Two sentenced for cocaine smuggling, money laundering

Two defendants linked to a Mexican drug cartel — who previously faced charges in the high-profile kidnapping of a Las Vegas boy — have been sentenced to lengthy federal prison terms.

U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro sentenced Jose Lopez-Buelna, 51, to 20 years in prison and Erik Dushawn Webster, 47, to a 25-year term on charges related to trafficking more than 300 pounds of cocaine and money laundering.

Lopez-Buelna pleaded guilty, and Webster was convicted at trial. Lopez-Buelna ran the cartel’s Las Vegas operations, according to authorities.

Lopez-Buelna and Jesus Gastelum recruited Webster and others to smuggle more than 150 kilograms of cocaine from Mexico into the United States and Canada for a two-year period starting in 2007.

According to court documents and trial testimony, the men provided the smugglers with motor homes equipped with lead-lined hidden compartments that were used to hide drugs and drug money.

One of those recruited smugglers was Clemens Tinnemeyer, the grandfather of Cole Puffinburger, whom Lopez-Buelna and another defendant, Luis Vega-Rubio, were alleged to have snatched in October 2008 after Tinnemeyer stole $4.5 million in cartel drug money.

Puffinburger was returned safely four days after he went missing. A Las Vegas bus driver noticed him after seeing his image. Puffinburger’s disappearance garnered national media attention.

The case unraveled midtrial in February after prosecutors dropped the kidnapping and hostage-taking charges against the defendants.

Defense attorneys successfully attacked the credibility of Puffinburger’s mother and grandmother, and jurors later said they thought the kidnapping was staged in an attempt to lure Tinnemeyer out of hiding.

Tinnemeyer pleaded guilty to conspiracy to transport cocaine in 2009. Authorities found $3.5 million in stolen drug money in a Riverside, Calif., storage shed the day after he surrendered in 2008.

What became of the remaining $1 million has never been disclosed.

Vega-Rubio pleaded guilty to one count of interference with commerce by threats or use of fear. He also admitted writing and delivering a threatening letter to Cole’s mother and stepfather in July 2008. Navarro previously sentenced him to about three years in prison.

Another defendant, Adolph Vargas Ibarra, pleaded guilty in January to drug and money laundering charges. He was sentenced to more than eight years in prison last month.

Gastelum, who still is a fugitive, faces drug and money laundering charges.

The defendants also forfeited to the court two motor homes, two semiautomatic pistols, several vehicles and more than $4 million in cash linked to drug sales.

Contact Doug McMurdo at or 702-224-5512.

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