Refugio Ruiz Cortez

On July 8, 1999, Chicago police narcotics officers Glen Lewellen and Noel Sanchez arrested 29-year-old Refugio Ruiz Cortez in Aurora, Illinois and charged him with possession of 10 kilograms of cocaine. At the time, police said it was the largest seizure of cocaine in the city’s history.
 
Ruiz Cortez was indicted by a federal grand jury and went on trial in U.S. District Court in Chicago in December 1999.
 
Lewellen testified that he and Sanchez went to investigate an apartment building in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, after receiving a tip about narcotics trafficking occurring there.
 
Lewellen said that at 4:30 p.m. Sanchez began watching the front of the building, while he parked 450 to 500 feet away and watched the rear entrance with binoculars. He said he saw a van pull into the driveway of the building and Ruiz Cortez get out and go inside. On three separate occasions, Ruiz Cortez came onto the back porch, looked around and went back inside.
 
At 7:30 p.m., Lewellen said a silver car without license plates pulled up to the rear of the building and backed up to the porch. Lewellen said he sensed a narcotics transaction was about to occur, so he moved his car closer to the building. He said he saw Ruiz Cortez come out of the building carrying a bag, so he immediately drove up next to the silver car. Lewellen said Ruiz Cortez dropped the bag and ran into the building, while the silver car sped off.
 
The police officers found Ruiz Cortez in his apartment in the rear of the building. Police also found $1,800 hidden inside a vacuum cleaner in the apartment. The bag that Ruiz Cortez dropped contained cocaine that police said was worth more than $1 million on the street. No drugs, drug paraphernalia or other signs of drug trafficking were found in Ruiz Cortez’s apartment. The silver car was never located.
 
Ruiz Cortez testified that he had not carried the bag of cocaine and was not involved in drug trafficking. He said that he had arrived home from his construction job at about 6 p.m. and was lying down after eating dinner when the officers knocked on the door and arrested him.
 
The defense also argued that fingerprints found on the bag of narcotics did not belong to Ruiz Cortez.
 
The jury convicted Ruiz Cortez on December 22, 1999. In March, 2000, he was sentenced to 17½ years in prison.

Ten years later, in May 2010, federal prosecutors notified Ruiz Cortez that they had evidence that Lewellen had testified falsely at his trial.
 
Lewellen, who left the police department in 2002 to start a home construction business, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2010 on charges of framing Ruiz Cortez. He and several drug traffickers were also charged with teaming up with a former drug informant to help a group of drug-traffickers who committed at least two murders, and who kidnapped and tortured rival drug dealers to steal their money and drugs.
 
The indictment alleged that in 1996 Lewellen arrested Saul Rodriguez for drug trafficking and offered Rodriguez a deal to become his informant. Rodriguez accepted, and over the next five years he was paid more than $800,000 in police funds for working as an informant.
 
During that time, according to the indictment, Lewellen allowed Rodriguez to continue trafficking drugs. He also tipped Rodriguez off to a wiretap and provided other assistance.
 
Along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, Ruiz Cortez’s attorneys presented a joint motion to vacate his conviction and dismiss the charges. The motion was granted on May 31, 2010 by U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who later wrote a letter of apology to Ruiz Cortez.
 
Lewellen was convicted of conspiracy in January 2012 after Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty, testified against him.
 
In his testimony, Rodriguez testified that one of his associates threatened to harm Ruiz Cortez unless he agreed to store the 10 kilograms of cocaine in his house in Aurora.
 
Rodriguez then arranged for one of his drug couriers to pick up the drugs from Ruiz Cortez and then tipped Lewellen off to the ensuing transaction.
 
Federal prosecutors interviewed the drug courier, who told them that she went to Ruiz Cortez’s apartment building where Ruiz Cortez gave her the cocaine and she put it into her trunk. Before she could drive away, however, Lewellen drove up and demanded she open the trunk, which she did from inside the car. Lewellen took the cocaine, put it in his car and then ordered her to leave, the courier said.
 
At Ruiz Cortez’s trial, Lewellen gave a vastly different—and untrue—version of what happened, according to Rodriguez.
 
For his role in the Ruiz Cortez arrest, Rodriguez had been paid $10,000 by the Chicago Police Department.
 
In November 2010, Ruiz Cortez filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against Lewellen and his partner in Ruiz Cortez’s arrest. That lawsuit was pending in October 2012.
 
In May 2013, Lewellen was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
 
– Maurice Possley
 

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State:Fed-IL
County:
Most Serious Crime:Drug Possession or Sale
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1999
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2010
Sentence:17.5 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age:29
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No