|Customs agent charged with stealing $95,290|
News Staff Reporter
A former U.S. Customs Service supervisor who was responsible for making sure criminal investigations were conducted with honesty and integrity was charged Tuesday with stealing $95,290 from an evidence vault.
Robert E. DelVicario Jr., who supervised sensitive inquiries into terrorism and other crimes, and once had a fellow agent arrested for assault, is charged with 16 criminal counts.
DelVicario, 42, was Customs' assistant special agent in charge of criminal investigations in Buffalo until he recently resigned after learning he was about to be indicted.
He is accused of sneaking into a customs office on a Sunday, entering the evidence vault to steal cash that had been seized in a criminal case, and hiding the stolen money in the attic of his Williamsville home.
"Somehow I guess he thought he was going to get away with it," said one law enforcement official. "But there were electronic security systems in place that he apparently didn't know about."
DelVicario is expected to be arraigned later this week.
The former agent told The Buffalo News late Tuesday that he would like to tell his side of the story, but is not yet ready.
"I cannot comment at this time, on the advice of my attorney," DelVicario said.
His attorney, Charles J. Marchese, said DelVicario has been aware he was under scrutiny in the theft for some time. He declined to say how DelVicario plans to plead in the case.
In addition to stealing the money, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory L. Brown said DelVicario is charged with repeatedly lying about the theft when he was initially confronted.
"The funds were recovered at the defendant's home," Brown said. "The indictment also charges (DelVicario) with making 14 false statements to Customs Internal Affairs agents who were investigating the disappearance of the funds."
At one point, after realizing authorities considered him the prime suspect, DelVicario reportedly told investigators he took the cash only to "teach Customs a lesson" about how lax their security procedures were.
Friends described DelVicario as a hard-working agent. Critics called him an untrustworthy man with expensive tastes, who raised eyebrows by wearing a Rolex watch and driving a Mercedes-Benz.
When he was first confronted about the missing cash after it disappeared May 5, DelVicario vigorously denied any wrongdoing.
"At first, he denied everything," said one police official who worked with DelVicario. "He knew other agents in his office were being questioned about it, and he was willing to let them take the fall for it."
The money allegedly stolen by DelVicario was part of a cache of $207,270 that had been seized May 1 at the Peace Bridge. Customs inspectors seized the money after a truck driver tried to speed past a customs checkpoint without declaring the cash.
Investigators doubt DelVicario's claim that he took the money in an effort to spotlight weaknesses in customs procedures.
"He disposed of the evidence bag that the money was in and the paperwork that was with it," one law enforcement official said. "If he was trying to teach Customs a lesson, he would have kept it in the evidence bag and turned it back in."
In the indictment, DelVicario is accused of lying to Internal Affairs agents that he did not know the code for the alarm system in the evidence room; officials said he did know the code. He is also accused of falsely claiming he did not possess a key to the locks on the evidence room door.
DelVicario also lied, according to the indictment, by denying that he visited the customs office on May 5, the date of the theft. He is charged with 15 felonies and one misdemeanor count.
DelVicario was embroiled in another controversy earlier this year.
James LeGasse, a highly decorated criminal agent, was suspended and arrested by Amherst police after he allegedly assaulted DelVicario during an on-duty scuffle in the Amherst office Jan. 2. LeGasse denies the allegations and claims DelVicario was the aggressor.
There are no allegations of wrongdoing by DelVicario in any other cases, said Marc S. Gromis, chief prosecutor in Western New York.
Unit10: FBI Busts Suspected Drug SmugglersTwo men suspected of carrying on a San Diego-based drug-running operation for the Arellano-Felix organization have been caught in an FBI trap, a Unit 10 Investigation showed.
Ronnie Walters and his partner Sergio Sandoval were snared as part of a major undercover operation, detailed in undercover video given to Unit 10.
Walters ran a helicopter company in El Cajon. His bright yellow Huey helicopter, with a smiley face front, was used to smuggle cocaine and marijuana across the border, prosecutors said.
