Updated at: 12/12/2012 1:06 PM
By JACQUES BILLEAUD
(AP) PHOENIX - A man who purchased two rifles found at the scene of the fatal shooting of a Border Patrol agent north of the U.S.-Mexico border was sentenced Wednesday to nearly five years in federal prison.
Jaime Avila Jr., 25, received a sentence of 57 months, a penalty on the lower end of federal guidelines, for his acknowledged role in a gun smuggling ring targeted in a botched federal investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious.
Two assault weapons acquired by Avila from a suburban Phoenix gun store were found in the aftermath of a 2010 shootout that mortally wounded Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry near the Arizona border city of Nogales. The firefight was between border agents and five men who had sneaked into the country from Mexico for the purpose of robbing marijuana smugglers.
Avila looked on without any visible emotion as Terry’s cousin, Robert Heyer, spoke on behalf of the agent’s family.
"It probably goes without saying that the Terry family wishes there was some way that Mr. Avila could be held responsible for Brian’s death," Heyer said as his voice cracked with emotion.
Avila, dressed in orange jail uniform and bound by handcuffs, said he wished he could change things and wants to be around for his young son.
"I just want to say sorry to the Terry family," Avila told the judge, adding that he was trying to change his life.
U.S. District Judge James Teilborg said it was clear that Avila showed remorse, but also pointed out the serious consequences of illegal gun purchases. "These were clearly weapons of war," Teilborg said.
Authorities say the ring that Avila worked for bought guns and smuggled weapons into Mexico for use by the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Avila isn’t charged in Terry’s death. Prosecutors have said straw buyers can’t be held criminally liable for violence committed by others with such illegally purchased guns.
Authorities have a separate case pending in federal court in Tucson against five men charged with murder in Terry’s death.
Prosecutor Shane Harrigan had asked for a stiff penalty, saying Avila’s involvement in the illegal weapons buys went beyond the 52 guns he bought for the ring and extended to the recruitment of two others who purchased dozens of weapons. "He was more than just a mere straw purchaser," Harrigan said, adding that Avila didn’t care about the violence associated with illegal gun buys.
Avila’s attorney, Candice Shoemaker, sought leniency, saying her client wasn’t a leader in the ring and had an expensive drug problem. "His involvement in this case was because of that substance abuse," Shoemaker said.
Federal authorities conducting the Fast and Furious investigation have faced tough criticism for allowing suspected straw gun buyers for the ring to walk away from gun shops in Arizona with weapons, rather than arrest the suspects and seize the guns there.
The investigation was launched in 2009 to catch trafficking kingpins, but agents lost track of about 1,400 of the more than 2,000 weapons, some of which were later found at crime scenes in Mexico and the U.S.
Mexico’s drug cartels often seek out guns in the U.S. because gun laws in Mexico are more restrictive than in the U.S.
So far, 15 of the 20 people charged in the gun case pleaded guilty to charges.
Records show a Jan. 3 trial has been set for five other alleged ring members.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)