Features

No Way Out

Everyone agrees that Rudy Martinez should be set free. So why is he still in prison?

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Twenty years ago in Mpls.St.Paul, investigative reporter Bruce Rubenstein wrote about the arrest and conviction of Rudy Martinez, who was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in a notorious St. Paul drug ring. Now, virtually everyone involved in the case—prosecutors, the judge, the witness who testified against him—agrees that Martinez got a raw deal. Yet Martinez is still in jail, and strict federal drug statutes mean his case cannot be appealed. In fact, he’d be better off if he had committed murder.

In 1990, I got a tip
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about a farm that was being used as a “safe house” by some Latin Kings gang members from Chicago and a drug-dealing family from St. Paul. The farm was located north of the Twin Cities, in Pine County. The gangsters thought they were invisible in that bleak neck of the woods, but nothing could have been further from the truth—and that was the premise of the story I wrote for this magazine in 1992. The farm’s caretaker, an old geezer who “dressed like he came from California or somewhere, with all that gold chain around his neck,” according to one Pine County resident, frequented a bar in the tiny town of Duxbury. Tough-looking young Hispanic guys often accompanied him on weekends. They shot pool and kept to themselves, but the old man bought hundreds of dollars worth of pull-tabs.

Shiny Cadillacs and Mercedes Benzs careened back and forth down County Road 32, where the farm was located. Packs of Rottweilers chewed up neighboring pets and terrorized hikers. The music emanating from the farmhouse was so loud that it disturbed the neighbors, especially Shirley and Elmer Ellgren, whose home was less than 100 yards away.

Local people were baffled by the fact that complaints to Sheriff Don Faulkner resulted in no action.

“We were damn mad,” Shirley Ellgren told me at the time.

The sheriff had been instructed to lay off because the farm was the nexus of a huge bust that was being planned by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, U.S. Treasury agents, and police in three states.

The farm belonged to Cindy Pluff, a St. Paulite. She’d installed her father, Ken Sr., as caretaker, possibly because the family’s city home was a cocaine supermarket and it was hard to get any sleep there. When the Pluffs’ neighbors on East Magnolia Street complained about the heavy traffic and frequent horn-honking, they got the same runaround as their Pine County counterparts.

Ultimately, six members of the ring were arrested for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. However, the worst offenders did not receive the harshest sentences. Cindy Pluff cut two deals, one of which involved perjuring herself. She served less than three years, but her false testimony resulted in a mandatory life sentence for one of her co-defen- dants, Rudy Martinez.

Pluff and all her con- spirators have been out of jail for more than a decade, but Martinez is still behind bars in an Illinois prison. And even though Pluff has admit- ted that she lied on the stand about the extent of Martinez’s involvement, and both the judge and prosecutors in the case know Martinez is innocent of the charges levied against him, Martinez has no recourse. Due to a technicality that virtually everyone in the justice system agrees is ludicrous, the felony drug charges on which he was convicted cannot be appealed. If nothing changes, Martinez will die in prison—the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.

Pluff and all her conspirators have been out of jail for more than a decade, but Martinez is still behind bars in an Illinois prison. If nothing changes, Martinez will die in prison—the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.


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