"(That smiley face) it's telling the DEA in Mexico: 'F*** you.' That's what it means," one of Sandoval's alleged lieutenants said, laughing, on undercover video.
Sandoval is a former commander in the Mexican state police, and a man with connections to the very top of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel, FBI agents said.
By day, the Bonita resident distributed Mission tortillas, his night job was smuggling drugs, Unit 10 reported.
The sting operation to catch Walters and Sandoval started years ago at an electronics store in Chula Vista. Privacy Plus Electronics was an FBI front, according to Unit 10.
The pay-off came at the Lowes Coronado Bay Resort, where Sandoval met with FBI agents posing as Columbian cocaine smugglers.
"The Arellanos, they are very refined people. Very, very refined. If you'd like, I'll introduce you," Sandoval bragged on an FBI undercover tape. "When I was a commander, I handed over my police career to them."
FBI officials spoke with Sandoval (pictured, right) for four hours at that meeting. The agents told Unit10 that they were a bit surprised at how forthcoming Sandoval was. For the undercover team, Sandoval was a direct link to the Arellanos -- as close as they had ever come to reaching the top of the organization.
"He discussed in extreme how the Arellanos work," an agent said.
Meanwhile, government agents tailed Walters and found out he was driving a Corvette, owned a big yacht, and was making large bank deposits, despite the fact that his helicopters were down for repairs.
After listening to tapes of meetings in which Sandoval and his cohorts reportedly describe their dope runs, agents decided to set up a sting.
On the appointed day, Walters was in his helicopter, waiting, right next to the San Diego County Sheriff's helipad, in El Cajon. Sandoval was supposed to arrive with the drugs.
The two had planned to lift off with the drugs before 6 a.m., agents said, but at 6:03 a.m. Sandoval still hadn't arrived.
"I'm in it, ready to go and our neighbors are here," Walters (pictured, left) told Sandoval, referring to the arrival of deputies coming to work next door, in a phone conversation taped by FBI agents. "S***. They wouldn't have been here at 6, but it's after 6 ... hurry up."
Ten minutes later, Sandoval still hadn't arrived, so Walters made another call.
WALTERS: "I'm running, and I have a fuel leak!"
SANDOVAL: "I know, I know. I can hear you."
WALTERS "Let's go."
SANDOVAL: "I'm waiting for them, God**** it,"
He was referring to what he would learn, too late, were actually undercover agents.
WALTERS: "Let's go."
SANDOVAL: "I'm waiting for them."
WALTERS: "Then I've got to shut down. I can't continue to run."
Finally, the truck pulled up. In undercover video, the undercover agents loaded a 110-pound box full of powder wrapped up to look like bricks of cocaine onto the Huey.
As soon as it was loaded, Walters pulled up and headed north, staying low as he flew.
"They flew very low just above the tops of the mountains," said federal prosecutor Deborah Rhodes.
Walters and Sandoval carried the box full of white power to a ranch north of the Border Patrol checkpoint on I-15, FBI officials said.
Later that morning, after returning to his hangar, undercover video shows Walters repeatedly turning to look at the helicopter that's been following him. He decided to give Sandoval a call.
WALTERS: "It's Customs.
SANDOVAL: "U.S. Customs?"
WALTERS: "Uh huh."
SANDOVAL: "Is that right? Wow."
FBI agents told Unit 10 that Sandoval then quickly called to make sure that nothing bad had happened to the "cocaine" the two had delivered earlier in the morning. Minutes later, he called Walters back to offer reassurance.
SANDOVAL: "He already got to the freeway and everything.
But what the two men didn't know was that the person that took the delivery of the drugs was working with the FBI. For Walters, Sandoval, and a dozen others caught in the sting, it was the end of their operation.
Bush Signs Fed Whistleblower Bill|
Wed May 15, 6:58 PM ET
By SONYA ROSS, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush (news - web sites) signed legislation Wednesday that requires federal agencies to pay for discrimination or "whistleblower" cases from their own budgets.
The bill is called No FEAR, an acronym for Notification and Federal Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act.
