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Man's sentencing complicated by deportation

May 29, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

About four years ago, at age 17, Erik Jovanny Ochoa-Pena moved to Lander after running away from Mexico to escape domestic violence inflicted on his mother at the hands of his stepfather.

"He worked continuously for his family during that time at El Sol restaurant" in Lander and sent money home to his mother, his Jackson-based defense attorney, Elisabeth Trefonas, said in court this month.

But three years ago Ochoa-Pena became addicted to methamphetamine and developed marijuana and alcohol dependency, Trefonas told Lander's 9th District Judge Norman E. Young during her client's May 17 sentencing for drug trafficking.

"Mr. Ochoa-Pena will be deported. He's subject to mandatory deportation," Trefonas said, noting that because of his conviction he is "really forever barred from coming back to the United States lawfully."

Before federal authorities deport the 21-year-old to Mexico, Ochoa-Pena faces a 12- to 14-month prison sentence on charges of felony delivery of methamphetamine and conspiracy to deliver cocaine.

It was a sentencing that raised questions of what to do with someone who committed a crime in the United States but will leave the country once he serves his punishment.

"What makes this difficult is the absolute of deportation makes it difficult for this judge to attempt what I usually attempt in these sentences or for defendants in Mr. Ochoa-Pena's shoes," Young said.

He has no criminal history, "not even a traffic violation," but his crime is serious, Young said. He could not qualify for the youthful offender program because of his immigration status.

The judge said he could sentence him to the recommended roughly three years in prison combined with the six months or so of credit for time served. He would then face deportation "after the taxpayers have footed the bill for that incarceration," Young said.

After a pause of several seconds, he added, "Which is all fairly frustrating."

Ochoa-Pena became the first defendant out of the 35 indicted under the drug investigation dubbed "Operation Angry Sun" to plead guilty to charges against him, during a hearing Feb. 9.

He has remained in the Fremont County Detention Center since shortly before his arraignment, when he pleaded guilty under an agreement that called for a maximum sentence of six years.

At the arraignment, Ochoa-Pena said he possessed methamphetamine June 29 in Riverton, and he sold the narcotic to another person for $150.

He also told the court he had obtained three eighth-ounce packages of cocaine from one person to sell to another for $750.

During his sentencing hearing, he apologized for his actions with the help of a translator.

"I accept I do something illegal. I say I'm so sorry for that," the translator said about Ochoa-Pena's statement.

County prosecutor Patrick LeBrun told Young the case echoes others linked in the massive indictment that hit the county with a sweep of arrests Dec. 2.

"Mr. Ochoa-Pena was responsible for ... delivering a fairly large amount of cocaine," LeBrun said. The amount was "eight-ball-type quantities on a fairly regular basis," he said, referring to eighth-ounce amounts.

"He also delivered methamphetamine. I think the unfortunate part about Mr. Ochoa-Pena's situation, unlike some of the other defendants ... is that he is probably not going to be able to serve a period of probation because of his immigration status," LeBrun said.

Federal officials have placed a hold on him that means "as soon as he comes out of our custody he will be deported," he said.

LeBrun said the defendant would be unable to complete any term of probation because of deportation.

Also, he does not have a chance to attend the Department of Corrections' boot camp program because of the same issue, he added.

"So the only real punishment that is left is prison," LeBrun said, asking for a sentence of about three years. "He did earn it. He did commit a serious crime."

Trefonas emphasized that her client will face deportation.

"Mr. Ochoa-Pena cannot remain in this community once he is sentenced here, whether he serves time or not," she said.

She pointed out that he "immediately accepted responsibility" for the two charges, and he has no prior criminal history or immigration problems.

Ochoa-Pena will return to his mother and a house of domestic violence, "and he will have no possibility of ever returning to the United States," she said.

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