Defendant in record South Elgin pot bust deported before his trial
South Elgin police were patting themselves on the back last August after the largest marijuana bust in the village's history netted 600 pounds of pot worth nearly $500,000 on the street.
Today, police are scratching their heads after the defendant, Claudio Ochoa, 47, was deported by the Department of Homeland Security after he posted bond -- but before he could stand trial in Kane County on the drug charges that carried up to 30 years in prison after a conviction.
According to court records, Ochoa missed several appearances after his wife posted $15,000 cash bond in August and now is living in Mexico.
Ochoa was not present for his last court date Feb. 10, so a warrant was issued for his arrest. The Department of Homeland Security placed a "hold" on Ochoa, and he was turned over and was later deported.
"I was shocked. How could they deport him while the case was pending?" said South Elgin police Detective Mike Doty, who learned what happened from prosecutors earlier this year. "We're really in limbo on the case, not to mention that we're holding a significant amount of marijuana (in the evidence room)."
Normally, Homeland Security deports defendants after they are convicted and serve a prison sentence in the United States.
And if deportation is warranted, it's for sex offenders, gang members, drug dealers and offenders in violent crimes. The department won't deport someone over a DUI, petty traffic offense or retail theft.
"Claudio Ochoa was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody by the Kane County jail on Aug. 19, 2011, pursuant to an immigration detainer," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said in an email.
"On Sept. 15, 2011, a federal immigration judge ordered Ochoa's deportation. On Sept. 23, Ochoa was removed to Mexico in accordance with the judge's order. Once a final removal order has been issued, ICE is required to effect that order expeditiously. A prosecuting office can ensure that an alien in ICE custody is prosecuted before a deportation by contacting ICE to writ that person out of ICE custody to face the pending criminal charges. ICE routinely makes such arrangements with local prosecutors nationwide."
Montenegro did not return a subsequent phone message.
Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said Ochoa was deported without his office's knowledge or consent and that if he knew Homeland Security was trying to deport Ochoa, his office would have fought to stop it.
"This is a big case for us. The last thing we want is for a guy to not be held accountable," McMahon said.
As for Montenegro's contention that Kane County officials could have issued an order returning Ochoa to custody in Kane County, McMahon said, "That's a true statement, but it would have been nice if they let us in on their little secret that they had him (and were seeking deportation)."
Lt. Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County sheriff's office, said authorities ask the birthplace of each person brought to the jail. If it is outside the United States, jail officials notify Homeland Security, which has the option and responsibility of conducting its own investigation as to that person's residency status.
Gengler said Homeland Security placed a hold on Ochoa, and he was turned over to federal officials -- no questions asked -- on Aug. 18, after his wife posted bond for him the day before. Gengler said this is standard protocol and similar to how it would work if, say, a defendant posted bond but was also wanted on a warrant from another county.
Acting on a tip, Ochoa was pulled over Aug. 5, 2011, by South Elgin police for following another vehicle too closely.
Police said they found 100 pounds of marijuana in his car and later searched a Carpentersville residence in the 0-99 block of Ione Drive, seizing another 500 pounds and easily making it the largest pot bust in the department's history.
Before that, police arrested a California man who had 82 pounds of marijuana shipped to a warehouse in South Elgin.
Ochoa's bail initially was set at $500,000, meaning he had to post $50,000 to be free while his case was pending.
Defense attorney Timothy Mahoney, who did not return a message seeking comment for this story, filed a motion to have Ochoa's bond reduced, claiming it was excessive.
In the motion, Mahoney argued that Ochoa was a "permanent resident alien" who worked for a Waukegan roofing company for the last six years and earned $80,000 a year.
Ochoa, court documents stated, lived on the 1400 block of Foxmoor Lane in Elgin with his wife, Blanca, with whom he had four children and had been married to since 1996.
Ochoa had a prior felony conviction in DuPage County more than 14 years ago and completed his probation satisfactorily, the motion states.
"The defendant has been leading a law-abiding life and has never been sentenced to the Department of Corrections," Mahoney's motion said.
Ochoa's bail was reduced to $150,000 and Blanca Munoz posted $15,000 cash, records show.
Ochoa missed court appearances on Sept. 30 and Nov. 3, and after he was absent again Feb. 10, Judge Allen Anderson issued an arrest warrant.
On April 17, Blanca Munoz filed for divorce, citing "irreconcilable differences" with her husband but making no mention of the criminal charges against him.
She sought custody of two of the children who were younger than 18, as well as possession of their home, three vehicles and a motorcycle, all of which were paid for in full. She also said she was too broke to pay for attorney fees and wanted them to come from Ochoa.
The divorce papers also said Ochoa is "unemployed" and residing in Mexico.
"We're still looking for him," Doty said.