Alfred Anaya was a genius at installing traps — secret compartments in cars that can hide everything from weed to jewelry to guns. And if they were used to smuggle drugs without his knowledge, he…
Article word count: 6076
HN Discussion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17400829
Posted by joering2
(karma: 3511)Post stats: Points: 111 - Comments: 45 - 2018-06-26T14:29:35Z
\#HackerNews #2013 #alfred
Alfred Anaya took pride in his generous service guarantee. Though his stereo installation business, Valley Custom Audio Fanatics, was just a one-man operation based out of his San Fernando, California, home, he offered all of his clients a lifetime warranty: If there was ever any problem with his handiwork, he would fix it for the cost of parts alone—no questions asked.
Anaya’s customers typically took advantage of this deal when their fiendishly loud subwoofers blew out or their fiberglass speaker boxes developed hairline cracks. But in late January 2009, a man whom Anaya knew only as Esteban called for help with a more exotic product: a hidden compartment that Anaya had installed in his Ford F-150 pickup truck. Over the years, these secret stash spots—or traps, as they’re known in automotive slang—have become a popular luxury item among the wealthy and shady alike. This particular compartment was located behind the truck’s backseat, which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle’s electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.
Esteban said the seat was no longer responding to the switch combination and that no amount of jiggling could make it budge. He pleaded with Anaya to take a look.
Anaya was unsettled by this request, for he had suspicions about the nature of Esteban’s work. There is nothing intrinsically illegal about building traps, which are commonly used to hide everything from pricey jewelry to legal handguns. But the activity runs afoul of California law if an installer knows for certain that his compartment will be used to transport drugs. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. Anaya thus thought it wise to deviate from his standard no-questions-asked policy before agreeing to honor his warranty. “There’s nothing in there I shouldn’t know about, is there?” he asked. Esteban assured him that he needn’t worry.
Esteban drove the F-150 to Anaya’s modest ranch-style house and parked by the back porch. A friend of his, who introduced himself as Cesar, followed right behind in a black Honda Ridgeline truck. The 37-year-old Anaya, a boyishly handsome man whose neck and arms are covered with tattoos of dice and Japanese art, tested the switches that controlled the truck’s trap. He heard the hydraulics whirr to life, but the seat stayed firmly in place. He would have to use brute force.
Anaya punched a precise hole through the upholstery with his 24-volt Makita drill, probing for the screws that anchored the seat to the hydraulics. After a few moments he heard a loud pop as the drill seemed to puncture something soft. When he finally managed to remove the backseat, he saw what he had hit: a wad of cash about 4 inches thick. The whole compartment was overflowing with such bundles, several of which spilled onto the truck’s floor. Esteban had jammed the trap by stuffing it with too much cash—over $800,000 in total.
Anaya stumbled back from the truck’s cab, livid. “Get it out of here,” he growled at Esteban. “I don’t want to know about this. I don’t want any problems.”
Esteban Magallon Maldanado and Cesar Bonilla Montiel scrambled to haul armfuls of money from the F-150 to the Ridgeline’s trunk. They wanted to stay in Anaya’s good graces, because men with his skills are extremely valuable in the narcotics trade. To distribute product from wholesalers to retailers, drug-trafficking organizations need vehicles equipped with well-disguised traps so that loads aren’t routinely seized while in transit. The word in the California underworld was that no one built more elegant traps than Anaya, a perfectionist who made sure his hiding spots were invisible to even the most expert eyes. Maldanado and Montiel, key players in a smuggling ring that was sending large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine to the Midwest, were eager to use his services again.
Once all of the money had been moved to the Ridgeline, Anaya, now feeling calmer, agreed to fix the F-150’s trap for $1,500—a third of what he had originally charged to install it. He even offered to improve the compartment by adding another switch—the one that reclined the driver’s seat—to the unlocking sequence.
A grateful Maldanado then asked Anaya if he could install a trap in the Ridgeline too. The Honda truck already had one, but it was the work of a rank amateur—just a crude hole sawed into the base of the trunk. Maldanado wanted an electronic trap like the F-150’s, and he offered to leave a cash deposit so Anaya could buy the necessary hydraulics.
