May 24, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff WriterA judge placed Riverton restaurant owner Gerardo Rico-Holguin on five years of supervised probation with a suspended prison sentence after saying the evidence in his felony drug prosecution was "inconclusive."
At the hour-long sentencing hearing Thursday in Lander, 9th District Judge Norman E. Young told Rico-Holguin it "buys you the benefit of the doubt," but he warned the defendant about violating his probation terms and facing the prison sentence.
Young told the 39-year-old former Austin's Steakhouse owner that he gave him the maximum prison sentence of between four and five years allowed under the plea agreement before suspending the term.
Rico-Holguin pleaded guilty March 15 to felony conspiracy to deliver cocaine under the agreement that requires him to provide information in other drug investigations.
The prosecution dismissed other felonies including delivery of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine and conspiracy to deliver marijuana.
Rico-Holguin was among the 35 people indicted in the massive drug investigation working under the banner of "Operation Angry Sun" that led to about two dozen arrests Dec. 2.
The investigation resulted in authorities searching his restaurant on North Federal Boulevard that day while law enforcement earlier on Sept. 19 targeted his Riverview Road home during a highly visible visit.
The probation sentence followed deputy county attorney Kathy Kavanagh calling Rico-Holguin "a man who was a major source of drugs" hiding "behind a curtain of respectability" with his business.
Kavanagh accused him of dealing cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
"He was not just a user. It was his business," she said, adding that he had counter-surveillance equipment in his home and vehicle.
She also alleged that Rico-Holguin threatened to "shoot somebody in the face" for talking to law enforcement about him. The threat led to authorities searching his residence for weapons, and "numerous, numerous guns were taken from his home," she said.
"That is the man behind the curtain, judge," she said, asking for a sentence of three to five years in prison.
'Not who he is'
Defense attorney Devon Petersen countered her accusations by saying newspaper articles "create an image or persona or a perception of Mr. Rico that, I think, is not fair. It's not who he is."
Petersen said his client was a business owner with no criminal history who got involved in drugs and partying. He was "not any sort of a major drug dealer," he said.
Petersen recalled the change-of-plea hearing when Rico-Holguin admitted to calling someone recommended to him by his ex-girlfriend who was looking for drugs. No drugs ever exchanged hands from the conversation she asked him to make because he spoke Spanish, he said.
Although his client had been charged with four other felonies, Petersen said most involved Rico-Holguin's ex-girlfriend. One count alleged $40 worth of marijuana delivered, another had an eighth-ounce of cocaine, a third involved 1 gram of methamphetamine worth $120 and the last entailed calling someone for drugs, Petersen said.
"I'm trying to give the court an idea of who Mr. Rico is, the man behind this curtain of publicity," he said after displaying several issues of The Ranger containing front-page stories about his client's case.
Petersen said his client has been punished severely since his arrest, spending 39 days in jail on a bond that initially was $100,000 cash only and later dropped to $50,000. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seized $12,000 from one of his bank accounts and "he's incurred extensive legal fees," he said.
He sold his restaurant that took a downturn in business after his arrest and subsequent publicity, and his reputation is "irreparable," Petersen said.
"I think Mr. Rico is a good man," he said, calling him "hard-working," "charismatic" and "likable."
In a short statement before his sentencing, Rico-Holguin said, "I'm sorry for the harm I have caused, and I take full responsibility for what I have done."
Young noted the defendant's lack of prior felony convictions and "no significant criminal history at all." The judge also said that "everyone who uses (drugs) is dealing," noting that two people sharing a joint could be considered dealers.
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