Features

No Way Out

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

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Rodriguez purchased the 55-acre farm in Pine County for Pluff in 1988. By then he was contemplating retirement and wanted a place for him and his associates to cool out. The poor choice of location might have hastened their demise, but the business was beginning to unravel anyway. Rodriguez had become too fond of his product, the kiss of death in the cocaine racket. It was particularly hazardous in his organization because he kept the books in his fabled cabeza. In July 1988, Rodriguez traveled to the farm with two nephews and a friend from Miami, Orlando Guirola, whose usual chore was preparing cocaine for Rodriguez to freebase. Later that day, while Rodriguez was high, he had a seizure and was delivered unconscious to the Sandstone hospital’s emergency room. He died a few hours later. Management of the organization defaulted to Rudy Martinez, who inherited a mess.

“Either me or one of José’s brothers would approach his people and they would say they’d paid him,” Martinez explains. “No one knew whether they had or hadn’t. I don’t believe we ever recovered most of the money that was owed him.”

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Martinez was barely 22 when Rodriguez’s scrambled affairs landed in his lap. His relationship with Pluff mimicked Rodriguez’s: mostly business, plus some casual sex. Over the next 18 months, the situation in Pine County became more and more frenzied. A virtual who’s who of 1990s cocaine distribution in the Twin Cities came to and from the farm, all of them apparently oblivious to the fact that they were under intense scrutiny by their neighbors and local law enforcement.

“We knew they were dealing drugs, but not here,” says Lt. Robert Johnson of the Pine County Sheriff’s Office. “We stopped cars full of them on three occasions and passed on intelligence we gathered.”

One particularly notable disturbance took place on Thanksgiving Day 1989, when Martinez dispatched a big tom turkey with a quick burst from an assault rifle, then celebrated the kill by firing a few hundred rounds into the air. Target practice at the farm often sounded like the Normandy invasion, but the holiday fusillade particularly irked Shirley and Elmer Ellgren. Shirley burned Sheriff Faulkner’s ears with demands for action. A glum Faulkner listened and empathized, then told her to be patient.

The bust Pine County had been praying for finally came on Jan. 19, 1991. Officers from a multi-agency task force hit three locations simultaneously—the farm, the Pluff family’s St. Paul home, and a house in Chicago. A 25-man task force raided the farm. “You should’ve seen it,” exclaims Shirley Ellgren. “Helicopters, squad cars with lights flashing, men with flak jackets and big guns. It was wonderful!”

There were dozens of arrests. Pluff was arrested in Chicago. Martinez evaded the police for two days, then turned himself in.

“It all went well except the raid in Chicago,” recalls Lt. Robert Johnson. “That went off a little early, and they only got about 20 kilos of cocaine. They had information that more was stored there from time to time.”

Nonetheless, the agents were proud of what they’d accomplished. But the prosecutors in charge of the case seemed to view the whole thing as a nightmare. There were dozens of arrests and ultimately 23 defendants (including seven members of the Pluff family), mostly from St. Paul or Chicago but also a few from Florida, all allegedly involved in an elaborate conspiracy to distribute cocaine. There were questions of jurisdiction. There was the problem of weaving the daily activities of all the defendants and witnesses—some major players, others penny-ante couriers and street dealers—into one coherent story. From the beginning, the prosecutors looked for a way to throw the book at someone, obtain a conviction, and call it a victory.

The Pluff family and a few of their Twin Cities colleagues were indicted in St. Paul. The others faced trial in Chicago. A possible 20 years in prison loomed for many defendants, including Rudy Martinez and Cindy Pluff. An open question was whether Pluff would be charged under the Chicago or the St. Paul indictment. Both were for conspiracy to distribute, but the St. Paul indictment alleged a much smaller quantity and the potential sentences were commensurately shorter.

From the beginning, the prosecutors looked for a way to throw the book at someone, obtain a conviction, and call it a victory.


Prosecutors immediately began offering plea bargains, but it took a while to make them. The trials did not begin for almost two years.

“That family in Minnesota kind of hung together and said to hell with everybody else,” an investigator in Chicago says. According to Martinez’s attorney, Richard Kling, there was no shortage of snitches, but there were only two who could provide the comprehensive testimony the prosecution wanted: Rudy Martinez and Cindy Pluff.

Martinez was the real prize, but he couldn’t be turned. He and Pluff were locked up at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal holding facility in Chicago, while they awaited trial. The MCC has separate wings for men and women, but Pluff and Martinez still managed to communicate.

“She would send me messages that she would never cooperate with the government,” Martinez says. “Actually, she’d already begun cooperating, with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in Minnesota and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Chicago.”

An April 1991 entry on Pluff’s docket sheet memorializes a “continuance, made at request of defendant & agreed to by government. . . . Ends of justice served by this continuance outweigh the interests of public and defendant in a speedy trial.” This is where the bargaining began.

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