Anaya, who was deeply in debt to numerous creditors, decided to accept the job. He hadn’t totally forgiven Maldanado for failing to warn him about the money jammed in the trap, but he figured that he was still adhering to the letter of the law. The fact was that he hadn’t seen any drugs, and there had been no discussion of how Maldanado had earned his small fortune. Given those circumstances, Anaya assumed that he was immune from legal trouble in connection with his meticulous creations. He was, after all, just an installer.
Unlocking a Stash Spot
The artisans who build hidden compartments in cars are secretive about their work. Their clients, who range from tycoons to gangsters, use these “traps” to stash items that are either tremendously valuable or tremendously illicit (or both). The most sought-after traps, like this one in the dashboard of a 2012 Honda Accord, can be opened only by following an elaborate set of steps.—B.I.K.
stash 1. Sit in driver’s seat.
The trap is connected to a pressure sensor under the driver’s seat; someone must be sitting in the seat before the compartment can be opened.
stash 2. Close all doors.
The stash spot won’t open unless all the doors are closed—which would rarely be the case during a typical roadside search by law enforcement officers.
stash 3. Turn on defroster.
To continue the unlatching sequence, you must activate the rear defroster while simultaneously pushing two window switches on the driver’s door.
stash 4. Swipe card.
A magnet is hidden behind an air-conditioning vent. A magnetic card must be swiped across the vent to complete the sequence that unlocks the trap.
stash 5. Retrieve contraband.
A pair of hydraulic cylinders open the hatch for the secret compartment, which is located in the void where the passenger-side airbag should be.
When he was 8 years old, Alfred Anaya destroyed his mother’s vacuum cleaner in the pursuit of knowledge. “I took it apart because I wanted to find the motor inside,” he recalls. “I was so young, I thought the motor would work all by itself even after I took it out. I didn’t realize it needed to be plugged in to go.” His mother was upset but hardly surprised to discover her ruined vacuum, for she knew all about her youngest son’s rabid curiosity. Alfred was forever disassembling Sony Walkmans or clock radios so he could fill his favorite junk drawer with circuit boards, which thrilled him with their intricacy.
Anaya idolized his father, Gabriel, a hardworking cement mason who had emigrated from Mexico. Before he even hit adolescence, Alfred started skipping school to help his father pour concrete at shopping malls. He used discarded materials from these construction sites to build labyrinthine clubhouses in the backyard of his family’s San Fernando home. By furtively borrowing his dad’s circular saw, he outfitted his structures with pulley-operated drawbridges, camouflaged trapdoors, and secret rooms where he could snuggle with girls.
In his mid-teens, Anaya developed an obsession with cars. He saved up $500 to buy a wrecked 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, which he lovingly restored by hand. After dropping out of school in the 11th grade, he started to hang out at a local stereo shop, Super Sound Electronics. He swept floors and washed customers’ cars for free, just so he could peer over the shoulders of the shop’s installers as they molded speaker boxes and snaked cables through trunk walls.
Once he cajoled Super Sound’s owner into taking him on as an apprentice, Anaya quickly established himself as the shop’s rising star. Years of reading blueprints with his dad had given him a knack for visualizing how best to meld stereo components into a car’s natural contours. “When you customize cars, you got to have an imagination, you got to be able to see the way it’s going to look when you’re done putting in this outrageous sound system,” says Tony Cardone, a childhood friend of Anaya’s who also became a stereo installer. “That’s one thing Alfred has always been really good at.” Anaya excelled at fabricating candy-colored subwoofer enclosures with voluptuous curves; he often achieved his desired shape by stretching fleece pajamas atop wooden frames, then pouring on molten resin that stiffened as it cooled.
Anaya’s finances were a mess, thanks to a crushing mortgage and his splurges on motorcycles and strip clubs.
Anaya also learned that sometimes the best approach was to conceal his work. “Sound always sounds best when you have no idea where it’s coming from,” he says. “You want people to feel like they’re listening to magic.” To cater to clients who preferred stealth over flash, Anaya taught himself to build speaker boxes that fit into the irregularly shaped voids behind door panels and back seats.
That skill came in handy when customers started asking for traps, presumably as places to hide their weapons, cash, or weed from both cops and robbers. Anaya was happy to provide this service, which appealed to his innate sense of mischief. The first trap he ever saw, designed by one of his Super Sound mentors, was carved into a dashboard, with a door hinged on a power antenna that could be extended or retracted via remote control. Anaya ached to build similarly ingenious compartments that would dazzle his fellow gearheads, who adore innovations that seem plucked from the world of James Bond. “Blowing everyone’s mind, that’s what’s so rewarding about what we do—the feedback and adrenaline you get from that,” Anaya says. “I wanted my compartments to be more sophisticated than anybody else’s.”
