A Cochise County businessman has filed a $5.15 million federal lawsuit against six law enforcement officials he contends engaged in a conspiracy to violate his civil rights during a marijuana drug trafficking investigation that ran from 2008 to 2015.
The lawsuit by Loren Jay Sheldon alleges Lt. Curtis Wilkins of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, Special Agent Kenneth Fletcher of Homeland Security Investigations, and four DEA agents facilitated the conspiracy by fabricating evidence and making false statements to judges and the grand jury leading to Sheldon’s arrest in 2015.
Sheldon, 72, also alleges former Cochise County prosecutor Roger Contreras committed malicious prosecution for charging a case that the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office previously refused to prosecute. The county’s top judge later issued a rare court order clearing Sheldon of all charges without a trial.
“In hindsight, it is now apparent there was no realistic probability the State could ever prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” Presiding Judge James Conlogue ruled in October 2018.
According to court records, Sheldon was operating a trucking and gravel company in Whetstone when Wilkins received a tip in 2008 that marijuana bundles were being stored on Sheldon’s property before being transported out of the area in his trucks. At the time, Wilkins was assigned to the Border Alliance Group, a multi-agency drug interdiction taskforce in Cochise County.
Sheldon was arrested in September 2015, but the taskforce members had trouble finding a prosecutor willing to press charges. Then, in a practice called forum or prosecutor shopping, the case was presented to Contreras, the felony drug prosecutor for Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre.
Contreras arranged for one of the federal agents to testify to a county grand jury and in January 2016 Sheldon was indicted on 20 felonies including conspiracy to transport marijuana, possession of marijuana for sale, and conducting an illegal enterprise through racketeering.
But Sheldon never stood trial.
Instead, Contreras filed various motions to dismiss the charges piecemeal, with the final counts dismissed two years after Sheldon’s arrest. Contreras told Conlogue, the presiding judge, “the State is unable to sustain its burden of proof at this time.”
At that point Sheldon asked Conlogue for an entry of clearance of record to seal court and police records related to his arrest and prosecution. Conlogue agreed and also required a notation be added to the records that Sheldon was cleared of the charges.
Conlogue said it was only the third time he issued such an order in nearly 24 years as a judge.
Contreras quit his county prosecutor job in June 2018 to avoid a threatened termination after using county office equipment for non-work purposes. He is currently seeking a seat on the Cochise County Superior Court for the third time in two years.
The four DEA special agents named as defendants are Michael Aponte, Michael Mans, Jody Napolitano, and Lori Tomes. Sheldon has requested a jury trial.