TAMPA — Jesus Angulo-Mosquera was a cook, the lowest-ranking mariner in an eight-man crew, aboard a 165-foot Pamamanian cargo ship known as the Hope II. Four years ago, the Coast Guard seized the ship more than 1,000 miles south of Tampa Bay. A 17-hour search uncovered more than $40 million worth of cocaine.
Federal prosecutors tried the crew in Tampa. Four crew members accepted plea deals and prison sentences in the range of five years. They testified against the other four, which included Angulo-Mosquera.
He said he had no idea there were drugs there. A polygraph exam suggested he was telling the truth. But he was found guilty and sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.
A group of retired FBI agents believes him. This week, they launched a campaign to reduce the 57-year-old Angulo-Mosquera’s sentence.
The group includes Christopher Kerr, the lawyer who defended him at his federal trial.
"The bottom line," Kerr said, "is this guy ends up doing 20 years for something I'm sure he didn't do."
The attorney said Angulo-Mosquera didn't fit the profile of a high-rolling drug-runner. He lived in a shack with a dirt floor in his native Colombia. He supported his family working freighters that brought cargo like gravel and household appliances between Latin American countries.
In August 2014, he got called on short notice that he was needed aboard the Hope II, which set sail on a 10-day journey to Costa Rica.
The drugs were concealed below a bolted hatch, which was covered by a mat and a carpet.
"It wasn't like these drugs were sitting around and obvious to anyone who was on the crew," Kerr said.
After the bust, all eight crew members were charged in federal court in Tampa as part of Operation Panama Express, an effort to combat overseas drug smuggling in international waters.
Kerr said he initially doubted his client's denials that he knew about the drugs.
"There was no way I could persuade him to change his story," he said. "I thought, I'm going to convince him by having him fail a polygraph."
Later that year, Angulo-Mosquera submitted to a polygraph exam, conducted by James Orr, a former FBI agent who now supports the effort to reduce his sentence. Orr's report stated that the exam revealed no evidence that he was lying.
The test results were used as evidence in the trial. But there was also the testimony of Angulo-Mosquera's shipmates.
One crew member initially told the Coast Guard that Angulo-Mosquera had no knowledge of the smuggling operation. But after agreeing to testify, he told a jury that his shipmate was intimately involved in loading the drugs onto the ship. Other crew members gave varying accounts of a meeting with the ship's captain before the voyage in which details of the smuggling venture were discussed. Some admitted to lying, Kerr said. But their words incriminated Angulo-Mosquera.
The jury found him guilty in 2015. Afterward, Kerr asked if he really didn't know about the drugs. The attorney needed to know that if he was going to continue to represent him.
Kerr said Angulo-Mosquera broke down in tears. He continued to maintain his innocence.
"I honestly believe we are sending an innocent man to prison," Kerr said at the 2016 sentencing hearing.
Federal sentencing guidelines set Angulo-Mosquera’s range of incarceration at 235 months, or about 19 1/2 years in prison.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa declined to comment on the case.
In an appellate argument, Kerr suggested that the others falsely implicated Angulo-Mosquera, conspiring during the months they spent in jail in order to reduce their own sentences.
The conviction was upheld on appeal. Angulo-Mosquera's only hope now is clemency. In the federal system, that can only be granted by the pen of the President.
Dave Couvertier, who handled public affairs for the FBI in Tampa before he retired in 2016, is leading the effort. He said Kerr mentioned the case to him at a gathering of former agents.
"I reviewed the case and independently concluded he was wrongly prosecuted," Couvertier said. "He is innocent and got wrapped up in the prosecutive net. The system failed on this one."
The group sent out a press release and is putting together a plan to make the case for clemency. Couvertier noted that they're not seeking a presidential pardon, only a commutation of the sentence:
"Getting almost 20 years at age 54, he'll be an old man before he sees is wife or his kids again."
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.