By 2002, Anaya had become one of the most sought-after installers in Southern California, with a client list that included rappers, pro basketball players, and porn stars. Mobile Electronics honored him as one of the top 100 installers in the nation, and his systems were later featured in the bikini-laden pages of magazines like Lowrider and Lug. Anaya capitalized on his fame to open his own shop, Valley Custom Audio Fanatics, in a San Fernando storefront. A year later, shortly before he married a woman named Aimee Basham, Anaya persuaded an investor to help him move into larger quarters in nearby North Hollywood. Excited by the opportunity, Anaya spent a month making the new shop’s centerpiece, a 12-foot-long fiberglass display case fashioned to resemble an alien’s spine. His dad, Gabriel, who was suffering from terminal colon cancer, visited the store shortly before its grand opening. As he unpacked crates of gear, Alfred spotted his withered father sitting on a speaker box, beaming with pride over all his son had accomplished. “Maybe the greatest memory I have,” Anaya says.
But that happy moment was soon overshadowed by Valley Custom Audio’s financial woes. Like many people blessed with formidable creative talent, Anaya was a horrendous manager of both time and money. He took on too many projects and failed to keep track of expenditures. Stressed by the burdens of business ownership, he began to drink too much, downing beer after beer as he struggled to finish cars that were weeks behind schedule. His personal finances became a mess too, thanks to a crushing mortgage and his lavish spending on motorcycles, strip clubs, and camping trips with his two young sons. (One of the boys was from a relationship prior to his marriage to Basham.)
In 2007, Anaya was forced to move the failing business to his home—much to the annoyance of Basham, who hated the constant din of generators out by the garage. But Anaya’s troubles persisted: Shady customers stiffed him for thousands, yet he kept buying the finest Rockford Fosgate subwoofers and Snap-on tools with his overburdened credit cards.
The only bright spot for Valley Custom Audio was its burgeoning trade in traps. Anaya didn’t advertise this service, but satisfied customers referred their friends. He charged $4,000 to $5,000 per compartment, far more than he earned from the typical stereo installation. Best of all, these customers paid on time, and they paid in cash. By the end of 2008, trap building represented about 70 percent of Anaya’s workload.
He knew full well that he was flirting with danger—he could certainly guess how some of his traps might be used. But he also thought that California’s law on hidden compartments, one of the very few in the nation, offered clear guidance: Building a trap was illegal only if it was done with the “intent to store, conceal, smuggle, or transport a controlled substance.” Based on his consultations with fellow installers, Anaya believed he would cross that line only if a client specifically mentioned drugs.
So Anaya adopted a policy similar to the one used by shops that sell bongs: He would turn away anyone who used drug-related lingo when ordering a trap. As long as a customer was discreet, Anaya saw no problem with taking their money.
ff_stashspots2_large Paul Pope
The forefather of modern trap making was a French mechanic who went by the name of Claude Marceau (possibly a pseudonym). According to a 1973 Justice Department report, Marceau personally welded 160 pounds of heroin into the frame of a Lancia limousine that was shipped to the US in 1970—a key triumph for the fabled French Connection, the international smuggling ring immortalized in film.
Traps like Marceau’s may be difficult to detect, but they require significant time and expertise to operate. The only way to load and unload one of these “dumb” compartments is by taking a car apart, piece by piece. That makes economic sense for multinational organizations like the French Connection, which infrequently transport massive amounts of narcotics between continents. But domestic traffickers, who must ferry small shipments between cities on a regular basis, can’t sacrifice an entire car every time they make a delivery. They need to be able to store and retrieve their contraband with ease and then reuse the vehicles again and again.
Early drug traffickers stashed their loads in obvious places: wheel wells, spare tires, the nooks of engine blocks. Starting in the early 1980s, however, they switched to what the Drug Enforcement Administration refers to as “urban traps”: medium-size compartments concealed behind electronically controlled facades. The first such stash spots were usually located in the doors of luxury sedans; trap makers, who are often moonlighting auto body specialists, would slice out the door panels and then attach them to the motors that raised and lowered the windows. They soon moved on to building traps in dashboards, seats, and roofs, with button-operated doors secured by magnetic locks. Over time, the magnets gave way to hydraulic cylinders, which made the doors harder to dislodge during police inspections.
