WEST CHESTER>> The East Marlborough man who authorities said ran a major cocaine trafficking operation out of his modest home off Oak Tree Road with the help of his family pleaded guilty to more than two dozen counts of dealing drugs last week, the day his trial was scheduled to begin.
Salvator “Sal” Lemus made the decision to enter guilty pleas to the charges after Common Pleas Judge James P. MacElree II, who was set to preside over his two-week-long trial, painstakingly laid out the options he had — to go to trial, enter into a plea agreement, or essentially throw himself on the mercy of the court.
Lemus chose the latter after the judge suggested that his sentence would provide for the 67-year-old man a “light at the end of the tunnel” — one that would allow Lemus the possibility of winning his release from prison before he dies.
“I understand that because of your age that you are of the mindset that it probably doesn’t matter (what the sentence might be) because you are looking at a life in prison,” MacElree told the stocky Lemus, who was dressed in a plain work shirt and jeans, his hands cuffed and feet shackled. But if was looking for a sentence that allow him to get out before dying, “I would be willing to consider that.”
He cited Lemus’ lack of a significant criminal history, his confession to police about his drug dealing, and his age as factors that he would weigh, although he did not guarantee what his eventual sentence would be. ”I would be inclined to give you a sentence, if you enter the ‘open’ plea, that gave you a light at the end of the tunnel,” MacLree said.
County authorities arrested Lemus and dozens of others in May 2014, breaking up with they said was a sophisticated and complex criminal operationthat imported cocaine and other drugs from Mexico to the Kennett Square area, then shipping them out to other regions from the central hub of the Lemus household. Because of the operation’s structure, authorities dubbed the investigation “Operation Telaraña” — the Spanish word for “spider’s web.”
Lemus, of East Marlborough, pleaded guilty to 25 counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, plus one count each of conspiracy, and corrupt organizations. Assistant District Attorney Kevin Pierce, who is prosecuting the case, told MacElree that the standard sentencing range for those charges facing Lemus was a minimum prison term of between 53 and 83 years.
Pierce told MacElree during the discussion about Lemus’ options that his office had extended a plea offer to Lemus of a sentence of 30 to 75 years in state prison. In the sentencing hearing that Lemus now faces, Pierce will likely ask for a prison term somewhat longer than that.
Pierce said his case would include not only Lemus’ confession to dealing drugs, but also phone call intercepts and wire tape conversations that the elder man had with confidential informants about dealing drugs. He would also present the cocaine that investigators found when they raided the lemus home in 2014.
Lemus spoke little during the proceeding before MacElree, answering his questions about his decision to plea guilty and give up his right to a trial through an interpreter. His attorney, John Pavloff of Kennett Square, told MacElree that he had thoroughly gone over the case with his client and discussed his options — including a 30-minute session after MacElree’s conversation with Lemus Monday.
Lemus was charged with 589 individual counts of possession with intent to deliver and related charges. However, Pierce, of the District Attorney’s Drug Unit, said the prosecution would proceed to trail on only 160 counts of drug delivery — those involving instances where Lemus had given a tatement to the lead investigator in the case, Chester County Detective Jeremy Rubincan, incriminating himself directly in the sale to a specific customer, after his arrest.
Each those charges carry with them a maximum sentence of five to 10 years in prison. MacElree said that his calculation was then that if convicted on all charges, Lemus would face a possible sentence of 800 to 1,600 years behind bars — although the judge acknowledged that there was likely “no way” that sentence would occur.
“Even Moses did not live that long,” MacElree said. But he added that if Lemus were to accept the plea bargain offer of 30-to-75 years, “for all practical purposes he’d probably die in prison.”
Pierce told the judge that 95 percent of the drug ring participants had been sentenced. All that remains of the ring that Lemus controlled is the case of his son, Francisco “Frankie” Lemus, who acted as his lieutenant in the operation, and four other players. Already, Lemus’ 44-year-old wife, Jovita Lemus, has pleaded guilty and served time in Chester County Prison. Charges against a daughter, Vivian Lemus, were dropped.
As many as 56 people were arrested in the year-long a year-long multi-agency probe targeting the trafficking network, which police said had ties to a dangerous but disbanded Mexican drug cartel known as “La Familia.” Lemus spent several months in Mexico each year and used his county home as a shipment point to other areas in the region but was also distributing large quantities of the drug locally.
Investigators determined the organization was capable of selling a kilogram of cocaine a day, but provided a more conservative estimate of about two kilograms a week. They estimated that the family had distributed about $60 million of cocaine over the past two decades.
The investigation included members of local police departments, state police, a regional drug enforcement task force, and federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Neither Pierce not DA Chief of Staff Charles Gaza, who oversaw the plea negotiations, commented after Lemus’ plea. Nor did Pavloff, who said he would make his case for Lemus at the sentencing hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.