Accused Mexican drug smuggler skips court after posting $200 bond

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Mexican citizen facing life in prison for allegedly trying to smuggle more than 6 kilos of cocaine and heroin into Detroit has absconded after a Wayne County visiting magistrate freed him on $200 bond.

Jose Antonio Lopez, 24, is wanted by police after he skipped a March 12 probable cause hearing in 36th District Court, following his March 2 arraignment in 34th District Court in Romulus. He had confessed to the crime, police said.

Despite the confession, the severity of the charges and Lopez's status as a non-U.S. resident, visiting magistrate Vesta Swenson set bond at $2,000/10 percent. The defendant posted the $200 needed to get out of jail and fled.

"I’m deeply disappointed that someone who commits a crime of this magnitude, in addition to being a foreign national, which makes him a tremendous flight risk, is allowed back on the street for $200," Detroit police Chief James Craig said. "It's an outrage."

The News was unable to contact Swenson for comment, while phone calls to 34th and 36th District courts were not returned.

Police and prosecutors say low bond is a longstanding problem with visiting judges and magistrates who hear arraignments on Saturdays in the Romulus court. 

Detroit arraignments are handled by the city's 36th District Court except on weekends when the docket is handled in the suburban facility, usually with a visiting judge who isn't familiar with the case.

"Saturday bonds have been a problem," assistant Detroit police chief David LeValley said. "We have historically been seeing low bonds on the weekends — sometimes absurdly low for the crimes being charged.

During the week, assistant prosecutors and police often attend arraignments involving defendants who are considered flight risks to advocate for high bonds or jail remands. But Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has said she doesn't have the manpower to send assistant prosecutors to the court on weekends.

"Going forward we want to get high-risk defendants arraigned on weekdays," assistant prosecutor Maria Miller said.

In a statement, Worthy said she will ask for for a weekend arraignment prosecutor in her office's next budget. "However, in this case, a prosecutor was not needed because in this case the fact that a high bond was needed was a no brainer," she said.

Meanwhile, police are looking for Lopez, although investigators say he likely returned to his native Mexico.

"After he didn't show up for his hearing, I haven't heard from him," William Winters, Lopez's court-appointed attorney said.

Last month, Detroit narcotics detectives got a tip that Lopez was traveling to Detroit with 4.6 kilos of heroin and 2 kilos of cocaine, police said. Officers tracked Lopez to a house on the city's west side, searched his car, and found the drugs in a hidden compartment, Miller said.

After his arrest, Lopez confessed to the crime, police said.

At his arraignment, Lopez was charged with one count of possession with intent to deliver over 1,000 grams of heroin, and one count of possession with intent to deliver over 1,000 grams of cocaine. 

"Both counts carry up to life imprisonment, and the potential for consecutive sentencing," Miller said.

Police have long complained about judges and magistrates setting low bonds. Last year, a judge's decision to grant bond and a tether to Ivory Traylor, a habitual criminal who was accused of shooting at Detroit cops, was criticized by police and prosecutors. Traylor was convicted of lesser offenses, although a jury found him not guilty of assault with intent to murder.

In 2016, Andre Shontez Lee was charged with felonious assault for allegedly firing a round at an officer during a foot chase. At Lee’s arraignment, a magistrate set bond at $30,000, allowing him to be freed if he paid 10 percent, or $3,000.

Lee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years of probation by Wayne Circuit Judge Catherine Heise. He violated the terms of his probation last year, and a warrant for his arrest was issued, according to court records.

Craig said all components of the criminal justice system need to work together.

"It's not just the police, although we get the blame if crime goes up," Craig said. "We have to work together as a team — but when you've got judges and magistrates letting dangerous criminals back on the street with low bond, or judges giving low sentences to violent criminals, that's not teamwork."
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