A former deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to smuggle drugs across state lines for payments as high as $250,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Kenneth Collins, a former deputy sheriff who lives in Chino, promised his co-conspirators he would use his position as a law enforcement officer to move massive amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana securely and without detection, the DOJ said. An FBI sting led to his arrest in January.
According to federal prosecutors, he once justified his high prices for drug-smuggling security to an undercover agent by saying "We're cops ... all of our transports make it through."
As part of a plea deal, Collins, 50, admitted to working with at least two other people to distribute the narcotics for payments reaching as much as $250,000, prosecutors said. He also admitted to conducting an illegal traffic stop in May 2014 in which he seized $160,000 in cash from the vehicle.
He was aware the large amount of cash would be there and did the traffic stop just to get the money, according to federal prosecutors. The incident was never reported to the Sheriff's Department, prosecutors said.
Collins' guilty plea holds a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and he could receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Deputy Collins didn’t just break the law, he trampled his oath by agreeing to sell his badge to assist drug traffickers," U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said in a news release from the DOJ.
During the undercover FBI sting, Collins agreed to provide an armed escort and take other steps to keep law enforcement from finding out about the drug-smuggling efforts, according to federal prosecutors.
In January, he and two other men travelled to Pasadena to provide security for the smuggling of nearly 45 pounds of cocaine and more than 13 pounds of methamphetamine to Las Vegas, prosecutors said. It was all part of an FBI sting lasting months, in which an undercover agent — posing as the partner of a wealthy investor — promised Collins $250,000 for his part in the scheme, the DOJ said.
One of the two other men who went to Pasadena with Collins was someone he met while on-duty. The former deputy was working as an instructor for a life-skills class attended by ex-offenders when he met Grant Valencia, 34, authorities said. The purpose of the course, called Emerging Leaders Academy, is for deputies to teach and mentor ex-criminals.
Collins' other co-conspirator, a 52-year-old man named David Easter, joined him and Valencia for another earlier trip to Pasadena in November 2017, according to prosecutors. The trio was allegedly supposed to provide security for six kilograms of methamphetamine, an undisclosed amount of marijuana and counterfeit cigarettes from Pasadena to Las Vegas.
Collins received $25,000 in cash for that trafficking agreement, federal prosecutors said.
Explaining why he charged thousands for the drug-smuggling security, Collins told an undercover agent that all of his drug transports go through since he's in law enforcement. He also displayed his badge and firearm to the agent during a recorded meeting, which federal prosecutors described as an attempt to prove his legitimacy as an officer.
The ex-deputy also sold two pounds of marijuana for $6,000 to the undercover agent in October 2017, authorities said. Federal prosecutors said that was a so-called test run intended to convince the agent to buy larger amounts of weed in the future.
He also offered to help in the sales of up to $4 million in marijuana each month, court records allege, as he claimed to have a connection that could provide 2,000 pounds of the drug every month.
Valencia, a Pomona resident, and Easter, who lives in L.A.'s Hyde Park District, will face their trials on Oct. 23. Collins will be sentenced on Nov. 19, 2018.