LITTLE ROCK -- A man arrested 2½ years ago by the Arkansas State Police after a traffic stop on Interstate 40 near Lonoke pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to one count of aiding and abetting possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
Marcelino Gonzalez and a companion, Jamileth Caceres, were arrested after a search of their vehicle turned up 18 bundles of methamphetamine, weighing approximately 1 pound each, stashed in the rear fender wells.
Caceres, whose case was transferred to the Southern District of Ohio, was sentenced Feb. 26 to 108 months in prison.
Gonzalez, speaking through an interpreter, admitted to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson his involvement in bringing the methamphetamine from California to Arkansas, intending to take it to Georgia.
Escorted into the courtroom by federal marshals, Gonzalez, shackled and wearing jail-issue clothing, conferred with his attorney, Tamera Deaver, while the court interpreter sat next to him, quietly translating English to Spanish through a wireless microphone into a wireless headset Gonzalez was wearing. As Deaver explained the court papers to him, he signed his name on several documents.
Upon sentencing, Gonzalez could face a penalty of 10 years to life in prison, a $10 million fine and no less than five years of supervised release. After his release from prison, Gonzalez is subject to immediate deportation.
Under questioning by Wilson, who explained the court procedures and Gonzalez's rights under the law, Gonzalez responded softly to Wilson's questions, the translator's voice murmuring below the judge's.
"Do you feel like he has a full understanding of this plea agreement?" Wilson asked Deaver.
"Yes, your honor," Deaver replied, "and I'd like to put on the record that I reviewed every line with him with an interpreter."
According to a probable cause affidavit, at approximately 8:44 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2018, Gonzalez and Caceres were stopped by a state trooper, Josh Elmore, who said Gonzalez was following a tractor-trailer too closely and at one point drove over the white fog line to the right of the traffic lane.
Caceres, the affidavit said, could speak English and first told police that the two were traveling back to Georgia after a three-day vacation in Arizona.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benecia Moore said the trooper's suspicions were raised by Caceres' "vague and inconsistent statements" under questioning, so he asked for and received permission to search the vehicle.
"While searching the trunk," Moore said, "Trooper Elmore discovered multiple plastic bundles containing suspected methamphetamine in both fender wells."
Moore said the 18 bundles that were taken from the fender wells were analyzed and found to contain a total of 17.4 pounds of methamphetamine.
"Post Miranda, Caceres stated that she and Gonzalez drove to Long Beach, Calif.," Moore continued, "where she said two Hispanic males took her car and loaded it with drugs."
Moore said Caceres told investigators that she and Gonzalez then retrieved the car and began the drive to Georgia with the drugs packed in the fender wells.
"Did you understand what the prosecutor said when she outlined what they could prove against you?" Wilson asked Gonzalez.
"Through my interpreter, yes, I understood," Gonzalez answered.
"Was it accurate?" Wilson asked.
"Yes," Gonzalez responded.
"All right," Wilson said. "How do you plead?"
"Guilty," Gonzalez replied.
After accepting Gonzalez's plea, Wilson set his date to return for sentencing for July 1.