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Security Specialist at Supermax Federal Prison Testifies About Notes Found in Toilet After Alleged Mexican Mafia Lawyer’s Visit

The barbed wire yard of the highest security prison in the United States

This photo taken on February 13, 2019 shows the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, also known as the ADX or “Supermax,” in Florence, Colorado. (Photo by Jason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images.)

A security specialist at the highest security federal prison in the United States testified Tuesday that a Los Angeles lawyer’s already suspicious visits with Mexican Mafia inmates took on a more criminal appearance after three notes were discovered in a visiting room toilet he’d used.

The testimony of Jean Pierre Espino spotlighted the inner workings of the Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado, sometimes called the Alcatraz of the Rockies for its remote location in the Rocky Mountains. It’s known for its arid and high-altitude climate, and it’s the home to some of the most infamous modern-day criminals prosecuted in U.S. District Court.

It’s also where federal prosecutors say Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez served as a key communicator with influential Mexican Mafia members whose input was needed by Mafia members locked up elsewhere. A licensed attorney in California since 2008, Chavez is on trial in the Central District of California, accused of conspiring with the Mafia to distribute drugs and commit racketeering. Tuesday was the fourth full day of testimony, and it introduced jurors to what Espino agreed is the most secure and restrictive federal prison in the nation.

Inmates are forced to move to a new cell every three months “just to make sure that they’re not getting comfortable . . . to disrupt any type of plans that they may have since we have inmates who have a history of escape,” Espino testified. Inmates also have showers in their cells to limit interactions with each other, and no more than one is allowed to recreate at a time.

“They’re very strict and rigid security procedures” Espino said, describing the prison as “very structured. It’s very organized. It’s very clean.”

With an objection in from the defense, U.S. District Judge George Wu allowed Espino to name one more example when a prosecutor asked him about the prison’s inmates and he first went with the most notorious escapee, drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Espoino said Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, but he’d testified earlier that the approximately 388 inmates include spies, international and domestic terrorists, inmates “with extensive media” and “inmates that are very disruptive, very dangerous, that cannot be in a lesser security facility.”

That includes 14 members of the Mexican Mafia. Part of Espino’s job as a special investigative services technician involves monitoring all their communications.

That’s how he became aware of Chavez as an attorney who visited exclusively Mexican Mafia inmates at ADX, sometimes more than one in one visit.

General population inmates are allowed four 15-minute phone calls per month, while inmates in the “step down unit” get six per month, Espino said.

All are recorded, but inmates can speak with an attorney after an approval process. None of those calls are recorded, Espino said. Inmates also can meet with in person with attorneys in booths with slots that allow papers to be passed through. That’s what Chavez had been at the prison to do on May 14, 2015, when Espino discovered scraps of paper inside a urine-soaked toilet that he testified had “gang-related writing.” Espino had been watching Chavez meet with the inmates that day through the no-sound surveillance camera, testifying Tuesday that he did so because a lawyer meeting with four Mexican Mafia members in one visit raised concerns.

Attorney Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, front, leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles with his legal team after the first day of testimony in his criminal trial. (Photo by Meghann Cuniff.)

Attorney Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, front, leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles with his legal team after the first day of testimony in his criminal trial. (Photo by Meghann Cuniff.)

Chavez was the only one to use the toilet around that time, Espino said, the notes were given to the FBI. Jurors saw the notes and watched soundless surveillance video of Chavez meeting with individually with inmates, including influential Mexican Mafia member Francisco “Puppet” Martinez, who appeared to pass papers back and forth with Chavez. Jurors saw records of Chavez putting money on Martinez’s prison account, and they saw letters that Chavez mailed to a Mexican Mafia inmate at ADX, including one titled “Not a Coded Message” that Espino testified appeared to be a coded message.

On cross-examination, Chavez’s lawyer, Meghan Blanco, asked about other lawyers who’ve met with Supermax inmates, which prompted Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Ellison to end his brief re-direct by asking: “After either of these attorneys visited, did you find written communications in the visiting room toilet?”

“No,” Espino answered.

Chavez is charged with four felonies that accuse him of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana; conspiring to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act; aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute of heroin and methamphetamine.

The superseding indictment — all 118 pages — is below:

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.