TUCSON (CN) – A former U.S. Border Patrol agent who previously pleaded guilty to drug charges was sentenced on Friday to more than 12 years in prison for smuggling what he believed to be 110 pounds of cocaine.
Juan Pimentel has been behind bars since November 2015, when state troopers pulled over his rental Ford Explorer on Interstate 10 and found 50 bundles of what turned out to be a white powder stuffed in four suitcases, court records show.
Testifying at his sentencing hearing, Pimentel said the suitcases were already inside the SUV when an acquaintance – later identified as an undercover agent — provided it to him. Pimentel was to be paid $50,000 for delivering the bundles to Chicago.
Mark Williams, Pimentel’s lawyer, said his client succumbed to repeated pressure from the undercover agent but had admitted to making a grave mistake and deserved leniency for cooperating with authorities.
“He’s very embarrassed, ashamed, remorseful,” Williams told U.S. District Judge Raner Collins.
From the witness stand, Pimentel looked toward his family and a group of Border Patrol agents sitting in the courtroom, and said he was “sorry to put them through a hard time.”
Whereas his lawyer portrayed Pimentel as simply a follower who previously had nothing to do with cocaine, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Davenport called him a “dirty Border Patrol agent” and brought up a couple of incidents of marijuana smuggling involving the former agent in the mid-2000s. In response to Davenport’s questioning, Pimentel admitted that he “helped out” some men who were involved in the marijuana trade.
“This is someone who’s had zero respect for the badge,” Davenport told the judge.
Collins sided with Davenport after the lawyers carried on a lengthy discussion about whether a firearm found inside the SUV was relevant to the planned drug transaction. Pimentel said he always carried a gun out of habit.
Judge Collins weighed in with his belief that Pimentel had the gun for his protection in Chicago. Reciting the former agent’s involvement with other illegal activity, he declared him “predisposed” to get involved with cocaine.
“You had plenty of time to say no, cocaine is not my thing, but instead chose to drive 1,700 miles from Tucson to Chicago with the cocaine,” the judge told Pimentel.
The former agent was sentenced to 150 months in prison for a charge he pleaded guilty to in July — attempted possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He received an additional 10 months for receiving a bribe as a public official. The second charge stems from a February 2015 incident in which he was paid cash in exchange for providing license plate information from a law enforcement database, court records show.
Pimentel’s case gained notoriety when former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced his arrest in Phoenix during a news conference where he addressed corruption within the ranks. He promised Pimentel’s badge would be destroyed after a conviction or guilty plea. On Friday, the agents were in court to observe what happens when one of their own becomes corrupt, Davenport said.
Outside the courtroom, Natalie Pimentel said her husband’s situation has been hard on the family.
“The devil tempted him and he went for it,” she said of her husband, adding that she didn’t know about any illicit activities until after his arrest.
“He’s cried, he knows his mistakes,” she said. “It’s sad; it’s sad for my kids.”
The judge said he would recommend that Pimentel serve his time in New York state, where his family now lives.