These are strange days in U.S. District Court. If you don't believe me, look at the recent trial of Ricardo Bonvicin.
Bonvicin, a 15-year law enforcement veteran who rose to chief marshal of North Las Vegas Municipal Court, was charged with six counts of money laundering and one count of lying to an FBI man. He lost his job and faced a lengthy prison stretch if convicted.
The FBI gathered evidence in the case through the use of veteran informant Steven Barket, a former acquaintance of Bonvicin. Barket is one of those intriguing characters most people would swear didn't exist outside the pages of a crime novel.
The case was tried before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones, known as a steady hand on the bench. Jones had his hands full with the Bonvicin case, but not because it presented complex legal issues or thousands of pages of discovery.
Jones was kept busy attempting to measure the veracity, such as it was, of the government's key witness against recorded evidence that appeared to confirm at least some of the prosecution's case against Bonvicin. In the end, Jones surprised everyone by dismissing all charges against Bonvicin without waiting until the prosecution finished presenting its case.
It became clear during Barket's cross-examination by Bonvicin attorney Tom Pitaro that the government's key witness was a professional snitch who bragged about his law enforcement clout and wasn't above using those contacts to help himself out of various civil jams. By the end of Pitaro's questioning, Barket appeared little more than a con man caught in an endless web of fiction.
Although he had no prior convictions, Barket admitted he hadn't bothered to pay his taxes. Barket has no collector's license but reportedly induced a girlfriend to purchase more than 50 guns. He said he kept no savings or checking account, paid $1,000 a month to live in a $1 million-plus home, drove various luxury cars that weren't in his name, accepted "investments" from people for business plans that never quite came to fruition.
The trial exposed the 25-year cash relationship between Barket and the FBI, ATF and other law enforcement agencies. Those who underestimate Barket's vindictiveness do so at their own peril, former associates tell me. Those in law enforcement who use him in future cases are likely to wind up red-faced.
Meanwhile, back on the bench, in a rambling speech that at one point mentioned his wife's opinion of the government informant's credibility and left friends of the U.S. attorney's office and defense team somewhat bewildered, Judge Jones seized on Barket's questionable veracity and dismissed all charges. He did so despite the presence of recordings that appeared to implicate Bonvicin in at least one incident of money laundering.
Jones tossed the government's dirty baby with its filthy bath water, which is well within his job description. It's not the first time in recent months Jones has called an audible in the courtroom.
In February, he apologized profusely to former U.S. Department of Interior official Milton Dial, who was convicted of violating a federal cooling-off period rule, before sentencing him to probation.
Jones refused to accept the easy deal carved out for 70-something Nye County brothel owner Joe Richards, but he questioned a proposed deal in the IRS tax-cheating case against Brian Atkinson-Turner and Kathryn O'Gara.
To some courthouse insiders, steady Judge Jones is becoming downright unpredictable.
But in the Bonvicin case, Barket made Jones' decision easy.
Nothing Barket said under cross-examination led me to believe he was more than a gifted con man who apparently has also suckered some law enforcers. Jones was right to question Barket's credibility, and Bonvicin is fortunate the judge was outraged.
Had the case continued, the jury would have heard Bonvicin's voice on troubling tapes, but it also would have heard from defense witnesses who would describe in detail how Barket conned them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and induced them to purchase several Mercedes, a Hummer and even a Lamborghini.
His freedom spared, Bonvicin should be celebrating; in these strange days he first must win back the job he once held as a lieutenant at the North Las Vegas Detention Center.
His civil attorney Adam Levine says, "He's very eager to return to his prior employment."
The jail's a nice place to visit. Bonvicin just doesn't want to want to live there.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.