DADE CITY — Marcus Torres-Perez didn't own the car outfitted with a sophisticated, hidden electronic compartment used to hide drugs. His fingerprints weren't on the kilogram brick of cocaine or the $20,000 in cash found inside the secret cubbyhole.
But he was behind the wheel of the Ford Taurus with the so-called drug "trap" when it was pulled over in Wesley Chapel last September, and that was enough to convince a jury Friday that Torres-Perez was guilty of trafficking the drug.
Torres-Perez, 31, of Orlando was also convicted of possession of marijuana for the small bag officers found in his pocket.
He faces a 15-year minimum mandatory sentence. He has no prior criminal record.
Two Homeland Security agents started tracking Torres-Perez on Sept. 1 in Summerfield, a small town in Marion County. In an unmarked car, they followed him as he drove about 100 miles south to an apartment complex in Carrollwood in Hillsborough County, authorities said. Torres-Perez went inside for about 20 minutes with a black bag, then came out and started driving back north.
The federal agents enlisted Trooper Jason Lemery to conduct a traffic stop on the Taurus. At the State Road 56 exit off Interstate 75, Torres-Perez was pulled over for following too closely and having car windows tinted too darkly.
Lemery testified that Torres-Perez gave conflicting accounts about where he'd been, where he was going and who owned the car.
The two federal agents had seen Torres-Perez carrying a black canvas bag. A search of the car revealed that the bag contained $20,000, bound in rubber bands in stacks of $1,000. Torres-Perez told Lemery he was looking to buy landscaping equipment.
Further searching revealed this: wires running from the car's glove box, rigged to open a secret compartment underneath the passenger side airbag. When Lemery got it open, he found the other $20,000, bundled the same way, and the cocaine.
Assistant State Attorney Phil Matthey told jurors there was no way to reasonably reconcile the money and the drugs and conclude that Torres-Perez didn't know about them.
"He absolutely knew what he was doing. He knew that car was a trap car that somebody had invested thousands of dollars in modifying," Matthey said. "He knew there was a kilo of cocaine, just as he knew there was $20,000 in the bag under his arms identical to the $20,000 in the trap next to the cocaine."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @mollymoorhead.