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Published November 10, 2009, 12:13 PM

Man sentenced to life in meth distribution case

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A man was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without parole for his role in a drug conspiracy that investigators said they unraveled as if painting by numbers.

By: DAVE KOLPACK, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — A man was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without parole for his role in a drug conspiracy that investigators said they unraveled as if painting by numbers.

A federal jury found Miguel Angel Chavez guilty in May of bringing hundreds of pounds of methamphetamine from Mexico and Washington into the state through the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in north central North Dakota. Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl argued at Tuesday's sentencing that Chavez was a low-level manager in the smuggling operation and wanted his client to testify in his own defense, but Chavez refused.

"My lawyer wanted me to take the stand," Chavez told U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson. "The reason I didn't do that ... is because I'd rather not put my family in any more danger than I've already put them through."

Bredahl asked for a sentence of 25 years in prison, but Erickson said even if federal sentencing guidelines had not dictated Chavez receive a life sentence, 25 years would be too light a punishment considering the damage the drugs inflicted on a reservation already beset by social and economic problems.

"There were just a lot of lives that were ruined as a result," Erickson said.

Chavez, 33, is one of 24 people indicted in a case authorities believe to be the largest drug smuggling conspiracy in the history of the Turtle Mountain reservation. He was convicted in May after a three-week trial on six counts that included money laundering, identity theft and a continuing criminal enterprise.

"This defendant has truly earned a life sentence," said Chris Myers, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

The investigation in the smuggling ring was known as Operation Paint by Numbers, since investigators built their case by analyzing telephone calls and other records they said painted a picture of the crime. The conspiracy brought about 200 pounds of meth into North Dakota and more than $2 million changed hands, Erickson said.

Chavez told Erickson he hurt a lot of people, including his family, and he had no excuses for his actions. He said the case has been a blessing because he has found religion and has plans to turn his life around in prison. He said he regretted "messing around with drugs."

"The only thing I can do instead, your honor, I can offer you my repentance," he said.

Erickson said he believed Chavez's pledge to reform his life was an honest one, but the evidence supported the continuing criminal enterprise charge and its mandatory life sentence.

"It meets the legal requirement. I'm bound by it," Erickson said.

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