As Juan Diaz sat in the Immigration and Naturalization Service office earlier this month, he knew his studying had paid off on the most important exam of his life -- his U.S. Citizenship Test.
The examiner told him he'd passed, then offered congratulations. "And then," Diaz says, "everything started happening right there."
Has he ever been to Arizona? he was asked.
No. Of course not, he told the examiner.
A few INS officers quickly appeared. He had no answers -- right or otherwise -- for their test. The questions were coming from a sealed federal indictment they carried, with his name among the 24 defendants.
"I started freakin' out," he says. "They showed me a list of names I'd never seen before."
Later he was shown something even worse, a photocopied document. "Is this your picture?"
Yes, it was.
"And your signature?"
He looked closely. Yes, that was his full, formal identity -- Juan Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz. And it was all on an Arizona driver's license -- one he'd never seen before.
Rather than heading into citizenship, Diaz suddenly was ushered straight to a cellblock in Houston's federal detention center.
"They put the handcuffs on me, and I'm thinking, 'This has to be a joke or a trick' -- Either that, or this was some kind of strange new reality show. It was so incredible, I was sure this couldn't be happening; there's no way this can be happening."
Even as the FBI took custody of the prisoner, Diaz was sure he was still the same Mexican immigrant who just had passed his last hurdle toward citizenship. This was a 28-year-old graduate of Milby High School and a technical institute. He was Juan Diaz, husband of Teresa and father of a son and daughter, five and three years of age. He'd been in Houston more than a decade.
Most important, this was a Diaz with a spotless past -- nothing remotely approaching problems with the law. He was a stable family man, a good worker with a solid job selling telephone systems to businesses.
But as Diaz would find out, the standard background check for his citizenship had turned up the other Juan Diaz -- and this one had carried an Arizona driver's license with the Houston man's photo, full signature and other personal information.
The other Diaz went by various aliases, including "Carlos the Cousin." He was one of 24 defendants named in the 1999 indictment of a major drug trafficking ring operating out of Phoenix. The U.S. Attorney's Office there took the case to the grand jury after a lengthy undercover investigation that began in 1998.
The loose-knit gang was accused of funneling large amounts of heroin and cocaine throughout the West, then hauling the proceeds into Mexico to buy more drugs for distribution. The alleged leader, Arturo Vibanco-Contreras, and several others were arrested in late 1999.
Diaz was accused of trafficking in May and June of 1999, when he went from Phoenix to Utah. While authorities declined to discuss details, it is believed that the suspect's identity may have been established as Diaz by agents having a uniformed officer conduct a routine traffic stop on his vehicle, just to get a look at his license in 1998.
In Houston six years later, this Juan Diaz only knew that he was in deep trouble. Now in jail clothing and mixing with real criminals, he says his first night was sleepless. "I was beginning to lose it already, wondering if I'd ever get out," he says. "I was thinking that if I'm going up against the government, and if they wish to do whatever they want to do with me, they could. My life seemed like it was going down the drain. I was wondering if they were going to send me to the Arizona prison or what."
He did get his call in to his wife, telling her to hustle up anything she could to confirm that he wasn't an Arizona drug runner.
"My wife was really at her best -- I can tell you that," he says. "It was amazing what she did."
He was arrested on Friday, July 23. By the following Monday, the Diaz family and their counsel, former prosecutor and veteran defense attorney Mike Hinton, were ready for the initial hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Milloy.
Teresa Diaz had gathered up old pay stubs showing her husband had been working in Houston at the same time the other Diaz was dealing drugs in Arizona. There were cancelled checks and even photos of the family here. On one day when he was alleged to be in Phoenix with the drug gang, Diaz actually was getting his picture taken with his future wife as part of the festivities at her Bellaire High School prom.
Hinton explained the mystery. "He has been victimized by the worst kind of identity theft," he says. "The person who stole his identity was careful never to use it for any of the reasons typically associated with that crime; he never got fake credit cards or used the ID to cash checks or otherwise enrich himself. He obtained it strictly to use as identification in his drug-dealing endeavors."
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."
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.