Sunday, January 20, 2008

Housemate of suspected turnpike killers convicted

By Derek Simmonsen

Saturday, January 19, 2008

He was a low-level man, the guy who transported drugs and helped cook powder cocaine into crack.

Kevin Vetere, 23, also happened to live in the same West Palm Beach home, packed with guns and drugs, as two other men who are accused of killing a family of four on the side of Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie in October 2006.

Though he had nothing to do with the killings of Jose Escobedo, his wife and two young children, either before or after they occurred, Vetere's role in the drug ring was enough to land him a 12-year prison sentence Friday for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.

Vetere was the first of the indicted group to plead guilty and the first to be sentenced. He has made no deal to testify at the trial of the other defendants, but U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley urged him to consider cooperating with the government.

"Growing up, this is all I had," Vetere told the judge. "I'm here to accept what I've done."

His co-defendants Ricardo Sanchez, 24, and Daniel Troya, 24, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a violent crime resulting in death for the Oct. 13, 2006, killings of the Escobedo family. The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office has said Jose Escobedo was the head of a large drug ring and Sanchez and Troya "killed their leader" when they took him out; prosecutors acknowledged Friday that the killings were drug-related.

Three others have been charged federally in the case, mostly with drug crimes, but don't face charges in the killings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Carlton described Vetere as "mostly a gofer and courier" for Daniel Varela, who was called a "person of interest" in the killings and was indicted alongside Sanchez and Troya, but has not been charged with the deaths.

In September 2006, a month before the Escobedo slayings, Vetere moved into the West Palm Beach home where Sanchez, Troya and the others lived. Prosecutors said there were drugs throughout the house, and "it was common knowledge to members of the Varela organization that firearms were present throughout the residence for the immediate access of any member of the organization," court records show.

The prosecution and defense disagreed on how much of the drug ring's actions Vetere should be held accountable for, as well as whether his potential sentence should be lowered in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows judges to take into account the difference between crack and powder cocaine penalties.

In sentencing Vetere, Hurley noted he had a long criminal record stretching back into his teen years and was involved in a very dangerous drug ring.

"It's a high volume operation. It's an armed operation," Hurley said. "These are incredibly dangerous crimes."

Vetere will be on supervised release for five years after he is released from prison. Had he been convicted at trial, he could have faced life in prison. Prosecutors objected to the sentence, as they were seeking a minimum of 14 years against him.

• Ricardo Sanchez, 24, and Daniel Troya, 24, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a violent crime resulting in death for the Oct. 13, 2006, killings of Greenacres residents Jose and Yessica Escobedo and their sons Luis Damien, 4, and Luis Julian, 3.

• The Attorney General must make the final decision whether to seek the death penalty against the men. The U.S. Attorney's Office has said the decision is likely to come by Feb. 15.

• Hurley signed an order Wednesday requiring the government to make a decision by Feb. 20. If it doesn't, the government waives the right to seek death. Attorneys are set to meet again on the case Feb. 20.

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