By the early 1990s, however, drug traffickers had discovered that these compartments had two major design flaws. The first was that the buttons and switches that controlled the traps’ doors were aftermarket additions to the cars. This made them too easy to locate—police were being trained to look for any widgets that hadn’t been installed on the assembly line.
Second, opening the traps was no great challenge once a cop identified the appropriate button: The compartment’s door would respond to a single press. Sometimes the police would even open traps by accident; a knee or elbow would brush against a button during a vigorous search, and a brick of cocaine would appear as if by magic.
Trap makers responded to the traffickers’ complaints by tapping into the internal electrical systems of cars. They began to connect their compartments to those systems with relays, electromagnetic switches that enable low-power circuits to control higher-power circuits. (Relays are the reason, for example, that the small act of turning an ignition key can start a whole engine.) Some relays won’t let current flow through until several input circuits have been completed—in other words, until several separate actions have been performed. By wiring these switches into cars, trap makers could build compartments that were operated not by aftermarket buttons but by a car’s own factory-installed controls.
“With the relay switches, you can only have access to the compartment if you do a series of events in exactly the right sequence,” says Michael Lewis, the sheriff of Wicomico County, Maryland, who became a nationally recognized expert on traps during his 22-year career as a state trooper. A typical sequence will consist of pushing a variety of switches a specific number of times: a window switch three times, a door lock four times, the rear defroster button twice. But for trap makers who are particularly adept with relays, the complexity of the unlocking sequence is limited only by their imaginations. Many rig the electronics so that the compartment won’t open unless all of the vehicle’s doors are closed—something that is rarely the case during a roadside search. Another tactic is to link a trap with the pressure sensor beneath the driver’s seat, so that the compartment can’t be opened unless someone is sitting behind the wheel.
In recent years, trap makers have competed to see who can dream up the most elaborate opening tricks. The acknowledged masters of this art are the Dominican-born installers of the Bronx, many of whom work out of auto body shops on Jerome Avenue—a gritty strip that DEA agents call the Silicon Valley of trap making. “The Dominicans started doing voice activation about six years ago,” says Lewis, who teaches classes in trap recognition to law-enforcement agencies nationwide. “I have videotape of a Dominican trap—you have to activate cruise control, pull one window up while you pull another window down, and you speak. And when you speak, you complete a circuit and activate the compartment. It’s pretty badass.”
But the ultimate measure of a compartment’s worth is not how hard it is to open but how hard it is to find. A cop may never be able to guess the event sequence that opens a trap’s door, but that obstacle is irrelevant if the compartment’s existence is betrayed by faulty craftsmanship—a stray wire poking out from under a seat cushion or a haphazard bead of metal bonding. If there is any visual hint that a car contains a trap, police can often get a warrant to tear it apart. And even the most well-fortified compartment cannot withstand the incursions of drills and saws.
Alfred Anaya attracted a loyal clientele because his compartments were immaculate and therefore undetectable. He was meticulous to a fault, the sort of man who once painted his house 10 times because he couldn’t settle for anything less than the perfect shade of white. His customers, who gambled hundreds of thousands of dollars every time they put a shipment on the road, greatly appreciated his attention to detail. If Anaya was less diligent about understanding the legal nuances of his business, that wasn’t their problem.
Sometime in late 2008, Anaya received a call from a customer who lived in the San Diego area. The man wanted him to fix a malfunctioning trap located in Tijuana. Anaya was scared to venture across the border; as much as he hated to renege on his warranty, he refused to go to Mexico.
Anaya thought he had protected himself by turning down the job, but the damage had been done the moment he answered the phone. This particular customer was the target of a DEA investigation, and agents had eavesdropped on their conversation. The DEA decided to tap Anaya’s phone too, in an effort to identify other drug traffickers who were having traps built by Valley Custom Audio.
Shortly after that tap went live on January 30, 2009, agents heard Anaya tell Esteban Magallon Maldanado that he had finished repairing the Ford F-150—the truck with the trap that had been jammed with cash. Maldanado and his partner, Cesar Bonilla Montiel, picked up the vehicle at once, for they had an important delivery to make: Their associates in Kansas City, Kansas, were expecting a shipment of 6 kilos of cocaine and 5 pounds of methamphetamine.
