A California man, who told police had embarked on a cross-country road trip to visit Yogi Bear, was sentenced to upward of 15 years behind bars after authorities found eight pounds of methamphetamine in his rental car’s spare tire.
Manuel Paz Sanchez Jr., 32, was charged with methamphetamine possession with intent to distribute following a highway stop by Montana state troopers nearly two years ago, a press release from The United States Attorney's Office in the District of Montana states.
On Dec. 12, 2017, Sanchez Jr. was pulled over by state police for “following too closely to the vehicle in front of it,” according to an arrest affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
Sanchez Jr., who is from California, told authorities he had recently rented the vehicle from an Enterprise-Rent-A-Car location in Sacramento. He claimed he was coming from Idaho, where had been visiting family. His wife, he said, had found a cheaper flight out of Bismarck, North Dakota, and he had planned to drive there and fly home. However, police, who were “suspicious” of his story, said he was unable to recall the name of the town he had come from in Idaho.
But when a Drug Enforcement Agency task force officer tried his luck questioning Sanchez Jr., things took an even stranger turn. The California man admitted he had driven across the country to visit cartoon character Yogi the Bear in Yellowstone Park, the affidavit reports.
Then, inside the center console of Sanchez Jr.’s Ford, police located a used tire repair kit, an “unusual” find, they said, given the car was a rental. In the trunk, investigators discovered the spare tire, which they suspected had been tampered with.
“[Police] removed the tire from the vehicle and dropped it on the ground to see whether it would bounce normally,” the arrest affidavit stated. “The tire barely bounced, which indicated that there was little to no air in the spare tire.”
Law enforcement took the spare to a repair shop in Columbus, Montana. Inside, were “six packages of vacuum sealed plastic, which were further wrapped in plastic cellophane inside vacuum sealed plastic, which contained suspected methamphetamine,” according to the arrest affidavit.
Authorities said the amount of meth seized was equivalent to tens of thousands of doses.
“People like Mr. Sanchez who try to push this poison in our communities will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Kurt Alme, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana, told Oxygen.com. "The amount of meth in this case, eight pounds, represents about 30,000 doses that would have been distributed to users."
Sanchez Jr. plead guilty in May to the charges against him. He was sentenced to 188 months behind bars on Thursday.
“It was a very harsh sentence,” Kelly Varnes, a public defender who represented Sanchez Jr., told Oxygen.com.
Yet Varnes, who said the sentence wasn’t “unexpected,” noted that his client’s punishment could have been much stiffer, saying Sanchez Jr. could've gotten closer to 20 years. But although his client had a past criminal record, Varnes said Sanchez Jr. is generally respected in his community.
“He had a rough go as a younger man,” Varnes explained. “As he matured, he had a good period of about five to seven years after he was released from California authorities to where he was taking care of his family — apparently very well — employed, [a] good worker, people liked him, that sort of stuff."
Sanchez Jr. worked for a roofing contractor and also as a tow truck driver, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
His former co-workers were floored when they learned Sanchez Jr. had been busted with eight pounds of meth.
“We were blown away that this happened to him,” Bob Davis, the general manager of Thermal Roof Systems, Sanchez Jr.’s former employer, told Oxygen.com.
Davis said Sanchez Jr. had worked for the company since 2015 prior to his arrest. He called him a “hard worker” who was “always on time.” Davis explained that Sanchez Jr. never failed one of the company’s drug tests.
“If you said, ‘Hey, this guy’s a drug dealer,’ I’d be like, ‘You got the wrong guy,’” Davis added. “It just didn’t fit the profile. This is a kid that came in, loaded up trucks, did his job, was always happy, telling a joke every once in a while. And now he’s going to prison for drug possession — it’s not a small amount.”
Davis said around the time of his former co-worker’s arrest, Sanchez Jr. was searching for a second nighttime job so he could take his family to Disneyland.
A handful of Sanchez Jr.’s family and friends were equally baffled by the charges against him and petitioned the courts for a lenient sentence during his trial, describing him as a “compassionate” family man with a “heart of gold,” who would “give you the shirt off his back,” according to court documents.
Sanchez Jr. plans to file an appeal based on whether or not Montana Highway Patrol had legal grounds to pull him over, Varnes said. The appeal could have his sentenced tossed out, but the public defender wasn’t hopeful his client would be successful. He said in his experience, sentences on such appeals are upheld “96 percent” of the time.
For now, Varnes said he expects Sanchez Jr. will be held in Montana for the next two to three weeks while officials determine where the 33-year-old will serve his sentence. The judge, Varnes said, suggested Sanchez Jr. carry out his time at a facility in his home state of California.
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