Gun-Buying Scheme Was Complex, Jurors Told but Defense Calls Government's Star Witness a Liar


David Voreacos, The Record
December 22, 1999

An Army sergeant and his wife went to elaborate lengths to conceal his illegal purchase of four cheap handguns for a Paterson felon with a "gun obsession," a federal prosecutor told jurors Tuesday in Newark.

In April 1996, George Wilson served as a "straw buyer" in Colorado for David Cruz, and Wilson's wife, Janet, who is Cruz's cousin, later falsely reported the guns stolen, Assistant U.S. Attorney John A. Azzarello said. The couple are standing trial in U.S. District Court on charges of conspiring to buy a gun for a felon.

Azzarello said the Wilsons schemed with another Army sergeant, Juan Baldemiro-Rodriguez, who bought a shotgun for Cruz. Their plan was simple at first, the prosecutor told jurors in his summation.

"Get the guns to David, let him get out of Dodge, report them stolen, and we get a [cover] story," Azzarello said of the alleged conspiracy. "Stick to it. Juan Rodriguez stuck to it for a long time."

But Rodriguez pleaded guilty in April, and testified at length about the plan to help Cruz and the allegedly bogus burglary report in a bid to win leniency at his sentencing.

Jurors deliberated for two hours Tuesday before breaking for the evening. They were to resume this morning.

Defense attorneys had argued that Rodriguez was a liar who had an earlier gun conviction, and that he repeatedly refined his tale to please prosecutors.

What jurors did not learn during the trial is that Cruz is a drug dealer serving a life term for killing Ricardo Santiago, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant, in Garfield seven months after the gun buy.

Prosecutors will not comment on whether the 9mm handgun Cruz used to kill Santiago is tied to the Colorado sales, but U.S. Judge Alfred M. Wolin ruled that mentioning the slaying to jurors was unfair to the Wilsons.

Similarly, jurors did not learn that one of the Colorado guns was reportedly recovered near the body of Tyrone Bailey, a Paterson man slain in Neptune in December 1997.

However, jurors did hear 24 taped phone conversations in which Cruz expressed mounting alarm as federal agents began unraveling the case after authorities recovered the gun in Neptune. Most of the calls, taped at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., were with Janet Wilson, his cousin.

They obliquely discussed whether Rodriguez, a former lover of Janet Wilson's, would give up their scheme, Azzarello said. After the arrest of the Wilsons on July 20, the prosecutor said, Cruz told his mother: "The only person that could sink them is me. I'm not going to do that."

Cruz also told his mother that agents had a weak case, and "they didn't find any weapons," Azzarello said. But Cruz was unaware that agents had found the gun and overwhelming evidence of the scheme, the prosecutor said.

George Wilson's attorney, James Patton, attacked Rodriguez, the government's star witness. Rodriguez lied about his 1 1/2-year affair with Janet Wilson, lied to government agents for months about the scheme, and admitted he used crack cocaine and marijuana, Patton said.

"This is a man who is comfortable with lying," Patton said.

Patton also suggested that Cruz or Rodriguez was responsible for the theft of the guns out of Janet Wilson's car trunk in the couple's Colorado Springs garage one month after their purchase. Prosecutors allege that she falsely reported the firearms stolen to help Cruz without raising suspicion.

Federal laws forbid the purchase of handguns by a convicted felon, and require buyers to fill out lengthy forms. George Wilson properly filled out that paperwork, which meant he had nothing to hide, Patton argued.

The attorney for Janet Wilson, Patrick Mullin, also told jurors that Rodriguez repeatedly honed his story for investigators before pleading guilty.

"He is the linchpin of the case," Mullin said. "Without him, they don't have a case. You can't rely on someone who makes up a story and refines it time and time and time again."

After serving at Fort Carson, Colo., George Wilson was transferred by the Army to Germany. He was on leave when he and his wife were arrested in Paterson as their three children watched.

If convicted of both counts in the July 7 indictment, the Wilsons could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. But under federal sentencing guidelines, they would probably face a much lesser term.

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