No Way Out

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

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

In May of 1991,

Cindy Pluff sat down with DEA agents and gave up the names of 39 suppliers and customers. In return, she was added to the St. Paul indictment. A little less than a year later, after she’d testified against Martinez and several other defendants, she was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years and sent to a women’s prison in California to serve her time.

The deal she made required her to lie about her dealings with Martinez, who’d been charged with conspiracy to distribute 20 kilos of cocaine. U.S. Attorney Ron Safer offered Martinez a “blind plea”: no cooperation required, accept full responsibility for the 20 kilos, and receive a sentence of 15 to 20 years, possibly mitigated by the fact that it would be his first conviction.

“I told my attorney that I would take that deal,” says Martinez. “But when we went to see Safer, he offered me a different deal—eight years, if I cooperated. I refused.”


Three days later, a superceding indictment was handed down. Martinez was accused of participating in a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise,” a broad statute under which felonies in a variety of areas—financial fraud, racketeering, drug offenses, etc.—can be charged. The sentencing protocol for this statute allows for aggravating factors that can lead to stiffer penalties. The section pertaining to drugs mandates a life sentence for anyone found guilty of distributing “at least 300 times the quantity of a substance described in subsection 401(b).” For cocaine, the base amount under this statute is 500 grams. Multiplied by 300, that equals 150 kilos. The government accused Martinez of distributing at least that amount and convinced a jury that he’d done so.

Two falsehoods formed the basis for his conviction: a) Pluff’s admission that her family sold in excess of 150 kilos of cocaine during the period of the conspiracy was a wild exaggeration; b) her testimony that Martinez was her sole supplier was a complete lie. Pluff has since admitted that in both instances she lied under oath.

At the time, however, those perjuries taken together required the judge to sentence Martinez to mandatory life under federal sentencing guidelines. In 1991, if the truth about either perjury had ever been acknowledged by a court, Martinez would have been freed. And laws enacted since Martinez was sentenced, most notably the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, make it impossible for him to get another hearing.

In a letter to Martinez dated Dec. 20, 2005, Pluff wrote: “There was no way it was that much” (the amount of cocaine), then continues—“Besides, it wasn’t all you. There were other people, Tirso, Black Tony, the guy from N.Y., and Kapon. They wanted us to focus on you.”

Laws enacted since Martinez was sentenced, most notably the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, make it impossible for him to get another hearing.

There is evidence besides her belated admissions that Pluff had other suppliers. For example, in an affidavit filed in connection with the Minnesota BCA’s investigation of what it calls “the Pluff organization,” Special Agent Teresa Vandergriff discusses information obtained from the narcotics unit of the Chicago police. Vandergriff states that in December 1989, a police officer stopped a vehicle driven by a Colombian national, Tirso Rengifo. Rengifo attempted to flee and was placed under arrest. The vehicle was searched. The arresting officer found three kilos of cocaine, written directions to Pluff’s Schaumburg, Illinois, apartment, and a pager. The last number that had been paged belonged to Pluff. The prosecution knew this before the trial but did not disclose it to Martinez’s attorney.

In other communications, Pluff explains that the prosecutors promised leniency for both her family and her if she cooperated, and threatened to throw the lot of them in prison for a long time if she didn’t. Ultimately, her father, mother, and two sisters got sentences ranging from community service to 18 months in the workhouse. Buddy Pluff, her brother, received a sentence of five years and seven months.

I met Cindy Pluff in St. Paul in 1995,

about one year after she was released from prison. She admitted to me that she’d given false testimony against Martinez. You might wonder why she was out of prison so soon after being sentenced to a term of more than seven years. That’s a story in itself, but I only know the broad outlines.

In 1990, I wrote an investigative article for Chicago magazine about four Mexican men in prison for an infamous quadruple homicide that they didn’t commit (“The Milwaukee Avenue Massacre”). The governor of Illinois had his staff investigate the case after my story was published, and the men were subsequently pardoned. I met the head of the investigation, a state trooper of Cuban extraction, who’d been working undercover in the city’s Hispanic community for years. He knew (and despised) José “Cabeza” Rodriguez and was aware of the cases against Martinez and Pluff.

According to him, Pluff was sent out of prison in 1993 to testify against yet another defendant, Pedro Garcia, who was on trial for a different cocaine conspiracy. She was being housed at the Chicago MCC, waiting to go to court, when she became involved in a sting operation targeting guards who were having sex with female inmates. Her efforts in that matter earned her a further reduction, and she was released, having served less than two years of her original sentence.