Two cousins who helped arrange the brazen killing of a Mexican cartel lawyer living in Southlake were convicted Friday afternoon of interstate stalking and conspiracy to commit murder.
Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Cepeda, 59, and Jose Luis Cepeda-Cortes, 60, were found guilty by a federal jury in the 2013 shooting death of Juan Jesus Guerrero Chapa in Southlake Town Square.
Cepeda-Cortes, of Edinburg, was also found guilty of tampering with government documents.
Both men could be sentenced to life in federal prison. U.S. District Judge Terry Means set sentencing for Sept. 22.
Guerrero, the personal lawyer for the leader of the Gulf cartel and a government informant, was killed May 22, 2013.
Ledezma-Cepeda, a private investigator from Mexico, and Cepeda-Cortes weren’t the shooters — two hit men known only as “Clorox” and “Captain” pulled beside Guerrero’s Range Rover and one stepped out and shot him with a handgun in front of his wife, according to testimony.
But lead prosecutor Joshua Burgess said Ledezma-Cepeda and his son and Cepeda-Cortes stalked Guerrero like “big game hunting guides,” finding him in North Texas and tracking him around Southlake until his death.
Several relatives of Cepeda-Cortes looked on as Means announced the decision of the jury, which deliberated for a total of about 6 1/2 hours, starting Thursday afternoon.
Ledezma-Cepeda has said his family is in hiding in Mexico
Before the trial, Ledezma-Cepeda’s son, Jesus Gerardo Ledezma-Campano, 32, pleaded guilty to the stalking charge and agreed to testify against his relatives.
The duress defense
Ledezma-Cepeda’s attorneys relied on a duress defense, arguing that their client was forced to stalk Guerrero by Rodolfo Villarreal Hernandez, a “plaza boss” with the Beltran Leyva cartel who is known as “El Gato.”
El Gato, according to witness testimony, believed Guerrero was responsible for the death of his father.
Ledezma-Cepeda had done prior investigative work for El Gato, he testified, including placing GPS trackers on the car of a police chief who was eventually killed.
Last week, Ledezma-Cepeda testified that he or his family would be killed “immediately” if he had stopped stalking Guerrero. On Tuesday, Ledezma-Cepeda’s expert witness called him a “walking dead man.”
“We think that our client was absolutely in duress,” his attorney, Warren St. John, said after the jury’s verdict.
Burgess called Ledezma-Cepeda’s duress defense “hogwash” during final arguments Thursday.
Cepeda-Cortes’ attorneys have said their client was “duped” by Ledezma-Cepeda into helping find Guerrero. Ledezma-Cepeda even admitted that he enlisted his cousin to help with translation and purchases in the United States and that he led him to believe he was working on a private investigation.
Ledezma-Cepeda “tricked my father,” Cepeda-Cortes’ son, Jose Cepeda-Cortes Jr., said after the verdict was announced.
“My father would be free right now if [Ledezma-Cepeda] could have found an apartment that took cash and a Mexican ID.”
‘Head in the sand’
Through case documents and evidence, prosecutors linked Ledezma-Cepeda and his son to the tracking of several other people who either went missing or were killed.
During final arguments Thursday, Burgess said Cepeda-Cortes was “just putting his head in the sand” as the men tracked Guerrero around Southlake.
Cepeda-Cortes’ attorneys, Robert Rogers and Stephen Cooper, had tried to get their client a separate trial. Lumping Cepeda-Cortes in with the other two defendants created an “uphill battle,” Cooper said.
Cooper and Rogers also tried several times before and during the trial to get a note written by Ledezma-Cepeda admitted into evidence. After his arrest in September 2014, Ledezma-Cepeda wrote to his son:
“Gerardo, [Cepeda-Cortes] told what he knew. Don’t worry, all the responsibility lies with me. I used both of you, not knowing what it was. You are not responsible. Please leave it all to me.”
Each time Cooper or Rogers tried to discuss the note before the jury, prosecutors Joshua Burgess and Aisha Saleem objected.
“It is hearsay, but we feel [the prosecution] relied on it enough that we felt like we should have gotten it in,” Rogers said.
Guerrero’s involvement with the Gulf cartel and the extent of his role as a government informant hovered over the trial.
Guerrero’s wife testified about their move from Mexico to North Texas, and how her husband had a Department of Homeland Security “handler.” She said her husband’s handler warned him that he had been found by people who wanted to kill him.
When Guerrero heard this, his wife said, he moved his family from Grapevine to a gated neighborhood in Southlake, where he bought a mansion. He later received another warning call and began hiding out in area hotels.
In final arguments, Ledezma-Cepeda’s attorney Wes Ball said Guerrero’s killing was “embarrassing” for the government.
“To save face that their informant got whacked, they were going to put the dime on these guys,” Ball said Friday.
Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7684, @RyanOsborneFWST