The Mysterious Mexican Gorilla Caper

A notorious animal smuggler. Some eager buyers. A bizarre sting operation. A dark and stormy night. No wonder the jurors could hardly believe what they were hearing.

Adding to the dilemma, say Kunstler and other defense lawyers, is the rampant transformation into government informants of people convicted and serving draconian sentences. In their attempts to reduce those sentences, convicts often are willing to lie, inform on friends, or otherwise do whatever a prosecutor wants, lawyers say.

In the gorilla sting case, prosecutors and defense lawyers discussed plea bargains for all five defendants. Jose Luis Alcerreca, Maria Eugenia Villada, and Margarita Barrera were allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for that loaded vow of "full cooperation," but Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis says Bernal and Berges balked at cooperating. Without that, or without a plea to a more serious felony charge, Lewis was unwilling to consider a deal. Despite assurances that Alcerreca would testify for the government, Lewis never called him to the witness stand. Alcerreca returned to Mexico before the trial ended.

Matthew Block's possible appearance at the trial remained a question until the last day of testimony. Neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to call him; both sides had excoriated the case's foundation figure as a liar and criminal. Block's testimony normally would have been a valuable prosecution tool, but a year earlier at his sentencing in the Bangkok Six case, Lewis had accused Block of withholding information from him and altering evidence in the case. Because of this, an angry Lewis backed away from his plea-agreement promise to submit a recommendation to the judge -- called a 5K1 letter -- to depart from the rigid federal guidelines and impose a lighter sentence on Block because of his cooperation with the government. Without the letter, judges are bound by the guidelines. U.S. District Judge James Kehoe sentenced Block to thirteen months in prison and imposed a $30,000 fine -- still at the low end of the guidelines. Block has appealed that sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District in Atlanta.

About a week into the trial, Judge Moreno threatened to take the unusual but not unprecedented step of calling Block to the stand himself. He felt questioning of Block could provide important information that hadn't been raised or that hadn't been admissible. But Bierman saved Moreno the trouble. Block took the stand as the final witness late on Friday, May 13.

Bierman professed to have only one objective in calling Block: to prove his contention that Pic centsn's motivation in the sting was revenge for the 1985 murder in Mexico of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Block testified that Pic centsn, during a conversation with him, had vowed to christen the gorilla sting "Operation Kiki." Earlier Pic centsn had testified he never said anything of the kind. No one seemed to care, anyway.

About a half-hour into Block's testimony, and due to the late hour, Moreno dismissed the jury for the weekend. But then Block, an Orthodox Jew, told the judge he wouldn't be able to take the stand on Monday or Tuesday because of a Jewish holiday. Since the trial already had lasted two weeks and neither side planned to call more witnesses, no one wanted such a delay. So prosecution and defense agreed to waive their rights to continue questioning Block. The bearded and bespectacled 32-year-old entrepreneur, the secretive target of great rage and curiosity, stepped purposefully from the stand. Looking straight ahead, no doubt feeling the inquiring gazes fixed on him from all corners, Block made his way out of the courtroom. In doing so, he took with him most of the information he might have provided about the gorilla caper, and whatever glimpses he might have afforded into a shadowy world where wildlife is bought and sold, and not infrequently killed.

On Tuesday, May 17, the nine-woman, three-man jury rendered its guilty verdicts. Foreman Joel Margolies had no qualms: "I think we weighed the evidence and came up with the verdict as we saw it." Not so with some other jurors. Several said afterward they were deeply distressed by their decision because they didn't consider the defendants guilty of serious crimes, but that they believed they had no choice but to follow the letter of the law according to the instructions they were given.

Not surprisingly, the issue of entrapment provoked the most anxiety. Even though some jurors believed the government had inappropriately lured the defendants into committing a manufactured crime, Judge Moreno's instructions prohibited them from finding entrapment if the government proved the defendants had some previous intent to commit the crime and had taken some constructive action to corroborate that intent.

In a telephone interview after the verdict, however, juror Mirta S. Martinez said she didn't believe that Victor Bernal was guilty of conspiracy, the first of the three felony charges against him and Berges. Martinez has written to Moreno asking for leniency for Bernal, but she did not state any misgivings about the conspiracy charge or the the jury decision in general.

The alternate juror, Kathryn Cabrisas, has written her own letter to Moreno. "The things I saw really shook my faith in the way our government operates," she wrote. "It was obvious entrapment based on their character and the lack of evidence. Although I know I have no say in the sentence, I wanted to relieve my conscience."

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