Jenni Rivera: Plane Owner Speaks, DEA Continues to Explore Tumultuous Past

The man widely believed to be behind the aviation company whose plane crashed and killed Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera has a complicated legal past, but  is now responding to the press about his role with the company.

Nevada-based Starwood Management is under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The agency seized two of its planes earlier this year as part of the ongoing probe. It also subpoenaed all of the company’s records, including any correspondence it has had with a former Tijuana mayor who U.S. law enforcement officials have long suspected has ties to organized crime.

DEA spokeswoman Lisa Webb Johnson confirmed Thursday the planes, owned by Starwood, were seized in Texas and Arizona. She declined to discuss details of the case.

The man believed to be behind the aviation company is 50-year-old ex-convict Christian Esquino. Corporate records list his sister-in-law as the company’s only officer, but insurance companies that cover some of the firm’s planes say in court documents that the woman is merely a front and that Esquino is the one in charge.

Esquino is known for having a long and checkered legal past. Previously, he pleaded guilty to a fraud charge that stemmed from a major drug investigation in Florida in the early 1990s and most recently was sentenced to two years in federal prison in a California aviation fraud case. Esquino, a Mexican citizen, was deported upon his release. According to court records, Esquino and various other companies he has either been involved with or owns have also been sued for failing to pay millions in loans.

Esquino was also indicted in the early 1990s, along with 12 other defendants, in a major federal drug investigation that claimed the suspects planned to sell more than 480 kilograms of cocaine. He eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to conceal money from the IRS and was sentenced to five years in prison. Much of the term was suspended for unclear reasons.

In a telephone interview with the Los Angeles times from Mexico City, Esquino said the singer as considering buying the aircraft from Starwood for $250,000 and the flight was offered as a test ride. He disputed reports that he owns Starwood, insisting he is merely the company’s operations manager “with the expertise.”

Cynthia Hawkins, a former assistant U.S. attorney who handled the case, said the case began with the arrest of Robert Castoro, who was at the time considered to be one of the most prolific smugglers of marijuana and cocaine into Florida from direct ties to Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s. He was convicted in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison. He then began cooperating with authorities, leading to his sentence being reduced to 10 years.

He eventually gave up Damian Tedone, another smuggler who was indicted in the early 1990s, along with Esquino and 11 others in a conspiracy involving drug smuggling in the 1980s.

Esquino eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of concealing money from the IRS.

Joseph Milchen, Esquino's attorney at the time, said Thursday the case eventually revolved around his client "bringing money into the United States without declaring it."

However, Milchen acknowledged that a plane purchased by Esquino was "used to smuggle drugs."

He denied his former client has ever had anything to do with illegal narcotics.

"The only thing he has ever done is with airplanes," Milchen said.

Court filings also indicate Esquino was sentenced to two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to committing fraud involving aircraft he purchased in Mexico, then falsified the planes' log books and re-sold them in the United States.

Also in 2004, a federal judge ordered him and one of his companies to pay a creditor $6.2 million after being accused of failing to pay debts to a bank.

Four months later, the DEA subpoenaed all of Starwood's records dating to Dec. 13, 2007. A Starwood attorney listed on the subpoena, Jeremy Schuster, declined Thursday to provide details.

"We don't comment on matters involving clients," he said.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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