Jul 1, 2013 6:21 PM by Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) - A murder trial began Monday for an acknowledged immigrant smuggler accused of killing three rivals in Arizona who authorities said had hatched an unsuccessful plot to kidnap customers of the suspect.
Attorneys made opening statements in Superior Court in Phoenix during the trial of Nery Efrain Blas Ortiz, 31.
The trial was expected to highlight the lucrative yet dangerous tactic in which customers of a rival smuggler are stolen as a way to collect ransoms and eliminate the need to sneak people across the border.
Authorities say Ortiz worked for smugglers who were targeted by such a scheme, and an SUV chase led to the fatal shootings of Julian Reyes Godinez, Miguel Angel Vasquez Munoz and Alejandro Figuero Ruiz north of Phoenix on Feb. 26, 2006.
Investigators say Reyes Godinez had approached a driver for the smuggling group that employed Ortiz about the kidnapping plan.
However, the leaders of the group learned of the plot and arranged a double-cross by luring the would-be kidnappers to a remote spot in the desert near Phoenix that served as a staging area for immigrants awaiting transit elsewhere, authorities said.
Reyes Godinez and his two associates followed the SUV carrying Ortiz, smuggling group leader Miguel Angel Lozano Franco and Claudio Lopez Duran, authorities said.
The nighttime chase ended with the shooting at a cement production yard near the tiny Yavapai County community of Congress, authorities said. The bodies were found the next day by an employee of the cement yard.
Of the four people who authorities said carried out the ambush, two are in custody, while two others are fugitives.
Ortiz is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and other charges. Prosecutors aren't seeking the death penalty.
Luis Miguel Bertrand Gonzalez, the driver for the smuggling group who was allegedly approached about the rip-off plot, pleaded guilty to three second-degree murder charges in October 2010 and is awaiting sentencing.
Warrants were issued for the arrest of Lozano Franco and Lopez Duran, who remain fugitives.
Ortiz's attorney, Herman Alcantar, acknowledged that his client worked for smugglers but said Ortiz wasn't at the shootout scene and instead had stayed behind to guard the customers at the staging area. Ortiz has pleaded not guilty.
Bertrand Gonzalez, who is expected to testify against Ortiz, had told authorities that it was him who remained at the staging area and wasn't at the shooting scene.
In such kidnap schemes, armed smugglers usually pull over the vehicle of a rival, take the customers to a stash house, and pressure friends and relatives of the captives to scrape together money for ransoms that can reach $2,500 a person.