About two hours before sunrise in Laguna Beach on June 13, 2013, a Mexican man stood on the shoreline and used his cell phone light to signal the landing spot for a boat loaded with 23 foreign nationals–including a drug dealer–who wanted to enter the U.S. illegally.
But Jose Ricardo Paleta Tula's story isn't simply one of an organized crime soldier in a human smuggling operation.
Over the years, Tula repeatedly entered the U.S. illegally to help improve his family's impoverished condition, worked jobs, saved money, stayed crime-free except for lying to get a California driver's license, and eventually built his own small business in Mexico.
His success ended after a Mexican gang kidnapped and severely beat him for not making regular extortion payments. After his release, he sent his family away in hiding and decided to return to the U.S. to find work and start over.
Afraid of the ocean, Tula paid someone to bring him across the land border near San Diego and, because he couldn't afford the full cost of the smuggling fee, was placed in a "safe house" until someone in his family sent the additional funds.
Leaders in the smuggling operation eventually offered him a deal: participate in the Laguna Beach operation and win relief of the debt.
He accepted, performed his task and got arrested by U.S. immigration officers monitoring the California coast.
(As usual, the smuggling bosses avoided identification and capture.)
Federal officials believe Tula's crime deserved a punishment of 70 months in prison, particularly because he's been a repeat offender of immigration laws and served a related 10-month sentence in 2003.
Tula's defense lawyer argued that government agents incorrectly didn't reward the defendant–who was born in 1970–with "minor role" status in their punishment calculations and requested a term of 46 months as appropriate.
But U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney didn't agree with anyone.
Inside Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, Carney–a 2003-appointee of President George W. Bush–determined the right punishment is 30 months.
Tula will be deported back to Mexico when he emerges from federal prison.