Running drugs from Southern California to Kansas was a highly profitable endeavor for Maldanado and Montiel. The two men frequented underground cockfights, where they would arrange to purchase cocaine and meth from a pair of high-level Mexican wholesalers they knew only as Suki and Gordito. They would then hire drivers to transport the product to Kansas City, where further distribution was handled by a brash twentysomething dealer named Curtis Crow.
On this particular trip in February 2009, Maldanado and Montiel hired a cocaine addict named Jaime Rodriguez to drive the F-150 to Kansas City. Rodriguez was nearly at the end of the 1,600-mile journey when the Kansas Highway Patrol pulled him over for speeding. A suspicious officer sent the vehicle to be searched by a K-9 unit at a Topeka garage. The dog indicated the possible presence of drugs, so a trooper went over every inch of the truck by hand. But try as he might, he could not locate the trap behind the backseat. Rodriguez was eventually allowed to drive away with more than 18 pounds of drugs still hidden in the truck. There could be no greater testament to Anaya’s value to the business, though Anaya himself knew nothing of this near miss.
Over the next several weeks, Maldanado and Montiel paid Anaya to build traps in three more vehicles: the Honda Ridgeline that they had dropped off while getting the F-150 fixed, a 2007 Toyota Camry, and a 2008 Toyota Sequoia. The Ridgeline made a run to Kansas in March, while the Sequoia and the Camry were part of a convoy in April. Those trips brought Crow another 9 kilograms of cocaine and 9 pounds of meth.
But the cars Anaya had worked on were rapidly losing their powers to deceive. On April 5, for example, the California Highway Patrol stopped the Sequoia and found the trap with ease, seizing more than $106,000 in cash. On April 24, the CHP stopped the Camry and again found the trap. This one contained 2 pounds of meth. The tap on Anaya’s phone, combined with surveillance of his house, was giving the DEA all the intelligence it needed to frustrate his clients.
Obviously unaware of the DEA’s scrutiny, Maldanado and Montiel feared that Anaya had become a snitch. They cut off all contact with the trap maker and got rid of any vehicles he had touched.
But despite these precautions, the California-to-Kansas operation was too reckless to elude the authorities for long. Crow, in particular, was wildly incautious: He robbed fellow dealers, hired friends with drug habits, and got high on his own supply. After the DEA traced a phone call that Montiel had made to the house where Crow stored his drugs, it was only a matter of time before the organization was crushed.
The inevitable end came in September 2009, after a driver who had been caught with 8 kilos of cocaine agreed to cooperate with the DEA. Virtually all of the ring’s participants were immediately rounded up, save for Maldanado, who went on the lam. (He was finally captured in Riverside, California, in March 2012.) Anaya, of course, did not hear a word about these arrests; he hadn’t been contacted by either Maldanado or Montiel since the spring. He was now busy dealing with two personal crises: a mounting pile of debt that totaled nearly $55,000, not including his underwater mortgage, and the dissolution of his marriage to Basham, who had become fed up with his workaholism and carousing and filed for divorce.
On November 18, as Anaya drove his Ford F-350 through a Home Depot parking lot, he noticed a dark sedan that seemed to be shadowing him in an adjacent aisle. He thought the car might belong to friends. But when the sedan stopped in front of him, the men who got out were strangers to Anaya. They identified themselves as DEA agents and ordered him out of his truck. “You know why we’re here,” one agent said to Anaya, who was bewildered to be in handcuffs for the first time in his life. “Your compartments.”
The agents took Anaya to the DEA’s office in downtown Los Angeles, where they questioned him at length. Anaya spoke freely about his traps, estimating that he had built 15 over the past year. He even boasted about his perfectionism, stressing that he was always careful to conceal his wire harnesses.
The agents told Anaya that he could avoid any potential legal complications by doing them a big favor: They wanted him to outfit his clients’ cars with GPS trackers and miniature cameras, so the DEA could build cases against suspected traffickers. They told him to take a few days to mull over the offer, then they released him from custody.
The next day, a dazed Anaya drove to his father’s grave to meditate on the choice before him. The epiphany he had while kneeling by the headstone wasn’t comforting. “I had a feeling that no matter what decision I made, something bad was going to happen,” Anaya says. “But I couldn’t do anything that would put my family in danger.” And while he felt he could handle jail time, he worried that any trafficker big enough to interest the DEA would have no compunctions about killing his children, nieces, and nephews. That made the decision clear.
