Judge denies withdrawal of guilty plea in heroin case
BURLINGTON — A former pizza shop owner in Winhall, who officials say was part of a conspiracy to import an estimated 500 pounds of heroin into Southern Vermont from Guatemala, has lost his battle to withdraw his guilty plea.
Marco Antonio Lam Peralta, 44, maintained he did not understand the full scope of the conspiracy and believes he only did a few minor errands on behalf of a friend.
Lam Peralta, also known as Tony Lam, said he believes he was forced to plead guilty by his defense lawyer E. M. "Bud" Allen in Burlington. Allen said the legal advice was based on the amount of evidence against Lam Peralta.
Judge William K. Sessions III, who conducted two days of hearings earlier this year, ruled this week that he found Allen more credible. Sessions rejected Lam Peralta's claims he made on the witness stand seeking to withdraw his guilty plea. The judge said Lam Peralta failed to meet the legal standards required for a plea withdrawal.
Sessions said it was not enough that Lam Peralta initially struggled to understand the full scope of the drug conspiracy when it was described at the change of plea hearing.
"It became clear that defendant was taking issue with the description of the overall conspiracy when he viewed his particular role as more limited," Sessions said. Allen, a former Vermont Defender General, attempted to sort out the issues and the court took a 42-minute recess so Allen and his client could further discuss the situation.
Sessions cited several excerpts from the change of plea hearing, including one of his final comments to Lam Peralta not having all aspects of the conspiracy attributed to him.
"He doesn't acknowledge being a participant in the full scope of the conspiracy, but he clearly is acknowledging a significant part of the conspiracy and is acknowledging that he is a - was a member of that conspiracy, that the conspiracy involved well in excess of one kilogram to the extend he was engaged in handling money and also taking packages and photographing packages, taking those packages to his place of business," Sessions said quoting the court transcript.
Sessions also noted the government "would suffer moderate prejudice" if he was allowed to withdraw his plea now. A federal appeals court has set "a stringent standard for withdrawing guilty pleas." It can't just be a change of heart, Sessions said.
The original plea agreement calls on Lam Peralta to receive a prison sentence between 10 years, the mandatory minimum, and 12.5 years. Any possible fine, restitution order and supervised release period would be left to the court.
Sessions also warned Lam Peralta he might not be able to stay in the United States with his felony conviction.
Lam Peralta, who lived in South Londonderry when arrested, is charged with three felonies: conspiracy to distribute a kilogram or more of heroin, possession with intent to distribute kilogram or more of heroin and harboring an alien, Sessions noted in his 27-page decision.
He accepted the plea agreement Aug. 14, 2017 and admitted the conspiracy count. "After some initial concern about the scope of his role in the conspiracy, defendant pleaded guilty," Sessions said.
It was after the hearing that Lam Peralta later asked to be able to withdraw the plea.
Federal officials charged Lam Peralta in March 2016. It came about five months after his cousin was arrested as he accepted about a 90 pound delivery of heroin from Guatemala while parked outside a Mexican restaurant in Manchester Center, officials said.
The cousin, Diego Walther Anibal Mejia Paredes, 35, was busted outside Cilantro restaurant on Main Street on Oct. 8, 2015. Mejia Paredes was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison in December 2017 after also pleading guilty to the heroin conspiracy.
Authorities have said Paredes was in phone contact with Lam Peralta and also called the shipping company twice while waiting at the restaurant for the 90-pound heroin shipment.
Lam Peralta, the father of six children, was the owner of Tony's New York Style Pizzeria on Vermont 30 in the Bondville section of Winhall.
A status conference had been scheduled for this week in federal court in Burlington, but apparently was postponed to give both sides time to review the latest ruling.
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