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Illegal immigrant cop defends himself in letter to judge

Patti Epler

"A piece of paper doesn't define a man but rather his actions."

That simple message is perhaps the most important point former Anchorage police officer Rafael Mora-Lopez and dozens of his supporters are making to a federal judge who next week will decide the fate of the illegal immigrant from Mexico who became a respected law enforcement officer.

"I came to this country with nothing, not even my real name," Mora-Lopez wrote in a three-page letter to U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess, "but from the first moment I stepped here, I worked hard every day of my life. I learned to love this country and respect it as if it was mine."

More than a dozen fellow Anchorage Police Department officers wrote letters on his behalf. So did another dozen or so other supporters -- mental health professionals he'd worked with on the job, church members, neighbors, lawyers and former co-workers from previous jobs. All are urging the court for leniency and understanding at sentencing which is scheduled for Aug. 25.

Federal prosecutors are seeking a year in prison, three years' probation and a $250,000 fine for Mora-Lopez. Late Thursday, his attorney, Allen Dayan of Anchorage, recommended Mora-Lopez be put on probation and assessed a fine of $10,000. Dayan and others in their letters urged the judge not to deport Mora-Lopez, arguing that as a former American police officer his life would be in jeopardy, particularly in light of drug cartel violence south of the border.

Thursday's letter to Burgess is the first time Mora-Lopez has publicly revealed details of his life as an illegal immigrant in Alaska and the reason he took that particular path, including the unusual step of becoming a police officer. Mora-Lopez has declined interview requests since his arrest earlier this year.

"Your Honor," his letter begins, "22 years ago I had a dream of a better future for me and my family."

After graduating from the University of Guadalajara with a degree in chemical engineering, he says, he couldn’t find a good job. He didn’t know much about immigration laws.

"Someone offered me an easy way to immigrate to the United States. I was young, without a job, in need of money and full of dreams, I took a chance and made a big mistake," Mora-Lopez wrote.

Mora-Lopez assumed the identity of Rafael Espinoza, a U.S. citizen. Some news reports have indicated Mora-Lopez knew Espinoza in Mexico. Mora-Lopez settled in Anchorage, where according to letters from his supporters, he worked at a number of different jobs and practiced his English.

His wife, who goes by Cynthia Espinoza, became a naturalized citizen. She too wrote a letter to the judge explaining that Rafael "just wanted the opportunity to offer a better life to his family, and indeed he has done it very well."

Their daughter, now 13, was born prematurely and in the neonatal intensive care unit for 76 days. The medical bills were costly and, according to a sentencing memorandum filed by prosecutors, put the Mora-Lopezes nearly $300,000 in debt. They filed for bankruptcy.

Mora-Lopez said he began thinking about his family's future after his daughter's birth and suggests he looked into obtaining legal citizenship. "The snowball continued rolling down the hill," he said. "I tried to fix this problem but I was told it was impossible."

He went to work for the Municipality of Anchorage as a bus driver. After Sept. 11, 2001, he said, "I felt that I wanted to do something to help my country."

Too old to join the military, he decided to become a police officer. The letter doesn't provide any insight into how Mora-Lopez passed a background check and polygraph exam required of all police officers.

He has been an Anchorage cop since 2005. "I was very proud of my job," Mora-Lopez wrote. "I put my life on the line of duty to keep our community safe for everybody including my family. I worked shoulder to shoulder with the most honorable and professional people. I enjoyed helping people and putting bad people behind bars."

Mora-Lopez worked on the Crisis Intervention Team which is trained to deal with mentally ill people who come in contact with the police. He also worked on the major crime unit, helping solve murders, rapes, assaults and other felony cases. Ironically, he even worked with federal immigration authorities to assist in the deportation of two people he'd arrested for assault.

"I always did the right thing," Mora-Lopez wrote. "I never took advantage of the system. As I said, I always took care of my responsibilities and tried to be the best father and a much better husband.

"I know what I did was wrong and for that I'm very sorry. If in any way my friends feel betrayed, they should know that I'm sorry but a piece of paper doesn't define a man but rather his actions."

Mora-Lopez closes the letter by apologizing to his fellow officers, his family and the community. He asks the judge to take into account that he has a lot to offer the community and he'd like to continue the service he'd started.

"I am asking for a second chance," Mora-Lopez said. "I know that in this big great country of us (sic) there is a place for me, and I will find a way to serve it."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com