Over two days, a federal prosecutor and agents painted Jovana Deas as a drug-cartel spy working as a special agent in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations Office in Nogales.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Lacey even likened the 34-year-old Douglas native to Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer who spied for the Soviets.
But Deas and her attorney countered during her sentencing hearing that their portrayal was the work of feverish federal imaginations, seeing a major border conspiracy in a few ill-advised favors for family members.
After comparing the stories Friday, U.S. District Judge Cindy Jorgenson didn't buy the cartel-spy image, but neither did she view Deas' actions as innocent mistakes. Deas illegally used her status as a federal agent to access two different databases, looking up criminal-investigative and visa information on about a dozen people over two years, Jorgenson noted. For that, she sentenced the former federal agent on Friday to 2 1/2 years in federal prison.
The judge said Deas' crimes undermined the credibility of American law enforcement while throwing Deas' agency into turmoil to determine the degree of damage done.
"The U.S. is lucky to have law enforcement agencies that are held in high esteem," Jorgenson said, noting other countries' police forces are viewed as criminals.
The judge's decision came after an hours-long sentencing hearing spread over two days in which Lacey tried to link Deas to the suspected leak of a list of informants in the Nogales area in 2011 and to the slaying of a man in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, in 2010.
But Deas' attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Julia Santander, rejected Lacey's implications, noting that unlike cartel members, Deas didn't have a high-priced attorney, and she didn't flee to Mexico.
"The government's trying to link her to things for which they have no evidence," Santander said. "She is not a cartel member. She was not ever working for the cartels. She was an agent, a human being who made a mistake."
Border success story
Deas was the only U.S. citizen in her family of five from Agua Prieta, Sonora, because she happened to be born in Douglas. Until she was indicted, hers was a cross-border success story.
Deas testified that as a girl she first dreamed of becoming a U.S. federal agent because she liked how the female inspectors at the Douglas port of entry wore their hair in buns, the way she did.
She also knew of the border's underworld. Her maiden name is Samaniego, a name frequently associated with drug-trafficking in the Agua Prieta-Douglas area.
In a memorandum filed with the court this week, Deas said her father had become estranged from his own brother because of the brother's involvement with illegal activities.
Speaking in a composed, confident manner from the witness chair, Deas told how she learned English by attending Cochise College near Douglas, and eventually attended Arizona State University. She worked as a residence-hall assistant and graduated summa cum laude in psychology and criminal justice.
The federal government initially hired her as a port inspector at Nogales in 2003, and they issued her commendations in 2005 and 2006 for her participation in drug busts and other successes. She moved up to special agent in October 2007, a position where she would be investigating drug traffickers and other cross-border criminals.
Then federal agents started to see the newly married Deas in a darker light. In March 2008, her agency's anti-corruption unit received an allegation that she "is a family member of the Samaniego drug trafficking organization," says a pre-sentence report in her case.
Soon after, Deas started checking criminal databases without an official purpose, often at her sister's request. The first time was July 16, 2008, when she looked up the records of two cousins from Agua Prieta.
Then, on Dec. 22, 2008, Deas made the inquiry that perhaps caused her the most trouble. Deas testified that her sister, Dana Samaniego, asked her to look up the visa information of a man named Pedro Chavez-Sagredo, from Ciudad Juárez. She did, and she eventually gave printouts of the information to her sister.
Dana Samaniego herself had been a Mexican federal police officer but was fired after her unit was implicated in torturing a suspect. She had married and divorced another former Mexican federal police officer, Miguel Angel Mendoza-Estrada, who had since become a drug trafficker, prosecutors say.
Later, Brazilian police found the same information that Deas printed out on the laptop of Dana's ex-husband, Mendoza-Estrada, who was living in Brazil. Later yet, on Aug. 26, 2010, Chavez-Sagredo was killed execution style by men who burst into a restaurant in Ciudad Juárez, which is across the border from El Paso.
Lacey acknowledged that the government couldn't tie the information that Deas provided to Chavez-Sagredo's murder.
Deas' indictment in May 2011 sent agents scrambling to figure out what else she might have compromised, testified Homeland Security Special Agent Jesus Lozania. Deas was one just a few custodians of informant records at the Nogales office, and as such could know the identities of the informants working for the office's 30 agents, Lozania said.
He noted that in July 2011, the office received credible information from informants in Nogales, Sonora, that drug traffickers there had obtained a list of informants attached to the Nogales office and that traffickers planned to "round up" these informants. The agency acted to warn and protect the informants in the aftermath, he said.
As with the Chavez-Sagredo murder, the government could not link Deas to the leak. And her attorney, Santander, noted that due to a medical complication to her pregnancy, Deas had not had access to the informant records since Jan. 7, 2010, arguing she was not responsible for the leak.
But Lacey said even without direct evidence of involvement in the leak, her acts merited a much-longer sentence of 10 years because it compromised so much government information, as well as agents and their informants. Tearfully, before Jorgenson delivered her sentence, Deas said she would never jeopardize her fellow agents.
"I feel I betrayed my country and an agency that gave me so many opportunities," she said.
Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or email@example.com