Defendant sentenced under seal in drug case

A defendant in a federal drug case was sentenced behind closed doors Thursday to about eight years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro sealed the sentencing of Adolph Vargas, one of six defendants who were indicted in connection with the highly publicized investigation of 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger's 2008 disappearance. The case attracted national attention.

Navarro cited safety concerns in granting the request of Vargas' lawyer, William Pitman of Los Angeles, to seal the defendant's sentencing hearing. Pitman said other documents in the case have been filed under seal.

No notice of a motion to seal the hearing appeared in public court records before the hearing, and Navarro denied a request by a Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter to delay her ruling until the newspaper's lawyer could be consulted. The judge noted that Pitman had traveled from out of town for the hearing.

Navarro also acknowledged that sentencing hearings are rarely sealed.

"It's not the run-of-the-mill situation," the judge said.

The clean-cut defendant, who wore glasses and a blue jumpsuit with the word "detainee" on the back, sat quietly at the defense table near his attorney and a Spanish interpreter.

Margaret Honrath, a trial attorney from the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, did not object to Pitman's request to close the sentencing hearing.

The Review-Journal reporter and another representative of the newspaper were excluded from the hearing, which proceeded behind locked doors. No other members of the public were present in the courtroom.

After the hearing, Navarro's courtroom deputy told the Review-Journal the judgment itself would not be sealed. The deputy said Vargas was sentenced to 97 months in prison, and he will face two years of supervision after his release.

Navarro, a former chief deputy district attorney in the civil division of the Clark County district attorney's office, was nominated by President Barack Obama in December 2009 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2010. She said she has sealed one other sentencing hearing in the past.

Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's vice president and general counsel, said the newspaper is contemplating further legal action to unseal the Vargas proceedings.

Vargas pleaded guilty in January to money laundering and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His 12-page plea agreement is not sealed.

The defendant entered his plea shortly before four other defendants in the case went to trial in Navarro's courtroom. The three-week trial received extensive media coverage.

During the trial, prosecutors tried to prove that Jose Lopez-Buelna and Luis Vega-Rubio had kidnapped Cole as revenge after the boy's grandfather took off with $4.5 million in drug money. Prosecutors alleged Lopez-Buelna ran a Mexican drug cartel's operations from Las Vegas.

But defense attorneys went on the offensive, accusing the boy's mother and grandmother of staging the kidnapping to lure his grandfather out of hiding with the missing drug money. The mother denied the allegation.

Prosecutors dropped all kidnapping and hostage-taking charges in February, before the trial ended, as part of plea negotiations with Lopez-Buelna and Vega-Rubio.

Navarro has said prosecutors failed to prove that Cole was kidnapped. The Las Vegas boy was missing for four days in October 2008.

Another defendant, Jesus Gastelum, was charged with kidnapping Cole but remains a fugitive.

Lopez-Buelna pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, conspiracy to launder money and two counts of money laundering. He later tried, without success, to withdraw his guilty pleas. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 15.

Vega-Rubio pleaded guilty to one count of interference with commerce by threats or use of fear.

He admitted writing and delivering a threatening note to Cole's family in July 2008.

In May, Navarro sentenced Vega-Rubio to about three years in prison. She also imposed a $2,500 fine.

Lopez-Buelna's younger brother, Roberto Lopez, also accepted a plea deal to end his involvement in the trial. He pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering.

The jury convicted Erik Webster of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to launder money.

Cole's maternal grandfather, Clemens Tinnemeyer, was in custody when he testified at the kidnapping trial. Details from his sealed plea agreement were made public during his testimony, including the fact that he pleaded guilty in February 2009 to conspiracy to transport cocaine.

Federal court records for Nevada indicate that Tinnemeyer's criminal case is sealed but do not indicate which judge was assigned the case.

Tinnemeyer testified that he worked as a drug smuggler for Lopez-Buelna but ran off after finding "a big pile of money" hidden in the motor home he used for transporting drugs.

He surrendered in October 2008, and authorities found $3.5 million of the stolen drug money in a storage unit in Riverside, Calif., the following day.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at or 702-384-8710.