The legislation "could not have been passed without the pain and the sheer agony of so many employees who came forward to mention that their lives were made almost in the form of a nightmare because they chose to stand up," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (news, bio, voting record), D-Texas.
Bush signed the bill in an Oval Office ceremony attended by a few civil rights activists and members of Congress. Some of them heralded it as the first major civil rights law of the new millennium.
"By holding accountable those who insist upon discriminating against others, the federal government will become a role model for civil rights - and not civil rights violations," said House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a sponsor of the bill.
Under the law, federal agencies must pay for settlements or judgments against them in whistleblower and discrimination cases.
Currently, such payments are made from a general, government-wide fund.
"It means now the federal government will have to obey its own laws, ... not hide behind a slush fund in the Treasury to pay for their indiscretions," said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a federal employee who won a $600,000 judgment against the Environmental Protection Agency (news - web sites) for racial and gender bias. Her case was the impetus for the law.
The legislation also requires that employees be notified of their rights under anti-discrimination laws, and forces agencies to report annually to Congress on how many discrimination cases were brought against them, what happened in those cases and whether any employees were disciplined.
Last year, some EPA scientists said they were targeted for reprisals after they questioned agency policies. An investigation found that the number of discrimination complaints against federal agencies filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission more than doubled during the 1990s.
NAACP board member Leroy Warren said, "This legislation should stop some of the managers whose actions are like some international outlaw, where they can do what they want to, when they want to and how bad they want to, without anyone taking control of it."
|Hit-or-miss security leaves border exposed|
News Staff Reporter
U.S. Customs Service agents, despite fears about terrorism in America since the Sept. 11 attacks, let nearly 99 percent of all traffic across Buffalo Niagara bridges enter the country without an inspection.
But agents from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who alternate border inspections with the Customs Service, look through the trunks of one in every three vehicles.
It's a random approach - the green uniforms of the INS or the blue outfits of the Customs Service - depending on which line motorists get in at the bridges.
Is the Customs Service up to the job?
Local and national critics say no.
"The northern border is still as porous as Swiss cheese," said William Dietzel, a retired supervisor of customs inspections in Buffalo. "If people knew the actual number of cars, trucks and train cars that are opened up and searched thoroughly for weapons and terrorists, it would scare them."
Similar criticism comes from Ezan Bagdasarian, a former customs supervisor in Buffalo who received awards and commendations before he retired in late 2000 and filed an age discrimination lawsuit. Several officials who still work for the Customs Service also share this opinion.
Critics say the local customs work force suffers from morale problems and understaffing. They say federal officials have ignored security concerns about the nation's northern border for decades.
"Even after 9/11, the pressure on us to keep traffic moving is much stronger than the pressure to look for terrorists," added one veteran customs official. "At first, we were checking the trunk of every car. Then we backed off. We still aren't doing inspections the way they should be done."
Every day, an average of 23,400 cars, trucks, buses and trains roll into the United States over bridges in Buffalo and Niagara County - more than 8.5 million last year, each a potential carrier of bombs, weapons or terrorists.
U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, since Sept. 11, has called the northern border a "soft spot" for terrorism.
The INS shares inspection duties with the Customs Service at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, the Rainbow and Whirlpool bridges in Niagara Falls and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Lewiston.
It is often an uneasy partnership, according to many people who work in the two agencies. Customs and INS inspectors work in alternate booths, but often use vastly different criteria in deciding which automobiles should be closely inspected as they enter the United States.
In recent months, INS inspectors have done much closer inspections of cars entering at the local bridges. This was verified by sources in both agencies.
INS inspectors are currently under strict orders to ask for identification from every car passenger at least 14 years old and to search the trunk of at least every third car.
By comparison, customs inspectors seldom look into car trunks, rarely ask for ID and usually conduct a quick, cursory interview of passengers before waving cars through.
"It does cause hard feelings," said one INS official. "We're supposed to be on the same team, doing the same job. I'm sometimes wondering, while our people are closely inspecting the cars, is the customs guy at the next booth waving through a terrorist?"