When Anaya told the DEA that he was too frightened to become an informant, the agents made a new, more enticing proposition: They would set up Valley Custom Audio in a deluxe storefront, complete with every piece of equipment that Anaya desired. They wouldn’t ask him to place any surveillance gadgets in cars, but the shop would be bugged from floor to ceiling.
Once again, Anaya refused.
On December 10, Anaya was arrested and subsequently charged in Los Angeles Superior Court for “false compartment activity.” He was initially denied bail, in part because an illegal assault rifle and a bulletproof vest had been discovered in his house during a police search. (“Y’know, hey, I like to shoot guns,” Anaya says unapologetically; he has two large pistols tattooed on his chest.) His lawyer advised him that, given his totally clean criminal record, he was unlikely to spend much time behind bars for such a minor offense.
But in March 2010, Anaya received grim and surprising news: The federal government was taking over the case, and it was going to prosecute him in Kansas—a state he had never set foot in.
Prosecutions of trap makers are exceedingly rare. There is no federal law against building hidden compartments, even if they’re made with the sole intent of smuggling drugs. The Justice Department occasionally goes after trap makers for violating statutes that ban the sale of drug paraphernalia, but these are difficult cases to make; they require hard evidence, such as an audio recording, that proves the defendant was explicitly told how his compartment would be used. Anaya was never caught on tape discussing drugs.
But the prosecutors in Kansas went after Anaya for a much graver crime than selling paraphernalia: They indicted him as a full-fledged conspirator in the California-to-Kansas trafficking operation. Even though he had never seen or touched any drugs and had been shunned as an informant after building just four traps in exchange for less than $20,000, Anaya faced the exact same charge as Maldanado, Montiel, and Crow.
This aggressive legal stratagem was almost without precedent. The only similar case on record was that of Frank Rodriguez Torres, a New York trap maker who was extradited to North Carolina in 1998. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
By the time Anaya was placed in custody in Kansas in April 2010, virtually all of the case’s 23 defendants were scrambling to cut deals. But Anaya resisted his court-appointed lawyer’s advice to plead guilty; he still couldn’t fathom how building traps made him a drug trafficker, and he was confident that a jury would sympathize with his plight.
When the trial started on January 25, 2011, the lead prosecutor, an assistant US attorney named Sheri McCracken, argued that Anaya was one of the main reasons the smuggling ring had evolved into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The organization “moved up in the world when they met Mr. Anaya,” she told the jury. “He built supreme compartments, and because he did that, drug hauling became easier … But for Mr. Anaya’s compartment building, lots of loads would be lost.”
The primary evidence against Anaya was the testimony of Montiel, who had agreed to cooperate with the government. While in jail in Kansas, he had initially signed an affidavit stating that Anaya had nothing to do with the conspiracy. But he later recanted, claiming that Anaya had enlisted a fellow inmate to intimidate him into signing the document. (Anaya denies this charge.) On the witness stand, Montiel vividly described the incident with the F-150’s broken trap, when Anaya had glimpsed more than $800,000 in cash. The prosecutor contended that seeing such a large sum was tantamount to seeing drugs, since Anaya surely must have deduced the source of the money.
Montiel also shared a potentially damning anecdote regarding the negotiations over the Honda Ridgeline’s trap. “We asked him to build us a hidden compartment for 10 kilos,” he testified. “I remember we had problems because he asked, ‘Well, what’s a kilo like?’ I remember I saw a brick on the ground, and I said, ‘It’s a little bit bigger than this. I need you to do it for 10.ʼ”
This was the only evidence that directly linked Anaya to drugs. But it was unrecorded and uncorroborated, and Anaya’s attorney made some headway by painting Montiel as a man who would say anything to reduce his own sentence. (Anaya points out—correctly—that his San Fernando home contains no brick.)
McCracken’s case may have been largely circumstantial, but she did an effective job of portraying Anaya as a man who enjoyed the perks of drug trafficking. She spoke of his “expensive motorcycles and four-wheel bikes to go on the sand,” his collection of guns, and his vast array of Snap-on tools. On several occasions, she mentioned that he had a backyard pool “custom built with his name in the bottom of it in marble.”
