Double Trouble

Juan Diaz just wanted his citizenship. The feds wanted a drug-running felon.

Authorities only can speculate on how the Arizona suspect may have obtained the personal information, photo and signature for use on the Arizona driver's license. Hinton points out that with modern computers, it is possible to counterfeit virtually any document.

Along with the evidence that Diaz had never left Houston, prosecutors realized that this defendant hardly fit the profile of a drug dealer.

"It was obvious from the start that this is a good young man," Hinton says. "I would never stand in front of a judge and say they don't have the right guy unless I am totally convinced they don't have the right guy."

The Diaz family scrambled for proof that Juan wasn't a narcotics trafficker.
Daniel Kramer
The Diaz family scrambled for proof that Juan wasn't a narcotics trafficker.

In the hearing, the magistrate succinctly summed up the problem as she understood it: "It is him -- but it is not him."

Hinton also praised Milloy's actions and the efforts of Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacy de la Torre to get at the truth quickly in the unique case. De la Torre, of the U.S. Attorney's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, requested that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix double-check its old files in the case. Specifically she was trying to determine if there were other photos or evidence that could confirm that this was the same Diaz.

"I prayed like I've never prayed before," Diaz says. "My family prayed -- even the people at work did."

Any doubts soon were dispelled by investigators in Phoenix. In the massive case of 24 indicted suspects, one small portion of surveillance videotape of a meeting of the drug gang had included an image of the man known as Diaz. He clearly wasn't the Houstonian being held. There was also more recent information, not confirmed, that the man posing as Diaz was believed to have died in Mexico.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix decided to drop the charges against Diaz from the indictment. That action was vital for the Houstonian. Otherwise, any future ID check or traffic stop for Diaz potentially could mean another trip to jail, another explanation and another wait for authorities to verify his story.

Judge Milloy had released Diaz on a personal recognizance bond -- meaning no bail was required -- until the expected dismissal came.

"Stacy de la Torre and Magistrate Judge Milloy, as well as the FBI, were fantastic," attorney Hinton says. "The cooperation we received in working this out was nothing short of tremendous."

Diaz says he's grateful and can understand now why he was targeted. "I guess I can see it from their point of view, that they had their man," he says. "They assumed I was that person."

There are efforts underway to try to conduct a special swearing-in ceremony for Diaz, whose residency permit runs out next month. He says he would like that but will settle for now on just getting his citizenship.

Diaz hopes to be able to laugh about the mix-up some day. "For now I'm afraid it is still a little too fresh. I wouldn't wish this for anybody, not even the worst person on earth."

He summed it up best at the hearing, after prosecutor de la Torre came up with the photo that cleared him in the case.

"Thank you," he told her. "Thank you for giving me my life back."

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