A member of the Santiesteban clan’s pot-peddling ring bear-hugged his defense attorney Monday after he was acquitted of killing a rival gang member who stole a load of marijuana from the Southwest Miami-Dade grow-house organization.
Norge Manduley was found not guilty of kidnapping and killing the robber after a handful of government witnesses testified in federal court that he was the shooter, but a couple of defense witnesses countered that he wasn’t the triggerman who killed Fidel Ruz Moreno four years ago.
If convicted, Manduley, 39, would have faced a mandatory life sentence.
“There was a lot on the line here,” Manduley’s attorney, Alfredo Izaguirre, said after the 12-person jury concluded deliberations following a one-week trial.
“The government had a bunch of co-defendants who were all dirty and the jury didn’t like that,” Izaguirre told The Miami Herald. “The government brought no independent witnesses. I brought two independent witnesses who identified another person as the shooter.”
The jury, which began deliberations late Friday, found Manduley guilty of one count: conspiring to possess with intent to distribute less than 100 marijuana plants. Sentencing is set for July 30 before U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore.
That verdict was a relief for Manduley, who is serving 10 years in state prison after pleading guilty to separate weapons charges involving a domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend in 2010.
Manduley’s acquittal on the kidnapping offense comes after 17 members of the Santiesteban’s hydroponic grow-house syndicate pleaded guilty following their arrests last year, which led to five defendants testifying against the accused shooter. The ring’s break-up ended one of South Florida’s largest grow-house operations, and spotlighted the violent business of powerful hydroponic marijuana cultivation.
The Santiestebans — a family headed by patriarch and Mariel boatlift refugee Gilberto Sr., and joined by sons Derrick, Gilberto Jr., Alexander and Darvis — were charged last June with operating 20 hydroponic marijuana grow houses since 2004.
The operation yielded at least 1,146 potent pot plants that produced millions of dollars in profits, authorities say.
On June 28, 2009, Derrick and his wife Yadira Santiesteban were packing suitcases full of marijuana at their Southwest Miami-Dade home for a smuggling trip to New York.
When the husband left the house to get more bags, several gunmen posing as police officers barged into the residence and stole about 50 pounds of the pot, triggering a retaliatory plot to kidnap one of the robbers, Ruz, who was killed during the abduction.
In February, Derrick Santiesteban, the 30-year-old boss of the family-run ring that made millions selling potent hydroponic pot from Miami to New York, pleaded guilty to the kidnapping. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracies to distribute marijuana and launder money.
His wife, Yadira, 37, also pleaded guilty to money-laundering conspiracy, in a plea agreement crafted to spare her severe punishment.
Derrick Santiesteban might see his punishment reduced by a federal judge if prosecutors William Athas and Pat Sullivan make the recommendation, based on his assistance with their continuing investigation.
The probe is now focusing on Miami-Dade police officer Roderick Silva, who patrolled the Hammocks area of West Kendall and was suspended with pay in June 2009, records show. The officer, suspected of helping the Santiesteban network, is the brother of a grow-house caretaker, David Silva, who pleaded guilty.
The turning point in the prosecution came in February when another member of the Santiesteban crew pleaded guilty to conspiracies to distribute marijuana and to kidnap Ruz. Last week, Juan Felipe Castaneda testified that he witnessed Ruz’s slaying after Ruz stole the suitcases of pot.
Castaneda testified he collaborated with ringleader Derrick Santiesteban, Manduley and other members of the organization in June 2009.
Santiesteban’s plan was to abduct and detain Ruz until the stolen pot was recovered, according to a statement filed with the defendant’s plea agreement.
But the plot did not go as planned.
At a Southwest Miami-Dade intersection, Derrick Santiesteban drove his Mercedes SUV in front of Ruz’s van. Castaneda and Manduley pulled up behind him in a pickup truck to hem in the target.
Then Castaneda and Manduley carjacked Ruz’s van, with the victim still inside, according to Castaneda’s testimony. Santiesteban told them to meet him at a family grow house in the area.
En route, Castaneda testified that he witnessed Manduley struggle with Ruz in the back of the van and then shoot him with a revolver.
Castaneda said that after Ruz’s body was tossed out into the street, he saw Manduley “approach [the] prone body and repeatedly strike [Ruz] about the head with the butt of the revolver that Manduley was wielding,” according to the statement filed with Castaneda’s plea agreement.
But on Monday, the jury apparently did not believe his testimony, nor that of Derrick Santiesteban, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. and another member on the scene, Lisa Gonzalez.
At trial, a defense eyewitness picked out the photo of another person he believed to be the shooter on that June day, according to evidence.
Miami-Dade police homicide detectives are also trying to determine whether an unsolved April 2006 slaying of a teenager in West Kendall is linked to a Santiesteban grow house in the area.