Owner of Rivera plane being investigated by DEA

PHOENIX (AP) — The company and the man who runs the business that owns a luxury jet that crashed and killed Latin music star Jenni Rivera is under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the agency seized two of its planes earlier this year as part of the ongoing probe.

DEA spokeswoman Lisa Webb Johnson confirmed Thursday the planes owned by Las Vegas-based Starwood Management were seized in Texas and Arizona, but she declined to discuss details of the case. The agency also has subpoenaed all the company's records, including any correspondence it has had with a former Tijuana mayor who U.S. law enforcement officials have long suspected has ties to organized crime.

Christian Esquino, 50, who runs the business and has a long and checkered legal past, told The Associated Press on Friday that the DEA has been investigating him for more than 20 years but has yet to prove a single drug-related charge. Esquino said his sister-in-law owns the company but he has the "expertise."

His legal woes date back decades. He pleaded guilty to a fraud charge that stemmed from a major drug investigation in Florida in the early 1990s and most recently was sentenced to two years in federal prison in a California aviation fraud case. Esquino, a Mexican citizen, was deported upon his release. He and various other companies he has either been involved with or owns have also been sued for failing to pay millions of dollars in loans, according to court records.

The 43-year-old California-born Rivera died at the peak of her career when the plane she was traveling in nose-dived into the ground while flying from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey to the central city of Toluca early Sunday morning. She was perhaps the most successful female singer in grupero, a male-dominated Mexico regional style, and had branched out into acting and reality television.

Esquino said in a telephone interview from Mexico City Friday night that the singer was considering buying the aircraft from Starwood for $250,000 and the flight was offered as a test ride. The 78-year-old pilot and five other people were also killed.

The late singer's brother, Pedro Rivera Jr., confirmed Friday that his sister died in the crash.

Esquino is no stranger to tangles with the law, and his business dealings have come under increased media scrutiny since the crash.

He was indicted in the early 1990s along with 12 other defendants in a major federal drug investigation that claimed the suspects planned to sell more than 480 kilograms of cocaine, according to court records. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal money from the IRS and was sentenced to five years in prison, but he served just about five months.

Cynthia Hawkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case and is now in private practice in Orlando, remembered the investigation well.

"It was huge," Hawkins said Thursday. "This was an international smuggling group."

She said the case began with the arrest of Robert Castoro, who was at the time considered one of the most prolific smugglers of marijuana and cocaine into Florida from direct ties to Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s. Castoro was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison, but he then began cooperating with authorities, leading to his sentence being reduced to just 10 years, Hawkins said.

"Castoro cooperated for years," she said. "We put hundreds of people in jail."

He eventually gave up another smuggler, Damian Tedone, who was indicted in the early 1990s along with Esquino and 11 others in a conspiracy involving drug smuggling in Florida in the 1980s at a time when the state was the epicenter of the nation's cocaine trade.

Tedone also cooperated with authorities and has since been released from prison. Telephone messages left for both Tedone and Castoro have not been returned.

Esquino eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of concealing money from the IRS. He said he has never had any drug involvement and only pleaded to the charge to avoid a much lengthier sentence in the narcotics case.

Joseph Milchen, Esquino's attorney at the time, said the case eventually revolved around his client "bringing money into the United States without declaring it."

However, Milchen acknowledged that a plane purchased by Esquino was "used to smuggle drugs."

Esquino, too, said he later learned the plane he sold to Castoro for about $220,000 was used to smuggle drugs, but said he had no knowledge of that and was only involved in the aircraft transaction.

"I wasn't any part of that," he told the AP. "I pleaded guilty just to get the DEA off my back."

As for Castoro, who Esquino claims implicated him in the smuggling operation, he said, "He'd throw his own mom under the bus if he could get time off his sentence."

Court filings also indicate Esquino was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to committing fraud involving aircraft he purchased in Mexico, then falsified the planes' log books and re-sold them in the United States. He now denies that charge, as well.

Also in 2004, a federal judge ordered him and one of his companies to pay a creditor $6.2 million after being accused of failing to pay debts to a bank.

As the years passed, Esquino's troubles only grew.

In February this year, a Gulfstream G-1159A plane the government valued at $500,000 — Esquino says it's worth $1.5 million — was seized by the U.S. Marshals Service on behalf of the DEA after landing in Tucson on a flight that originated in Mexico

Four months later, the DEA subpoenaed all of Starwood's records dating to Dec. 13, 2007, including federal and state income tax documents, bank deposit information, records on all company assets and sales, and the entity's relationship with Esquino and more than a dozen companies and individuals, including former Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank-Rhon, a gambling mogul and a member of one of Mexico's most powerful families. U.S. law enforcement officials have long suspected Hank-Rhon is tied to organized crime but no allegations have been proven. He has consistently denied any criminal involvement.

He was arrested in Mexico last year on weapons charges and on suspicion of ordering the murder of his son's former girlfriend. He was later freed for lack of evidence.

The subpoena was obtained by the U-T San Diego newspaper.

Esquino said Hank-Rhon's involvement with his company was only through renting planes.

In September, the DEA seized another Starwood aircraft — a 1977 Hawker 700 with an insured value of $1 million — after it landed in McAllen, Texas, from a flight from Mexico.

Insurers of both aircraft have since filed complaints in federal court in Nevada seeking to have the Starwood policies nullified, in part, because they say Esquino lied in the application process when he noted he had never been indicted on drug-related criminal charges. Both companies said they would not have issued the policies had he been truthful.

___

Associated Press writers Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Ken Ritter in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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