Terrorists and smugglers
Officials of the Customs Service deny the criticism. They say they have arrested or detained "well over 100 people" in the Buffalo Niagara region with possible ties to terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Closer examinations of vehicles crossing the international bridges in Buffalo and Niagara County have also resulted in high numbers of drug, cash and weapons seizures over the past seven months, according to Joseph J. Wilson, Buffalo port director for the Customs Service.
"Since Sept. 11, our top priority has been the prevention of terrorism," Wilson said in an interview last week. "We have very good training programs and very good employees who take this responsibility very seriously. . . . The threat of al-Qaida is not over, believe me."
None of the 100-plus people who were arrested or detained has been shown to have any connection to the Sept. 11 attacks or the terrorist network al-Qaida. But Wilson cited the figure as evidence that his agency is pulling out all stops in its local search for terrorists.
But such a wide disparity in inspection practices can open security loopholes for terrorists, drug smugglers and other criminals, said John Carman, a former customs inspector from San Diego. Carman runs a Web site dedicated to exposing what he considers widespread corruption in the Customs Service. ( www.customscorruption.com )
"There are smugglers who know what uniforms the customs and INS guys wear, and they'll head for the inspection booths where they know they will get less scrutiny," Carman said. "It's a dangerous situation."
Wilson and other customs supervisors in Buffalo dismiss this kind of criticism as sour grapes from disgruntled ex-employees. They do not deny that their inspectors use different criteria than the INS, but they deny that the INS does a better job.
"You can talk about percentages, you can talk about what criteria are used by different agencies, but there's no one "cookie cutter' approach that works on bridge inspections," Wilson said. "Our inspectors are trained to look for certain nuances, certain anomalies. Every single vehicle that comes through is an individual case."
As an example, Wilson cited the December 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who had numerous bomb-making materials in his car when arrested by customs agents in Port Angeles, Wash. Ressam was convicted of terrorism charges last year. "That was a case where customs inspectors popped his trunk and searched it because they noticed his body language and the way he reacted when they asked him questions. These people know what to look for," Wilson said.
Locally, and on a much smaller scale, he said customs inspectors recently found a load of high-potency hydroponic marijuana on a flatbed truck entering the United States over the Peace Bridge.
"It was simply a case of an inspector noticing that some wood didn't look like it was stacked properly," Wilson said. "The marijuana was under there."
Chief Inspectors Steven Loffredo and Mark MacVittie said seizures of unreported cash - more than $1.6 million - have been much higher than usual in this region since Sept. 11. Drug and weapons seizures also have increased.
Customs has greatly increased its use of a device called the Vehicle & Cargo Inspection System to electronically scan truck cargoes. The device uses gamma rays and works somewhat like a CAT scan machine is used in medical examinations.
Wilson said he has been impressed with the cooperation shown by motorists at bridge crossings that have sometimes been unusually long.
"In the past, people would call my office to complain, "Hey, your guys searched my trunk,' " Wilson said. "Now the complaint I hear is, "Hey, I just came over the Peace Bridge and nobody searched my trunk.' "
INS District Director M. Frances Holmes said her inspectors and customs have a good relationship, but she confirmed that they do their bridge inspections differently.
"Obviously we're different agencies. I can't comment on what their agency does," Holmes said. "I think we're both doing a good job. There's more scrutiny than ever at this border since Sept. 11."
Morale problems denied
Customs has more than 285 inspectors, criminal investigators and other personnel working in the Buffalo Niagara region. The agency's employees in this region make more than $25.4 million a year in salaries, overtime and benefits.
Customs' critics say many of the people who do inspections, investigations and other work in Western New York are upset over nepotism, age discrimination and a mean-spirited management style that has caused some of customs' better people to retire or leave the area.
In recent years, disputes have erupted between some supervisors and agents in the Customs Service's criminal division. One Buffalo agent, James LeGasse, faces criminal charges that he assaulted his boss while both were on duty in January. LeGasse denies the assault charge and claims he was goaded into a confrontation by a superior, an attorney for LeGasse says.