Anaya’s lawyer tried to explain that all of these supposed extravagances had been bought on credit and that his client was on the brink of bankruptcy. The name by his pool—not in it, as McCracken had claimed—was an $8 DIY project hacked together from grinding concrete and artfully applied stain. But the jury bought into McCracken’s narrative; it convicted Anaya on all counts.
At his sentencing on January 4, 2012, a visibly nervous Anaya addressed the court for the first time, expressing his feelings of regret and confusion:
I built these compartments just like any other business that I had, doing stereo business, customizing needs to people’s needs in their vehicles, and I admit there was probably some irresponsibility of building these things, but I was only—I just figured it would be, like, as long as I didn’t know what was going on—and don’t want to know—there was no law against it … If I had known there was a law against it, I wouldn’t be here. If there was a law that says these compartments are illegal to build, I would not build them. If I had known this was going to happen to me, I wouldn’t have done it.
McCracken took no pity on him. “He makes the drug world work,” she told the judge. “He is equivalent to what I consider somewhat of a genius that takes cocaine and molds them into shapes so that they can be moved in plain sight … I don’t feel bad at all today. In fact, this is a pleasure. And Mr. Anaya says that he’s part of this big group of people that puts in compartments. He’s part of this secret society, I guess. Well, I hope he tells a friend, because we’re coming for them.”
The judge agreed with McCracken’s harsh assessment. He sentenced Anaya to 292 months in federal prison—more than 24 years—with no possibility of parole. Curtis Crow and Cesar Bonilla Montiel, the men at the top of the organization, received sentences half that length.
A common hacker refrain is that technology is always morally neutral. The culture’s libertarian ethos holds that creators shouldn’t be faulted if someone uses their gadget or hunk of code to cause harm; the people who build things are under no obligation to meddle in the affairs of the adults who consume their wares.
But Alfred Anaya’s case makes clear that the government rejects that permissive worldview. The technically savvy are on notice that they must be very careful about whom they deal with, since calculated ignorance of illegal activity is not an acceptable excuse. But at what point does a failure to be nosy edge into criminal conduct? In light of what happened to Anaya, that question is nearly impossible to answer.
“What’s troubling a lot of people is that this conviction seems to impose a new sort of liability on people that create state-of-the-art technology,” says Branden Bell, an attorney in Olathe, Kansas, who is handling Anaya’s appeal. “The logic goes that because he suspected his customers of doing something, he had a duty to ask. But that is a duty that is written nowhere in the law.”
The challenge for anyone who creates technology is to guess when, exactly, they should turn their back on paying customers. Take, for example, a manufacturer of robot kits for hobbyists. If someone uses those robots to patrol a smuggling route or help protect a meth lab so that traffickers can better evade law enforcement, how will prosecutors determine whether the company acted criminally? If it accepted payment in crumpled $20 bills and thus should have known it was dealing with gangsters? If the customer picked up the merchandise in an overly flashy car? The law offers scant guidance, but prosecutors have tremendous leeway to pursue conspiracy charges whenever they see fit. And as 3-D printers enable the unfettered production of sophisticated objects, those prosecutors will be tempted to make examples out of people who are careless about their clients.
Anaya can attest to the great sorrows of becoming such an example. When I visited him at the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex, on the sun-cooked edge of California’s Mojave Desert, he was still coming to grips with the desolation of prison life. His ex-wife, Aimee Basham, with whom he recently reconciled, brings the family to visit at least once a month. But Anaya is anguished by the prison’s restrictions on personal contact with his children; he can scarcely believe that his youngest son will never again sit on his lap. And he bemoans the financial disaster that has befallen his family in his absence—ING Direct foreclosed on the house, and his other creditors are hounding Basham for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.
Above all, Anaya seems baffled that he will likely spend the next two decades in prison for doing something that isn’t specifically forbidden by federal law. “If it takes me never building another compartment again for me to get out of here, that’s what I’m willing to do,” he says. “But I think I should be able to.”
As he waits for his appeal to be heard, Anaya is trying to earn money to help support his family. He applied to work as a mechanic in Victorville’s motor pool but was rejected as a security risk. He instead started his own business, fixing his fellow inmates’ radios. Years ago his childhood junk drawer was filled with circuit boards. Today, his prison locker overflows with spare parts.
Contributing editor Brendan I. Koerner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, to be published in June.
HackerNewsBot debug: Calculated post rank: 89 - Loop: 356 - Rank min: 80 - Author rank: 15