for the kidnapping of the Roma woman and advised his wife to admonish the inmate for sending the coded letter, which Lopez believed would draw scrutiny to the plan. At another face-to-face meeting in January 2008 between Gonzalez and the inmate, Gonzalez told the inmate that Lopez wanted the woman from Roma picked up and held for ransom. It was unclear from these conversations whether she was to be killed or released after the kidnapping. 
                                                           
In March 2008, the FBI staged a kidnapping of the woman by picking her up from her residence, placing extortionate calls to the family members (one of which knew of the fake kidnapping) and releasing her after the family paid what they believed was $100,000 in ransom money. A few days after the fake kidnapping, the inmate contacted Gonzalez and paid her $50,000 which was represented as Lopez’s cut of the ransom money. 

During the investigation, the inmate never left the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.
                                                                                   
Lopez faces up to a life sentence for the kidnapping conspiracy conviction and up to a 10-year sentence on the murder for hire conviction. Both counts also carry a potential fine of up to $250,000.

Gonzalez was also charged in this case and pleaded guilty in January 2009 after two days of trial. She faces a sentence of up to life imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. The sentencing of both Lopez and Gonzalez will take place this summer.

This case was investigated by the FBI and was tried by Assistant United States Attorneys Jay Hileman and Ryan D. McConnell.
                                                           

 

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