Judge says prosecution has weak case against Collier sex trafficking suspect

William DeShazer/Staff
The apartment of Antonio Mendez-Lopez who was arrested on sex trafficking charges in Golden Gate on Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. The arrest is part of a 2-year probe by the feds involving a trafficking ring from Naples to North Carolina.

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William DeShazer/Staff The apartment of Antonio Mendez-Lopez who was arrested on sex trafficking charges in Golden Gate on Wednesday Jan. 16, 2013. The arrest is part of a 2-year probe by the feds involving a trafficking ring from Naples to North Carolina.

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Antonio Mendez-Lopez

Antonio Mendez-Lopez

— In an admittedly close call, a federal judge in Fort Myers determined there was probable cause to move forward in the case against a Golden Gate man accused in a sex trafficking ring.

Antonio Mendez-Lopez, 45, now will be transferred to a district court in Georgia to face allegations he participated in a crime organization that lured undocumented women into the country, then prostituted them for a financial profit.

"It's the slimmest probable cause I have seen in many a year," U.S. District Judge Douglas Frazier of Fort Myers said during a hearing Thursday.

But after hearing testimony from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agent involved in Mendez-Lopez's arrest, Frazier ruled in the prosecution's favor to allow the case to move forward.

For 2 1/2 years, the agency's investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations, used surveillance, phone taps and confidential sources to piece together the alleged crime ring, which was run out of Savannah, according to court documents.

The investigation culminated when an ICE blitz on Jan. 16 rounded up 13 of the accused conspirators in the sex trafficking ring, including Mendez-Lopez, who was arrested at the Golden Gate home where he had lived for two years in an efficiency apartment attached to the house.

At least 11 women being prostituted were rescued from the ring, which operated in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, according to investigators.

Court documents show the women saw dozens of johns a day, and up to 163 in a week for one of the victims, who also is accused of helping run the operation. Investigators documented that the woman, Luisa Capilla-Lancho, was at Mendez-Lopez's apartment in the week leading up to the arrests, according to court documents.

Another woman at the Golden Gate home on Jan. 16 initially didn't detail her experience to law enforcement, the ICE agent testified Thursday. Once transported to Savannah for questioning by federal investigators, however, she told them she had been prostituted, the agent said.

Public defender Martin Der Ovanesian argued Thursday that the evidence presented, including an affidavit by an investigator and the special agent's testimony, didn't document Mendez-Lopez communicating directly with the other individuals arrested.

Phone taps of Capilla-Lancho's phone traced her conversations with the alleged kingpin of the crime ring and their discussions of Mendez-Lopez, but Mendez-Lopez wasn't a party to those talks, nor did he cross state lines to transport prostitutes, Der Ovanesian asserted.

There's not enough here to support a conviction, in my opinion."

U.S. District Judge Douglas Frazier of Fort Myers

ICE investigators took photos during the transfer of Capilla-Lancho from one accused pimp to Mendez-Lopez at a Tampa casino in early January, according to court documents. They then tracked the woman to his Golden Gate home.

That wasn't tantamount to the charge against Mendez-Lopez of conspiracy to transport individuals in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution, which carries a 15-year maximum sentence, the defense argued during the two-hour hearing.

But in 20 years as a public defender, Der Ovanesian said he's only seen probable cause denied a few times.

"Other than winning, that's as good as it gets," he said, minutes after the judge explained his ruling.

Though Frazier sided with the prosecution — a decision that carries no weight of guilt or innocence, only establishing that Mendez-Lopez's case will move forward in Savannah — he added that his decision was a close one.

Frazier found probable cause in the fact presented by the prosecution that Mendez-Lopez went to Tampa to retrieve one of the women, who had been brought to Florida from Georgia. He noted his pessimism for the future case against Mendez-Lopez in the Southern District of Georgia, however.

"There's not enough here to support a conviction, in my opinion," Frazier said.

© 2013 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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