Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Brian Stauffer illustration
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
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.
This is how it happened.
Cindy Pluff is a bold, ambitious woman who left home at age 16 to become a prostitute. Tales that begin that way usually end in woe and victimization, but hers is a chronicle of upward mobility. Several men tried to come between Pluff and a dollar during her outlaw days. Things didn’t go so well for them, but she always came out smelling like a rose. Now she owns a legitimate business based in Stillwater, but in the early 1980s she worked in Las Vegas under various names, among them Cynthia Glamour and Miss Glamour Puss. More than 100 arrests for prostitution eventually made her persona non grata on the Strip, and in 1984 she turned up in Chicago with a string of working girls, nominally under control of a pimp known as “Baltimore.” Pluff functioned as madam.
In Chicago, Baltimore and Pluff began frequenting a nightclub called Coconuts, owned by José Rodriguez, whose nickname was “Cabeza” because of the brainy way he organized cocaine distribution on Chicago’s north side. Rudy Martinez, 19, a protégé of Cabeza’s, was the assistant manager of Coconuts.
“We called Cindy ‘La Blanca,’ you know, the white gal,” says Martinez. “We were definitely aware she was around. You couldn’t miss her. She drove a white Mercedes and bought lots of champagne and drugs, but we didn’t pay much attention. You see, the Latin Kings are not into prostitution. In fact, we used to deal pretty severely with pimps who came to Uptown to recruit girls. But Pluff and her friends weren’t local, so it didn’t matter to us.” One evening, the doorman told Martinez that La Blanca and another girl were outside, and the other girl was bleeding. They wanted to talk to him. Pluff told Martinez that Baltimore had punched the other girl in the nose. He was miffed that they spent their time at Coconuts instead of walking the street.
“I asked her what she wanted me to do,” says Martinez. “She said she’d like me to give this guy Baltimore a beat-down and tell him to get out of town. So I called José and asked him how I should handle it. He said go ahead and do what she wants, then bring her and her girls over to his place after the club closed.”
Thus began the ill-fated romance/business partnership between Pluff and José “Cabeza” Rodriguez.
At first, Pluff and her girls entertained the steady parade of men who came to the club from Colombia to do business with Rodriguez. But she had her eye on bigger things. By 1987, Pluff was a major cocaine distributor in the Twin Cities. Rodriguez was her main source, but she had others, including Colombian Tirso Ringifo. She ultimately employed her parents and six siblings in various roles, creating a sophisticated distribution network for an ever-increasing amount of product.
By 1987, Pluff was a major cocaine distributor in the Twin Cities. She ultimately employed her parents and six siblings in various roles, creating a sophisticated distribution network for an ever-increasing amount of product
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.”
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.
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.
After he was convicted,
Martinez gave an eloquent statement at sentencing. He discussed his background and took responsibility for distributing cocaine, but he balked at the assumption that he was the chief culprit and that others, including the Pluffs, were under his control. His attorney noted that several defendants, including Cindy Pluff and her brother, Buddy—who by their own admission were equally guilty—were getting less than 10 years, while his client was about to get mandatory life. He said that was unfair and violated the principle of proportional sentencing.
Federal Judge Milton Shadur was clearly troubled. Before passing sentence, he said: “Fairness has departed from the system. It is no longer the operative standard for federal judges. As a result, it is sort of an insult to the process to talk of fairness within the context of standards that do not involve considerations of fairness.”
He addressed Martinez directly when he pronounced sentence, explaining that he and many other judges were disturbed by guidelines limiting their ability to do justice. He said that Congress “evinces more trust in prosecutors than in federal judges.” Then he pronounced a sentence that doomed Martinez, 26 at the time, to die in prison.
Shadur later repeated those sentiments on PBS NewsHour. A segment of the CBS show 60 Minutes devoted to guideline sentencing featured Martinez’s statement in court and quoted Shadur’s misgivings.
“Fairness has departed from the system. It is no longer the operative standard for federal judges. As a result, it is sort of an insult to the process to talk of fairness within the context of standards that do not involve considerations of fairness.”
–Federal Judge Milton Shadur
After all these years, Shadur is still troubled. In a letter to me dated Dec. 5, 2010, he wrote that Martinez’s case struck him as “a prime example of the way in which the guidelines could operate in an inappropriately disparate manner.” He called Cindy Pluff “the principal offender in a conspiracy in which the jury found Mr. Martinez to have been a participant.” He contrasted her minimal sentence with the draconian one Martinez received, and wrote, “That made it particularly troubling that Rudy Martinez, then in his middle twenties, should have a life sentence imposed under the mandate of the guidelines.” He notes that the mandatory nature of the guidelines was rejected by the Supreme Court a few years ago, but that decision does not provide retrospective relief for prisoners sentenced when the guidelines were sacrosanct.
He concludes by saying: “If there were something that could be done in light of your account of the assertedly fabricated story told by Cindy Pluff, I would certainly give the matter full consideration.”
Judge Shadur’s misgivings provide a tantalizing ray of hope. The problem is, Pluff has already taken steps to remedy the situation and Martinez is still in prison. When we met in 1995, I urged Pluff to submit an affidavit stating that she had misrepresented the quantity of cocaine Martinez provided. A year later she did just that, but apparently not in sufficient detail to convince anyone or change anything.
It was odd meeting her. I’d been in sporadic contact with Martinez for years by then, and I’d conjured up an image of Pluff as a remorseless bitch. In fact, she was rueful about what had happened, and she said if she acted it would be against the warning of her brothers, who’d advised her that she could end up in prison herself if she admitted lying. That Pluff would ever be re-prosecuted seemed pretty far-fetched to me back then, and even more so now.
We’ve talked on the phone briefly a few times since. Once she said she wanted to do more. More recently, she cried for a few moments, called me an asshole, and hung up.
As for me, I guess I’m serving a life sentence, too. It’s nothing like Martinez’s, but it’s been more than 20 years and his situation continues to haunt me. He falls into some kind of dead zone in which everything that ought to work in his favor goes against him. He didn’t commit murder, so no miracle of DNA can save him. Crucial evidence was withheld at his trial, but he can’t get a hearing because of laws that were passed after he was convicted. He refused to betray his colleagues, which prompted the prosecution to make him the poster boy for a conspiracy in which he was not the central figure. The absurdity of congressionally mandated guidelines predicated on the assumption that the American judiciary system is somehow “soft on crime” has been remedied, but it doesn’t affect his case.
Rudy Martinez—a man caught inexorably in the middle—has now served more than 20 years in prison, considerably more time than he would have for any crime of which it could reasonably be said he was guilty.
As for Martinez’s responsibility in the matter, he doesn’t claim to be innocent, just not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. The chief witness against him perjured herself at the behest of prosecutors, but he isn’t on death row, so no crusade to free him is likely.
Nevertheless, Rudy Martinez—a man caught inexorably in the middle—has now served more than 20 years in prison, considerably more time than he would have for any crime of which it could reasonably be said he was guilty. Every one of his co-defendants is free. The judge who sentenced him wants to free him. And the witness who put him in prison admits she lied under oath to cut a deal.
What else is there?