A former Anchorage police officer who turned out to be in this country illegally was sentenced Thursday to three months in prison, three years probation and a $10,000 fine.
Rafael Mora-Lopez left the federal courtroom in tears, making his way slowly through a crowd of supporters who had come to the sentencing. Amid hugs, handshakes and an outpouring of emotion, Mora-Lopez thanked them for coming. Some of those included former colleagues on the Anchorage Police Department.
Mora-Lopez pleaded guilty to one count of passport fraud and one count of falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen. He could have been sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Mora-Lopez and his attorney declined to comment. He still faces a state court sentencing on Sept. 16 in connection with fraudulently receiving Permanent Fund dividend checks. He's already repaid $27,000 in dividends to the state.
Mora-Lopez, 47, came to the U.S. 22 years ago after receiving a chemical engineering degree from the University of Guadalajara. He has said in a letter to the court that someone offered him an easy way across the border so he took it.
In court on Thursday, his attorney, Allen Dayan, told U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess that Mora-Lopez grew up in poverty and put himself through college. A young man without privilege from Guadalajara would have had little chance to immigrate to the U.S. legally, Dayan said.
"There would have been no chance of him getting a visa," Dayan said.
But assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bradley argued that with a chemical engineering degree Mora-Lopez would likely have been able to come to this country legally. He just got impatient, Bradley said, and stole a neighbor's identity.
That identity belongs to Rafael Espinoza, a U.S. citizen and practicing attorney who has lived in Mexico for many years and continues to reside there. Dayan told the court that Espinoza's sister gave Mora-Lopez's sister Espinoza's documents to allow him to come to the U.S.
Espinoza did not participate in the hearing Thursday although he had been invited to call in. He also did not provide a written statement to the court.
Bradley said Espinoza does consider himself a victim and that he is concerned that if he returns to the U.S. he will have trouble from some of the things Mora-Lopez did while using his name, including filing for bankruptcy.
Mora-Lopez was able to get away with the deception for decades because since Espinoza lived in Mexico there were no duplicate tax filings or other employment records. Mora-Lopez had received passports in 1991 and 2001 using Espinoza's name, but when he applied for renewal in 2011 it turned out Espinoza had also recently applied for a passport and the State Department began investigating.
The case led them to Mora-Lopez, a six-year veteran of the Anchorage police force. Bradley said when two detectives knocked on Mora-Lopez's door and confronted him he immediately admitted that he had been in the country illegally and revealed his real name.
"He knew that day was coming, probably from the day he got here," Bradley said. "Somebody was going to knock on that door."
By that time though, according to Dayan, Mora-Lopez had "begun to think of himself as Espinoza."
'Hard to measure' Mora-Lopez's harm to police criminal investigations
People ask how he passed the police department lie detector, Dayan said, but he truly thought of himself as "Mr. Espinoza."
When Mora-Lopez first came to Alaska he got a job "cleaning toilets" at a fish processor, Dayan said. He later went to work for the Municipality of Anchorage as a bus driver and then decided to join the police department, which was looking for qualified Spanish-speaking officers at the time.
Mora-Lopez has been considered an exemplary police officer. He was honored for saving lives, worked with the mentally ill and as an investigator of major felony crimes.
Since his arrest, Mora-Lopez has gotten international attention, including plenty of coverage in his home state of Guadalajara. Dayan described the area as heavily into drug trafficking and said Mora-Lopez's father's home has been under surveillance by people presumed to be associated with the drug cartels.
"Everyone knows he's a police officer up here," Dayan said, adding that it was likely Mora-Lopez would be killed "within a matter of hours" if he were sent back to Mexico.
Whether Mora-Lopez will be deported is unclear. He remains free on bond and will report to the Bureau of Prisons to serve his three-month sentence, most likely at a federal facility in Seattle, Bradley suggested Thursday.
Burgess ordered him to cooperate with immigration authorities once he's finished the jail time but said deportation is a matter for immigration, not the court, to decide.
Mora-Lopez's wife's status as a naturalized citizen also may be in jeopardy. Mora-Lopez used his false status as a U.S. citizen to bring his wife, who is also a chemical engineer, to the country. She was granted an expedited naturalization process, became a citizen and goes by the name Cynthia Espinoza.
Bradley said the statute of limitations has passed for her and she is not facing criminal charges. But there is a process by which someone can be de-naturalized, Bradley said, noting that it had been frequently used in connection with Nazi war criminals who lied about their identities in order to hide out in the U.S.
Bradley, a former police officer himself before becoming a prosecutor, said there's no question that Mora-Lopez was a good officer and very well-liked by people on the police department and in the community. He also is not a threat to public safety and no sentence issued to Mora-Lopez would deter millions of others seeking to enter the country illegally.
But calling him a "successful white collar criminal," Bradley argued for a year in prison and a fine of $250,000 to send the message that the law itself is important and needs to be followed.
Dayan asked for probation and a maximum fine of $10,000.
"People don't just like him, they love him," Dayan said, later asking the court to recognize that "he one of the finest people to ever sit at the defense table."
Burgess, who has handled a lot of immigration cases, agreed with that characterization. But, he said, most of the illegal immigrants who find themselves seated in his courtroom have come to the U.S. from desperate circumstances. Mora-Lopez, he pointed out, had many advantages the others didn't have including education and good job prospects in Mexico.
The damage to the community, his friends and family and especially to the criminal cases Mora-Lopez was involved in as a police officer is "pretty hard to measure," Burgess said.
"The enormity of misrepresentation" Mora-Lopez committed can't be overlooked and there needs to be some respect for the law, the judge said.
He specifically rejected a request by Dayan for home confinement and said Mora-Lopez should be incarcerated for three months.
"There were plenty of ways you could have done this legally," Burgess told Mora-Lopez, "and that's too bad because everything you've built has been destroyed."
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com