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Ex-Tucson cop gets 6.5 years for trafficking guns smuggled to Mexico

A Tucson man was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison Thursday for stealing the identities of two people he had contact with in his work as a police officer, and using their names to illegally purchase firearms — including one intercepted at the border and a .50-caliber rifle seized in Mexico, authorities said.

Nearly three dozen weapons were involved in the alleged conspiracy, authorities said, including two Barrett .50-caliber rifles, an AK-47-type rifle, and a series of .38 and 9mm pistols.

Joe Santiago Valles, 34, was sentenced to 78 months in prison after pleading guilty to a variety of charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, aiding and abetting false statements in firearms transactions, tampering, tampering with a witness, and identity theft.

According to court documents and statements by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Valles "stole the identities of two individuals he had contact with through his official duties" in his former work as a TPD officer.

Valles, who joined TPD in July 2012, resigned in December 2014 rather than be fired for being untruthful in an investigation unrelated to the federal case, a department spokesman said.

Valles relinquished his certification as a peace officer in August 2015, according to state records. TPD was not part of the investigation into the federal firearms charges, and was informed of the sentencing on Friday morning by the U.S. Attorney's Office, Sgt. Pete Dugan said. He did not indicate whether or not federal investigators had confirmed the ID thefts used information Valles obtained while on duty by checking internal TPD records.

From October 2015 through mid-May 2016, Valles worked with Timothy Veninga, a Tucson resident and holder of a Federal Firearms License, to illegally transfer weapons ownership, authorities said. Veninga has pleaded not guilty in the case and faces trial later this year.

Veninga has operated a gun dealership, Ballistic Firearms, out of his Northwest Side home. Valles worked with Veninga, painting firearms.

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According to an indictment naming both men, Valles and Veninga used the stolen names to fill out and submit ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) Forms 4473 required to purchase guns from a federally licensed dealer, concealing the identities of the true buyers.

The conspiracy involved a total of 35 firearm transactions, including 24 semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Of those, 29 transactions were made under the stolen identities, authorities said.

Court records showed that Valles had arrested one of the men whose identity was used on DUI charges in late 2014. Records from the arrest were found during a search of Valle's house. Another man whose name was also used on about two dozen of the forms had also been arrested by Valles while he was a TPD officer.

TPD's Dugan said he didn't have any details on the case that resulted in Valles ending his employment with the department, but said it was not connected with the firearms charges.

"One of the firearms was intercepted at the Nogales Port of Entry and a second firearm, a .50 caliber semi-automatic rifle, was seized by Mexican authorities," a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

According to the indictment filed against the pair, Joe Valles paid his brother, Josue Valles, $200 to fill out three ATF forms, including one for a Barrett .50 caliber rifle. The section of the forms describing the firearms purchased "was never completed in Josue's presence," the initial criminal complaint said. He also recruited his sister, Jessica Valles, to fill out two forms, and a man named Nibsan Ozuna Herrera to fill out another two, according to the indictment.

The plot unraveled, according the the account presented in the indictment and court papers, when ATF agents traced the pistol that was blocked from being smuggled south of the border in March 2016 back to Veninga's business. Although the serial number on the Kel-Tec PMR-30 had been removed, authorities were able to determine the number. Examining Veninga's records, they then discovered in mid-April 2016 that the driver's license number and concealed carry license number used on at least one of the forms did not match the name of one of the individuals whose name was used, without their permission.

Valles and Veninga then attempted to cover up the gun trafficking operation, authorities said.

According to authorities, after Veninga was interviewed by ATF about the paperwork, Valles and Veninga falsely reported to local law enforcement that the latter had been the "victim of an attempted home invasion by masked individuals."

Veninga later falsely claimed to ATF agents that one of the men whose identity had been used to fill out the ATF forms tied him up and gunpoint and took all of his FFL records and book recording firearms sales, the indictment said. Instead, authorities said, the gun dealer and Valles had destroyed and concealed the papers to cover up their actions.

Josue Valles, after being interviewed by federal agents last year, discussed the gun purchases in an April 25, 2016, meeting with his brother that was recorded, the court filing said.

Joe Valles told his brother that "all of the guns were already out of the country," an ATF agent wrote in the complaint.

"Honestly, you guys want me to tell you the truth? I already got rid of all the paperwork. ... No! It's me. I'm the one that did all the shit. I'm the one that's gonna go to prison. I'm the one that made all the f'ing sales," Joe Valles told his brother, according the the court filing.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com