Shop owner won't risk prison in drug sales case, agrees to 2 years' probation

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comOctober 26, 2012 

A 24-year-old barbershop owner accused of allowing gang members to use his business for their criminal activities won't be heading to prison after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Pedro Cintora, owner of Pete's Barbershop at 1 W. Pacheco Blvd. in Los Banos, pleaded no contest Wednesday to misdemeanor accessory after the fact.

He received a sentence of two years' informal probation, with credit for a few weeks he served in jail, according to John Garcia, his attorney. Cintora would have faced a minimum of 10 years and four months in prison had his case gone to trial.

Cintora initially was charged with felony conspiracy to distribute drugs, participation in a criminal street gang and operating an establishment in which drugs were distributed with enhancements, Garcia said.

The co-defendant in the case, Anthony Heredia, 30, pleaded no contest to conspiracy to distribute drugs, and participation in a criminal street gang with enhancements. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Heredia was a barber who had leased a chair in Cintora's shop, Garcia said.

Cintora and Heredia were among about 30 people arrested in Los Banos on June 8, 2011, as part of Operation Red Zone, a multi-agency operation spearheaded by the Department of Justice that targeted members of Nuestra Familia.

The operation led to 101 arrests in Merced and Ma- dera counties.

Evidence problems

Deputy District Attorney Thomas Min said in an e-mail that the prosecution agreed to settle in Cintora's case because of admissibility issues with the evidence, which would have made it difficult to obtain a conviction.

"We consulted with our investigating officer and concluded it was important to have Cintora on probation with search and seizure night or day with or without a warrant by any law enforcement officer, and therefore accepted Cintora's plea in the matter," Min said.

Garcia said his client isn't a gang member and maintains his innocence. Still, Garcia said his client decided to accept a plea agreement because of the prison time he faced if convicted.

He called his client a hard-working businessman, and that he had no idea drug sales were happening at his property.

"He was prepared to go all the way. I felt we had a good, solid defense. But he probably made a wise decision, because no one can predict what those 12 people are going to decide," Garcia said. "I don't fault him for what he did."

Carlos Fuentes, Heredia's attorney, said his client decided to plead no contest because he would have faced nearly 10 years in prison, if found guilty by a jury. "In light of everything, it was a fair resolution," Fuentes said.

Garcia likened Operation Red Zone to the McCarthy era, when Americans were arrested for having communist sympathies, often on the basis of false accusations, and blacklisted.

Garcia said Operation Red Zone probably did result in the arrest of some validated gang members who deserved prison time. "Unfortunately, when you throw such a broad net out there, innocent people are going to be hurt by it too," he said.

Watched for 3 months

According to court records, narcotics agents from the Department of Justice's Fresno office and local law enforcement had Cintora under surveillance from February to April of last year. In that time, agents recorded a reported member of Nuestra Familia making arrangements to drop off money at Pete's Barbershop, court documents state. Law enforcement reported observing at least 10 narcotics transactions at the business.

By April, according to court records, authorities concluded Cintora was allowing the gang member to sell methamphetamine from the barbershop. Heredia was receiving shipments of the drug.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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