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Dramatic drug trial filled with tales of fear and retaliation ends in guilty verdicts

From Day One, it was a trial with all the elements of a true crime novel.

A violent Mexican drug cartel with ties to kingpin "El Chapo." Allegations of cocaine and heroin arriving by the tractor-trailer load in Tonawanda. Tales of fear and threats of retaliation.

On Thursday, a jury returned guilty verdicts in the prosecution of Herman Aguirre and Troy Gillon, two men accused of running the Mexico-to-California-to-Buffalo drug network.

Aguirre and Gillon will face mandatory life sentences when sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo.

The verdicts mark the latest chapter in a case investigators are calling one of the largest local drug prosecutions ever, a case chock full of compelling evidence and witnesses.

Herman Aguirre

"We're grateful that this jury was able to see that the evidence established the defendants' guilt and grateful that two prolific drug dealers are off the street," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Felicetta.

Fellow prosecutor Meghan A. Tokash said the verdict also means the man who introduced fentanyl to Western New York is finally going to prison.

During the trial, there was testimony that Aguirre in December 2014 persuaded Gillon to begin selling fentanyl in Lockport.

"A couple of weeks later, he shipped 10 kilos of what he called China White," Tokash said of Aguirre.

The first of several fatal fentanyl overdoses in the Lockport area occurred the following month.

At the heart of the trial was the testimony of co-defendant Jose Ruben Gil, a California man who says he met face to face with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders of the violent Sinaloa Cartel.

The federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

It was 2003 and Gil said he was blindfolded and, surrounded by armed guards, flown by helicopter to an undisclosed location in Mexico. As part of a plea deal, Gil admitted his guilt and testified against Aguirre and Gillon.

Prosecutors say the cross-border drug trafficking organization was led by Gil and Aguirre, with Gillon serving as one of their contacts here.

At the core of the case is the allegation that the three men oversaw a drug ring that became a major supplier of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl in 2014 and 2015 and grew big enough to do $19 million in drug sales in just two years.

Over and over again, Tokash and Felicetta provided evidence of a large-scale drug network, an organization so big, it shipped anywhere from 30 to 70 kilograms of cocaine and heroin at a time.

Investigators at the Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service testified that there were at least 19 shipments so large, they required pallets and a tractor-trailer.

Troy Gillon

In one case, witnesses told the jury, a shipment of 100 kilograms of cocaine was sent to a house on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda.

During the trial, there was also testimony about bank deposit records that indicate the organization took in $19 million over a two-year period ending in 2015.

"I'm very disappointed," said Jason Schmidt, Gillon's defense lawyer, of the verdict. "I actually thought the jury would see that 95 percent of the case was co-conspirator statements, people who cut deals with the government."

Schmidt also dismissed the prosecution's contention that his client introduced fentanyl to the region.

"It''s completely untrue," he said. "I think the specter of fentanyl-related deaths hung over this case."

Aguirre's lawyer also plans to appeal and pointed to aspects of the verdict that he says are not supported by the evidence.

"This is just the first step, in our view, and there's a long road ahead of us," said defense attorney Matthew Lembke. "We'll continue to fight."

Agents said the drug organization laundered its money by setting up fake seafood distribution companies in California and creating fraudulent sales records indicating it was distributing large amounts of sea cucumbers in Buffalo.

Sea cucumbers, an animal known to dwell on the ocean floor, are a delicacy in China and Southeast Asia but are little known in Western New York.

'They found me and tried to kidnap me,' witness says of El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel

Indicted with 16 others, Aguirre is accused of being a leader of the organization and, with Gil, a link to the Sinaloa cartel.

Prosecutors allege that "El Chapo" was among those who oversaw the drug shipments here. The trial here took place while Guzman stands trial in New York City, where security is even more intense.

Gil – born in Mexico, raised in California and, at the time of his arrest, mayor of Izúcar de Matamoros in Puebla, Mexico – pleaded guilty last month. Overnight, he became the government's star witness.

The defense countered by portraying Gil as a "master" manipulator who once claimed to have kidney disease in order to win an early release from prison, only to turn around and start selling drugs again.

In the days leading up to the trial, Lembke also questioned the role of the Sinaloa Cartel in the case and suggested prosecutors were trying to "inflame the jurors' passions, pander to their fears and distract them."

In ordering enhanced security for the trial, Vilardo pointed to the Sinaloa Cartel and several alleged threats against government witnesses.

Aguirre and Gillon will be sentenced in June.

Using ‘sea cucumbers’ as cover, El Chapo cartel shipped tons of drugs to Buffalo, feds claim

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