A gun barrel poking through a cardboard UPS box at a Border Patrol station led investigators to $50,000 of gun parts stacked inside an agent’s garage in Vail.
Federal prosecutors said those gun parts, along with another $50,000 of gun parts and equipment seized at the Border Patrol’s Willcox Station, were part of a scheme by two agents to steal government property.
Agent Jesus Manuel Franco, a former firearms instructor at the Willcox Station, sent 47 boxes of scopes, barrels, body armor and other equipment to Agent Edgardo Jose Munoz Cruz while Franco was stationed at the Border Patrol’s armory in West Virginia.
The shipments were sent from Nov. 10, 2014, to Jan. 5, 2015, when the box with the gun barrel poking out was discovered and reported to investigators with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, according to U.S. District Court documents filed in connection with a federal trial that began Tuesday in Tucson.
“These boxes had no business being shipped to the Willcox Station,” prosecutor Sarah Houston told the jury in her opening statement Tuesday.
She accused the agents of violating the trust placed in them as federal officers and said “no one is above the law.”
Defense attorneys Michael Bloom and Sean Chapman contend their clients were trying to fill a need for firearms at a time when an agency-wide review left the Willcox Station without 40 percent of its M-4 rifles.
Franco and Munoz planned to repair rifles and pistols for agents at the Willcox Station, which was a low priority for the agency when it came to firearms and other resources, the defense attorneys said Tuesday.
A federal grand jury indicted Franco and Munoz in February 2016 on one count of conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States; 13 counts of mail fraud; two counts of possession and transfer of a machine gun; and one count of theft of government property.
Bloom, who represents Munoz, said investigators found no evidence the agents tried to sell the gun parts.
Chapman, who represents Franco, said officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Use of Force Center of Excellence in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, told Franco he could ship discarded gun parts to stations that needed them.
“He’s like a kid in a candy store,” Chapman said as he described bins of gun parts at Harpers Ferry that had been seized by agents or were no longer usable.
Munoz was simply doing a favor for his friend and fully cooperated with investigators, Bloom said, to the point of offering them his phone so they could search through his text messages and helping them load the boxes into their truck.
Prosecutors pointed to hundreds of text messages in which Munoz and Franco discussed the shipments of gun parts as evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the federal government.
Included in the indictment is a message from Franco to Munoz saying “I’m making out like a f---ing bandit over here” and “I almost feel a little tiny bit of shame … Lol.”
However, Bloom said some of the texts show the two agents were not conspiring to steal. In one exchange, Franco asked Munoz if he should send a dual-cartridge Taser, but Munoz said not to because he wasn’t trained to use them.
The reason Munoz moved the boxes to his garage was because items left in the hallways of the Willcox Station had been known to “grow legs and walk away,” Chapman said. Bloom noted agents often grew jealous when other agents received new gear.
Both agents are on indefinite suspension pending the outcome of their trials, according to the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.
The trial resumes this week before U.S. District Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson.
Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or email@example.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar