CASA GRANDE — The state’s top law enforcement officials stood next to a display of drugs and guns as reporters snapped photos and jotted down notes.
It was October 2009.
Then-Attorney General Terry Goddard and then-Sheriff Paul Babeu were holding a press conference to announce the dismantling of a major drug trafficking network in Pinal County.
It was described as a major victory after months of investigation involving several law enforcement agencies throughout Arizona.
Next to the bundles of drugs was a mugshot of Robert (aka Roberto) Hernandez, the man accused of being the ringleader behind the drug ring.
By the time the press conference was being held, Hernandez was already sitting in the Pinal County jail and facing numerous felony charges. The 49-year-old Casa Grande businessman said he was shocked to hear the government’s allegations against him.
“I could not believe what they were saying,” Hernandez said in a recent interview with PinalCentral.
In a press release issued by Goddard’s office, authorities claimed Hernandez’s enterprise, nicknamed “Los Tusas,” had transported hundreds of pounds of marijuana from Mexico to Phoenix.
The drugs would be dropped off at stash houses in Pinal County and then distributed to other sites in Arizona. Authorities further accused Hernandez’s minions of impersonating cops to rob and possibly murder other drug smugglers.
Ten years later, Hernandez claims these allegations were not accurate and he was only guilty by association through people more heavily involved in the drug network.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wrote a report summarizing the case and submitted it into Hernandez’s court file.
The first sentence of the report reads, “... an investigation was initiated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (Administration) into the ‘Los Tusas’ drug trafficking organization operated by 22-year-old Edgar Felix.”
The name Edgar Felix is never mentioned in the attorney general’s press release. Nor was his name mentioned in any of the media coverage of the press conference.
In fact, PinalCentral could not locate any criminal charges filed in Pinal County against Felix related to the Los Tusas investigation. He had been arrested in 2008 near Maricopa for money laundering and placed on probation. Court records show he later violated his probation and there’s an outstanding warrant to arrest Felix.
In the DEA case summary, Felix’s name is mentioned 26 times. Hernandez’s name is listed four times and his relationship to Felix is not explained. According to the report, Felix would recruit several drivers to transport large shipments of marijuana on a weekly basis.
The DEA summary describes a complicated web of several characters swapping money and drugs to complete these transfers. It appears the investigation started with Felix and two other suspects, Fernando Maganllanez and David Chavez, before authorities were led to several other alleged associates like Hernandez through wiretaps and surveillance.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, now run by Mark Brnovich, admitted it decided not to tell the public about Felix in 2009.
“Edgar Felix was known to law enforcement, however, in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation at the time, his name was withheld from the press release,” wrote Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the agency, in a statement to PinalCentral.
The agency emphasized how Hernandez still pleaded guilty and received a nine-year sentence.
“Ringleader or not, his lengthy sentence speaks for itself and he was higher up in the organization,” Conner wrote in her statement.
A DEA spokesperson declined to answer questions about the case, referring any inquiries to the attorney general. PinalCentral requested all public records related to the DEA’s investigation on Hernandez and has not received a response.
Hernandez said he knew Felix because he had rented one of his properties — properties that later became subject to a civil forfeiture after Hernandez’s arrest. Investigators have the legal authority to seize the property of suspected criminals.
But Hernandez said he didn’t know Felix well and didn’t socialize with him. The two men were quite different; Hernandez was several years older than Felix and he was busy managing his business and properties.
Authorities would later obtain a warrant to search Hernandez’s residence and public records show no drugs or marijuana bundles were found on the property. Investigators did find a “Scarface” movie poster hanging on the wall, which they seized as evidence.
Hernandez was then taken into custody and was one of 20 suspects authorities planned to charge with conspiracy for having involvement in Felix’s drug network.
Despite claiming innocence, Hernandez chose to accept a plea agreement from the state and was sentenced to nine years in the Arizona Department of Corrections. He said the lawyer he hired was unhelpful and felt like he couldn’t fight the state’s allegations.
The state was basically holding a gun to his head, Hernandez said, by threatening a life sentence if he took his case to trial.
“How are you gonna beat them?” he said. “Because people are believing them.”
On the day of his sentencing in Pinal County Superior Court, Hernandez expressed his dissatisfaction with how his case was litigated, yet he decided to move forward with the plea agreement.
“I didn’t know lawyers were like used-car salesmen,” Hernandez told the court in 2010. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Hernandez doesn’t deny some of the employees of his construction and stucco business were possibly involved in the drug ring, but his involvement would have been minimal, at best.
Another suspect, David Chavez, told authorities in 2009 that Hernandez was not high up in the organization and knew little about the drug business.
“He does not know s--t,” Chavez told investigators. “Nothing goes nowhere near Robert. … He don’t get no big cut or anything.”
Maganllanez, another suspect the DEA claimed ran the drug ring before Felix took over, was asked by investigators what Hernandez did.
“He does construction,” Maganallez is heard saying in the recorded interview.
The investigator responded, “No, he’s involved with you as well.” They then asked how much Hernandez was paying Maganallez.
“He don’t pay me nothing,” Maganallez said. (Parts of the one-hour recording were difficult to hear due to poor audio quality.)
A couple weeks after these interviews with Chavez and Maganallez, the Attorney General’s Office held its press conference and told the world Hernandez was in charge of a drug operation.
Chavez and Maganallez each took plea deals with the state and both got shorter prison sentences than Hernandez.
As Hernandez began serving his prison sentence, some of the other defendants tried fighting their case in court. One of them, Johnny Calvin, tried to suppress evidence obtained through a wiretap placed on Hernandez’s phone.
Calvin was friends with Hernandez and got caught up in the investigation through a phone call the two of them had in 2009. In an interview, Calvin claims no transactions ever occurred between him and Hernandez; all the state had was this suspicious phone call, he said.
Calvin’s attorney filed a motion, arguing the wiretap on Hernandez was done improperly because investigators allegedly did not complete traditional forms of surveillance before trying to obtain a wiretap.
“In other words, the state simply jumped from wiretap to wiretap without regard to the necessity requirement,” Calvin’s attorney wrote in court records.
Calvin ended up taking a plea deal and was sentenced to prison. He’s still fighting his case on appeals and believes the whole case was depicted inaccurately in the media.
“The whole thing is a lie,” Calvin told PinalCentral from prison.
After Hernandez was convicted and sent to prison, a narrative continued to be pushed in the media that characterized him as the leader of this drug operation.
National Public Radio aired a story in 2011 on the criminal investigation and Hernandez was the only defendant named in the piece. Authorities told NPR Hernandez had up to 100 people working for him to move drugs across southern Arizona. Again, there was no mention of Edgar Felix.
Hernandez was released from prison in 2017 and began putting his life back together in Casa Grande. He’s now working regularly and has tried to move on from the ordeal.
His brother Cristobal “Cris” Hernandez Jr. is still fighting the case through civil litigation in federal court. He’s trying to get back assets seized during the investigation, arguing they had no connection to any criminal activity.
The brother is further trying to clear his name from the case since he was originally considered a possible suspect in the drug ring, though no charges were ever filed against him.
Cris Hernandez, a retired U.S. Army officer, recently wrote a letter to members of the Arizona Legislature about his brother’s case, alleging authorities artificially expanded the family’s criminal culpability to years before the 2009 investigation as a means to possibly skirt around forfeiture laws.
“This deception was necessary given that all properties seized by the state were acquired on or before 2007,” Hernandez wrote in the letter.