In documents filed Tuesday, feds outline case for keeping $2.3 million seized from felon’s Dallas house last year

By Robert Wilonsky
11:16 am on December 19, 2012
Dallas News

Last year officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Dallas Police Department went looking for a man. Instead, they found millions. And they want to make sure that money remains in federal custody.

Early on the morning of September 17, 2011, officers knocked on the door of 9318 Fireside Drive, near S. St. Augustine Road and C.F. Hawn Freeway. An affidavit filed yesterday in Dallas federal court Tuesday reveals they’d received a tip that a previously deported aggravated felon, Antonio Benitez-Vergara, was living at the address. The woman who answered the door, Benitez-Vergara’s common-law wife Leticia Ornelas, told them no, she was the only adult present. Just her and the two kids. Nevertheless, she let officers search the house. At which point an ICE officer espied Benitez-Vergara walking out of the master bedroom.

A further search of the house revealed a laundry list of things previously deported aggravated felons shouldn’t have in their homes, including: a Norinco MAK90 AK-47 with a 37-round magazine; several pistols, including a Colt .45; a .22-caliber rifle; and 786 rounds of ammo. Authorities say all the guns had rounds chambered. Bad news for a man who’d already been convicted of aggravated possession of heroin with intent to deliver.

But what really got authorities’ attention were the two safes discovered in the house, which contained $2,299,152 in vacuum-sealed bags. Then there was the loose cash scattered about the place — in the living room, the master bedroom, in Benitez-Vergara’s pockets. All told, say the feds, he has $2.3 million in the house — money he would eventually insists came from a used car lot on C.F. Hawn that he and his sister, Adelfa Benitez, operated since 2003. Which didn’t jibe with authorities’ other discovery: a “cubby hole” underneath a bathtub detected by drug-sniffing dogs.

Eventually, Benitez-Vergara pleaded to guilty illegally re-entering the country and illegally possessing a firearm. He’s scheduled to be sentenced January 31. Leticia Ornelas has been deported. But Adelfa Benitez remains in Dallas. And she and her brother want the money: Court docs filed yesterday say they “filed claims of ownership” with the Department of Homeland Security three months ago.

After authorities interviewed Annabel Echazarreta — a Jefferson Ave.-based CPA from Mexico who’d prepped the tax returns for the car dealership — they determined there was no way that the struggling lot made millions. And besides, if it was all legal, why didn’t they deposit the money in their various accounts at Bank of America and Prosperity Bank like real business owners, instead of small, under-$10,000 denominations intended to keep the Internal Revenue Service in the dark? Then there was another big problem: One Bank of America teller told agents that the cash deposits made by Leticia Ornelas and Adelfa Benitez “always smelled like laundry detergent.” To which they responded the car dealership “had a roof leak that caused the smell.”

In documents filed Tuesday, feds outline case for keeping $2.3 million seized from felon’s Dallas house last year | Crime Blog