Another agent, Robert Lamoureux, has filed a discrimination complaint, claiming his career was ruined when a supervisor who disliked him falsely reported him to Amherst police as a suspect in a series of brutal bike path rapes. Police sources confirmed that Lamoureux was checked out in those cases and could not possibly be the rapist.
Another agent, Jeremiah Sullivan, who supervised customs investigations into terrorism and other crimes for six years, recently was removed from his job, demoted and moved from Buffalo to St. Louis. No public explanation was given. Sullivan declined to comment, but sources said he has hired an attorney and filed a complaint against the Customs Service.
"It's a very difficult work environment, and people don't do their best work when they're disillusioned," said Bagdasarian, the retired customs agent. "If you don't kiss the boss' ring, they'll ruin you. They'll suddenly tell a 30-year inspector from Buffalo that he's needed in Newark, N.J. At a time when we need them more than ever, because of the threat of terrorism, many customs people are totally disgusted," said Bagdasarian.
Wilson and James Mitchie, a customs spokesman from Washington, said they could not comment on individual personnel matters. But both denied that nepotism, age discrimination or mistreatment of workers is a problem in Western New York.
"In every organization, you're going to have people who complain," Wilson said. "Most inspectors and employees have taken up the cause of what we're trying to do."
Carman, the former inspector who runs the "Corruption at the Border" Web site, disagreed. He said there have been numerous examples in recent years of inspectors becoming so disgruntled that they begin taking bribes and committing other crimes.
"Americans should feel very uncomfortable, knowing that customs is on the front lines of protecting them against terrorism," Carman said. "This is an agency filled with disgruntled and disillusioned workers. When you don't believe in the agency you work for, that leads to all kinds of problems."
Working too hard?
Worker fatigue is one problem that customs officials acknowledge. Some customs inspectors have complained about working unusually long hours since September, often working several 16-hour shifts in one week.
"It's difficult for an inspector to do his or her best job looking for terrorists when they're half-asleep," one bridge official said. "You're not at your best, your sharpest or your most aggressive when you're doing a 16-hour shift."
Wilson said he agrees, and is thankful that the federal government is sending another 45 customs inspectors to work in this region. Holmes said she expects to hire about 25 additional INS inspectors in the next few months.
The U.S. Border Patrol, a division of INS whose local agents patrol more than 400 miles of the border with Canada, from Watertown to Erie, Pa., expects to roughly double its local contingent, with 40 new agents. The Border Patrol recently got a helicopter for local use.
New York National Guard members also have been assisting at the bridges, which helps to free up customs inspectors to do other work, including visual inspections of cars leaving the United States for Canada, Wilson said.
"The one and only good outcome of 9/11 is that our government is finally taking a close look at the U.S.-Canada border," one customs official said.
Though the government says there is no proof that any of the Sept. 11 terrorists entered the United States through Canada, there is a growing recognition that security needs to be upgraded at the northern border. Federal officials admit that the 4,000-mile border between the United States and Canada has traditionally received much less attention than the southern border with Mexico.
Americans could become the victims of lax enforcement of immigration laws in Canada, said Richard Dickins, a retired assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Authorities believe there are terrorist cells in Toronto and other Canadian cities, Dickins said.
"It's much easier for a terrorist to get into Canada than into the United States, because our basic immigration policy is to welcome people. We want to increase our population," said Dickins. "Then you have to worry about these people going into the U.S."
Former U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell, who spent 17 years as a fe
deral prosecutor in Buffalo, believes there needs to be much better coordination and more sharing of information among the Customs Service, the INS and Canadian border authorities.
"I don't really see the rationale for keeping customs, Border Patrol and INS as separate agencies. Over the years, I saw duplication of efforts and sometimes a lack of coordination," O'Donnell said.
"There has always been tension between law enforcement and commerce - keeping the traffic moving. I still don't think our government recognizes the threats we face on the northern border."
12:32 a.m. Jun 03, 1999 Eastern
Salinas Case Update
BY ROBERT GARCIA