An operative in the Santiesteban family’s alleged marijuana growhouse ring pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to kidnap a rival gang member, admitting he witnessed the man’s murder after the target stole 50 pounds of pot from the Miami-Dade clan.
Juan Felipe Castaneda’s plea agreement signaled a major development in the federal government’s crackdown on one of South Florida’s largest suspected growhouse operations. The ring is accused of running a distribution network stretching to New York.
Castaneda admitted he collaborated with alleged ringleader Derrick Santiesteban, accused shooter Norge Manduley and other members of the syndicate in June 2009, when they kidnapped Fidel Ruz Moreno after carjacking his Chevy van.
While en route to one of the Santiesteban’s grow houses in southwest Miami-Dade, Castaneda said in a court statement that he witnessed Manduley struggle with Ruz in the back of the van and then shoot him with a revolver.
After Ruz’s body was tossed out into the street, Castaneda said he saw Manduley “approach [the] prone body and repeatedly strike [Ruz] about the head with the butt of revolver that Manduley was wielding,” according to a statement filed with the plea agreement in Miami federal court.
Castaneda, a growhouse caretaker who fled the area last June when FBI agents arrested most of the 16 Santiesteban-syndicate members, is the first defendant to plead guilty to the main charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 1,000 marijuana plants. He also pleaded guilty to the kidnapping conspiracy.
In April, he faces a minimum-mandatory sentence of 10 years for the drug charge and up to life in prison for the kidnapping. His cooperation with prosecutors William Athas and Pat Sullivan could help them put pressure on other defendants to cut plea deals, according to the plea agreement.
The Ruz kidnapping and slaying — along with the possibility of a second, unrelated homicide, as well as suspicions that a Miami-Dade police officer was working with the Santiesteban clan — elevated the case beyond a routine pot-trafficking investigation.
At a detention hearing, Athas and Sullivan described Derrick Santiesteban, the lead defendant in the case, as the “mastermind behind the [Ruz] kidnapping.”
Investigators are zeroing in on a Miami-Dade officer who is suspected of playing a role in the family’s alleged drug syndicate. The officer, Roderick Silva, worked patrol in the Hammocks area of West Kendall. He was suspended with pay in June 2009, records show. He is the brother of another of the Santiestebans’ accused growhouse caretakers, David Silva.
Homicide detectives are also trying to determine whether an unsolved April 2006 slaying of a teenager in West Kendall is linked to an alleged Santiesteban growhouse in the area.
After going to visit a girlfriend near Southwest 172nd Terrace and 153rd Place, Angelo Lopera, 17, was attacked and shot multiple times. Investigators believe Lopera may have been killed because he was mistakenly suspected of visiting the neighborhood to steal harvested marijuana plants from the Santiestebans’ house at 17231 SW 153rd Pl., according to sources familiar with the probe.
The Santiesteban indictment was built around a dozen cooperating witnesses, most of whom were involved in the family’s alleged drug organization and have or will be separately charged, court records show.
The case was spearheaded by Miami-Dade police homicide detective Rich Raphael and FBI agent Michael Gualtieiri, working as part of a federal drug task force. Court records show the task force cultivated the witnesses, including two who were present during the Ruz kidnapping and eventually identified Manduley as the shooter.
Last July, Manduley was sentenced to 10 years in state prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges involving a domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend in 2010. Manduley shot a .357 revolver twice into the air while threatening the ex-girlfriend and three other people.