WEST CHESTER >>Whether he is or is not the drug-dealing kingpin that authorities made him out to be when announcing his arrest, Salvador “Sal” Lemus-Lopez will still serve a sentence in state prison worthy of a big player in the cocaine trade.
Common Pleas Judge James P. MacElree II on Thursday imposed a sentence of 332 months to 664 months in prison in the case of Lemus-Lopez, who ran what the prosecution had contended was the largest drug operation in Chester County history out of his nondescript home in East Marlborough.
That translates to a minimum sentence of slightly more than 27 years behind bars, approximate to the “decades” that the prosecution had sought for Lemus-Lopez and more than double the 10 years that his attorney had urged the judge to impose. It also fulfilled a suggestion by MacElree that he would grant Lemus-Lopez at least the hope that there was a “light at the end of the tunnel” in his ultimate sentence.
“If you were a younger man I would give you a longer sentence,” said the judge — who in the past has levied prison terms of hundreds of years on convicted drug dealers. “This gives you the possibility that you might be paroled before the end of your life.”
But MacElree noted that Lemus-Lopez still will serve a considerable amount of time at a late stage in his life before he is even eligible for parole. He is 67 years old, and suffers from age-related infirmities. “None of us has a crystal ball. None of us knows how long we will live, whether it is a few more years or a long life,” the judge mused.
Assistant District Attorney Kevin Pierce said his office was satisfied with the sentence MacElree handed down.
“The Commonwealth believes Judge MacElree’s sentence was fair and just, based on the totality of the defendant’s extensive crimes,” he said afterwards. “We appreciate the judge’s thoughtful and well-reasoned approach in evaluating the full magnitude of the defendant’s drug dealing, combined with the personal history of the defendant.
More importantly, he said, is the the dedicated, diligent, and determined work of the Chester County Detectives, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the other assisting agencies in bringing this case to a close.
Lemus-Lopez, 67, was arrested in May 2014 along with member of his family and as many as 50 associates at the conclusion of “Operation Telerana” or “Operation Wide Web,” in which law enforcement investigators watched the distribution of thousands of dollars in cocaine across southern Chester County. Investigators used wiretaps on cell phones, aerial surveillance, and confidential informants to detail the drug ring’s activities.
Authorities alleged that Lemus-Lopez and his second in command, son Francisco Javier “Frankie” Lemus, operated a drug trafficking organization that stretched from the Philadelphia suburbs to others states and ultimately into Mexico. They theorized that Lemus had run the operation for at least 20 years, and that he had stayed under the radar of the authorities by keeping his distribution low, selling only fairly small amount of the illegal drug at a time, rather than large quantities.
“This was not just a run of the mill organization,” said Pierce, of the DA’s Drug Unit, who prosecuted the cases against Lemus-Lopez and his son. “(The Lemus family) built this over years into one of the largest conspiracies in Chester County history. And ultimately, Mr. Lemus-Lopez sat at the top of the pyramid.”
Pierce had asked that MacElree impose a sentence that would keep Lemus-Lopez in jail for decades, suggesting that even under standard sentencing guidelines he could be imprisoned for a minimum of between 42 and 68 years.
But defense attorney John Pavloff, representing Lemus-Lopez, took issue with Pierce’s characterization of his client as a drug kingpin, and the prosecutor’s assertion in a pre-sentencing memo that he had ties to Mexican drug cartels.
Pavloff said that Lemus-Lopez had never engaged in violent behavior against any so-called competitors, did not own any firearms, and dealt in relatively small amount of the drug at a time, perhaps one or two gram packages. “He was not a big drug dealer,” Pavloff said. “He was a little drug dealer. A busy drug dealer, But a little drug dealer.”
Pavloff said his client’s only connection to Mexico was that it was the country of his birth, and that he had visited there at some point during the period of the investigation. But the prosecution had offered nothing but speculation that he was connected to drug cartels in that country. The source of his cocaine, Pavloff said, was a man in Philadelphia the authorities had identified.
“The defendant is not the cocaine kingpin his is made out to be,” Pavloff said.
One of Lemus-Lopez daughters, Maria Lemus, spoke on his behalf, telling MacElree that the characterization of her father as the leader of a large drug operation was misleading. She hd never seen him doing any of the work the authorities accused him of, and knew him only as a king father and grandfather.
“He always had time to spend with his children,” she said. “He always wanted to help other people. He is probably the most generous man I know.”
Lemus-Lopez also addressed the judge, saying that he regretted his decision to sell cocaine, but saying that he had lost his job as a landscaper at the former Robert Montgomery Nursery and that he could not compete with other large landscaping companies.
Under questioning from Pavloff, Lemus-Lopez said he emigrated to the United States in 1967, and worked for many years in the mushroom industry in the county before moving to California, where he worked as a migrant fruit and vegetable picker. He denied the assertion made by Pierce that he had been selling drugs for 20 years, telling MacElree that he had been doing so for only two.
Lemus-Lopez had pleaded guilty in March to 25 counts of possession with intent to deliver, one count of criminal conspiracy, and one count of corruption organizations. At the time of his plea, Pierce said that his office had offered Lemus-Lopez a plea agreement sentence of 30-to-60 years, which he rejected.
In April, his son was found guilty of more than 100 counts of drug dealing and other crimes. He is facing sentencing sometime in the near future. Lemus-Lopez’s wife and daughter also pleaded guilty earlier to helping in the drug operation and were sentence to prison.
As part of the sentence, MacElree also ordered $128,000 confiscated from Lemus-Lopez’s home and bank accounts forfeited.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.