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.

Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Nonviolent disciplining of kids pushed

    Child rights advocates called on senators to pass and strongly endorse a law that will institutionalize positive and nonviolent methods of disciplining children.The Child Rights Network (CRN), Plan International Philippines (PIP), Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLPCD), and Lihok Pilipinas Foundation led the call for the enactment of the Positive Discipline Bill.Several Quezon City Council members led by Majority Floor Leader Jesus Manuel Suntay, Victor Ferrer …

  • Method to their madness

    [caption id="attachment_256768" align="alignright" width="212"] Illustration by Rod Cañalita[/caption] EMMANUEL PORTUGAL Country Manager for the Philippines, VMware I look after the garden. I’d like to think that I have a green thumb—no plants have died so far! The ones I like now that I planted a few months ago is the Blue Iris. Like the town in the movie, my Blue Iris shows up in the morning and only appears for one day. …

  • JGFP Summer Tour on today

    The summer tour for local junior golfers kicks off with the holding of the ICTSI-JGFP Baguio Junior Open today and tomorrow at the treacherous Baguio Country Club course in Baguio.Sixty players aged 6 to 17 years old are entered in the 36-hole tourney serving as the opening leg of the summer circuit organized by the Junior Golf Foundation of the Philippines with the International Container Terminal Services, Inc. Foundation as main sponsor. ... …

  • PH now market ready to absorb infra bonds

    The Philippine market is now ready to absorb infrastructure bonds that will be issued by private companies amid a growing pipeline of infra-related projects under the government’s Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program. President Benigno Aquino III last week said the government is still committed to spend more on the country’s infrastructure, with 16 PPP projects currently on the pipeline and nine that have already been awarded. Over the years, some of the country’s biggest infrastructure …

  • Filipinos are saving more – BSP survey

    More Filipinos have the extra cash to save for that proverbial rainy day, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Philippines (BSP). Based on a quarterly survey on consumer confidence, domestic households with savings have the means to increase family reserves and to bring up the amount to historical highs. The central bank said improved family income, a generally positive outlook on the economy, inflation and foreign exchange rates encouraged saving behavior during the first three months of 2015. …

  • AXA Philippines growing alongside its parent firm

    Philippine AXA Life Insurance Corp. is growing side by side with its parent firm, global insurance firm AXA, after posting significant growth in its total premium income amid an increasing market share in the country. A statement showed that in the Philippines, multi-billion firm AXA Group saw P18.35 billion in total premium income. The local entity of AXA, AXA Philippines is a joint venture between AXA Group and the Metrobank Group. In 2014, it saw an increase in market share to 11.6 …

  • End to traffic jam in sight? Japan to lend P4B to PHL for road projects

    The Japanese government will be providing some P4 billion to the Philippines for road projects aimed at decongesting monstrous jams in Metro Manila.Noriaki Niwa, chief representative of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), said the loan will cover major interchanges to address traffic congestion in Metro Manila, including flyovers, and road links.Among them are the interchanges on EDSA-Roosevelt/Congressional, EDSA-West/North, and C-5-Green Meadows and North/Mindanao Avenue. ... …

  • US won’t provide flexibility for countries interested in TPP

    Washington D.C.—The US government will not provide any flexibility for potential member countries, like the Philippines, in their bid to become part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a senior official said. Economic and Business Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary William E. Craft, Jr., said all restrictions stated under the TPP trade deal will be maintained and have to be met by the current and future member countries. Earlier, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said that the …

POLL

Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Loading...
Poll Choice Options