EXCLUSIVE REPORT: One of the largest drug-trafficking prosecutions in Bergen County history was put to rest late last week with the sentencings of three men who all took plea deals and testified against an associate who was sent to prison for at least 16 years.
In approving the considerably shorter negotiated sentences for the trio, Superior Court Judge Edward A. Jerejian called the case “the epitome of narcotics distribution” and “one of the biggest quantities I can remember.”
For their East Coast base of operations, the crew relied on a Hackensack apartment that provided easy cover and quick access to major highways.
They were caught on July 24, 2012, when New Jersey State Police investigators rushed into a shipping terminal in Metuchen and seized 43 kilos of cocaine that had been trucked cross-country from California, along with $1,053,575 in cash that was to pay for it.
The State Police Drug Trafficking North Unit team found the cash in 33 bundles of cellophane wrap in a false fuel tank of a 2001 Freightliner tractor that they watched pull into the terminal.
The nearly 95 pounds of cocaine was split and hidden in electronically activated compartments in the back of two Saturn Vues.
Authorities discovered the network because of what they called “unusual” activity at the Gardner Place apartment in Hackensack.
A single block, Gardner Place is just off Liberty Avenue between Hudson Street and the Shop-Rite shopping plaza on River Road — two minutes from either Route 80 or Route 46. Eventually turning into Moonachie Road, it feeds into Routes 21 and 3, which lead directly to the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 17.
The Metuchen warehouse has a similar advantage, positioned minutes from a major New Jersey crossroads that includes the Turnpike, the Parkway, Routes 1 and 9, 25, 287 and 440.
State Police investigators infiltrated the cross-country delivery being made by Carlos Marroquin and one of the three other convicts, Juan C. Roque, keeping them under surveillance along the route from Hackensack to Middlesex County.
They recovered $30,000 in cash from the apartment after the Metuchen busts.
Jurors needed less than three hours in July to find Marroquin guilty of all five counts against him. Marroquin, a Salvadoran citizen from Los Angeles, was sentenced to 32 years behind bars, half of which he must serve before he’s eligible for parole.
The “Costco-style bulk of drugs,” as one prosecutor called it, was prominently featured during the trial — wrapped in eight packages of five bricks each, stacked and covered in brown paper. One stack of bricks was unwrapped so that jurors could see the five individual packages within.
Roque and two co-conspirators, Cesar E. Perez of the Bronx and Divanos A. Mendoza, all pleaded guilty and testified against Marroquin during his trial.
In turn, all three received 10-year prison terms with varying parole eligibility:
For Perez, a native of the Dominican Republic who kept a Metuchen address, it’s at least 36 months;
For Mendoza, another Dominican native who lived on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, it’s 30 months;
For Roque, a Salvadoran citizen who lived with Marroquin in L.A., it’s two years.
Roque, a 32-year-old father of three — one of whom was born while he was behind bars — got the best deal because he provided what defense attorney Adam Lustberg said was the most valuable testimony.
“Unfortunately, I’m going to be deported and I’ll be away from my family, because they are American citizen,” Roque remorsefully told the sentencing judge on Friday.
“I want to say I’m sorry to the judge and to this country for having disobeyed the laws — and principally, to my family,” Roque said. “Thank you, that’s all.”
Jerejian, the judge, declined a request from Perez’s lawyer, James Patuto, for seven years instead of ten.
State Deputy Attorney General Lauren Yfantis countered that the state gave Perez a benefit for cooperating in negotiations.
“His co-defendant is doing 32 years, and this is a first-degree amount of drugs, 43 kilos,” the judge said in supporting the state. “Ten years is the minimum for first degree.”
Defense attorney James Patuto argued that Perez deserved more consideration for cooperation, but Perez, who pleaded guilty to second degree conspiracy, was sentenced to ten years, and no parole for three years.
Mendoza, meanwhile, said he wanted to “tell my wife I’m sorry.”
“I feel very, very embarrassed by this, and to my children who are very close to me,” said Mendoza, a 37-year-old father of three who’s been working as a cab driver since being freed on bail. “This really hurts me to have to leave them because they are very small. I’m ashamed.
“I know what happened was bad. Since I got out [on bail] I’ve been working for almost two years, up until yesterday. I’m sorry for everything.”
STORY / PHOTO: CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter Mary K. Miraglia
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