[Editor’s note: The actual public court documents are available on the Web at www.MesquiteLocalNews.com]
Following the jury conviction of Michael ‘Boomer’ Johnson and Robert Coache on Nov 23 on multiple felony counts, lawyers for both men filed motions for acquittal and, in the alternative, motions for a new trial. Both motions were denied by Clark County District Court Judge Richard Scotti on Dec. 13.
However, Judge Scotti set bail for Coache at $125,000 and bail for Johnson at $50,000. Sentencing of both men is scheduled for Jan. 12.
Johnson was the Virgin Valley Water District Chief Hydrologist until his resignation in August 2010. Coache retired as Deputy State Engineer, State of Nevada Division of Water Resources in April 2010.
Johnson and Coache allegedly arranged for water purchases and trades between wealthy businessman John Lonetti, Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Virgin Valley Water District in which the District says it came out $3,8885,000 on the short end. Former VVWD General Manager Michael Winters was also implicated in the transaction but charges were later dropped. No charges were ever filed against Lonetti.
The criminal complaint specified that Johnson and Coache received $1,327,000 from Lonetti for their alleged actions in the deal.
Johnson was found guilty of 49 felony counts including extortion by a public officer, a public officer asking for and receiving a bribe, misconduct of a public officer, money laundering and illegal financial transactions. He was also found guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion by a public officer, conspiracy by a public officer, and conspiracy to use monetary instruments from unlawful activities; all gross misdemeanor charges. Coache was found guilty of 50 of the same counts but not guilty of the misconduct of a public officer charge.
Coache’s lawyer Bret Whipple said in the public documents filed under a seven-day deadline on Nov. 30 that “the evidence in this case was insufficient to sustain the convictions against Mr. Coache. It is apparent that the jury convicted Mr. Coache due to evidence of character or propensity evidence, could not be introduced and was not introduced at trial as substantive evidence of guilt.”
Whipple further contended that “Mr. Coache was already acquitted regarding the specific charge in the indictment going to his direct involvement with water permit 54383. Given that acquittal, there was no manner in which Coache could be convicted of the other counts in the indictment.”
Whipple also alleged that the Clark County District Attorney’s office, who prosecuted the case, “mishandled evidence in the form of relevant computer hard drives. The State [DA] suggested that certain agreements or documents were essentially made after the fact by the Defendants once they were aware they were investigated or once they were charged in this case.
“Because the State mishandled those hard drives, the absence of particular files cannot be utilized as evidence of anything, let alone as evidence that documents must have been created after the fact or after a certain point in time. Because the State had mishandled the evidence, and because the inferences drawn from those “missing” files were further contradicted by conflicting evidence, through the defense evidence and the testimony of Michael Johnson, a conflict exists which warrants a new trial.”
Johnson’s attorney filed a request a ‘join’ Coache’s motion but not before the seven-day deadline. Thus, his request was invalid.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo, the lead prosecutor in the six-year-old case, immediately filed an opposition to the defendants’ motion denying their arguments saying that the State did not mishandle Coache’s computer hard drives.
The hard drive had been seized during investigation of the case. In November 2011 Coache requested the hard drive be returned to him because he needed copies of reports related to his consulting business and his wife’s genealogy research.
DiGiacomo said “In that motion, Defendant claimed to have attempted to receive a copy informally by providing a blank hard-drive to the State. After several delays, the State returned the hard-drive [in December 2011], claiming to have “ghosted” Mr. Coache’s hard-drives, but files that were returned were not files connected to the instant case in any way.”
When Coache later complained that he couldn’t access information on the mirrored hard drive he was instructed to copy files to a regular hard drive. Coache agreed the files were then accessible and withdrew a court action associated with the problem.
However, Whipple used that incident to allege the State’s mishandling of the hard drive in last month’s trial. DiGiacomo countered that saying “without referencing the record, Defendant makes an unsupported claim that the “mishandling” of the drives precluded him from disputing some evidence in Court. The only fact that was not known at the time Defendant filed his first motion in 2011, as Defendant and his counsel failed to inform anyone, is that child pornography may have been on the initial drive. Almost five (5) years later, Defendant asserted that the drive contained pornography. That allegation is being investigated, as well as, the circumstances as to how it remained in the possession of someone not in law enforcement for that long. However, that claim is irrelevant to the proceedings as that drive was clearly and unequivocally the drive from December of 2011, not January of 2012.”
The public court documents do not make it clear if the child pornography files were the direct property of Coache or someone else.
DiGiacomo’s motion also explains other details of the prosecution’s case. He outlined the details of Coache’s and Johnson’s limited liability company called Rio Virgin which was under contract with Lonetti. “Specifically, the agreement provided that Rio Virgin would receive ten percent (10%) ownership of permit number 3085 and twenty-five percent (25%) ownership of application number 54383 [the water right under dispute]. John Lonetti, Jr. signed the agreement while Defendant Michael Johnson signed on behalf of Rio Virgin, LLC.
“Additionally, evidence was introduced at trial that Templeton, a long-time friend of Defendant Coache, originally told [Las Vegas Metropolitan Police] Detective Chio that he was asked to create Rio Virgin, LLC on behalf of Defendant Coache with the purpose of the LLC being to speculate in water rights. Evidence was introduced that after meeting with Defendant Coache, Templeton’s version of events changed. Templeton subsequently told Detective Chio that Defendant Johnson told him to set up the Rio Virgin, LLC account and that the purpose of the company was to engage in development work.”
Also during the November trial DiGiacomo showed the jury eight bank accounts established under the Rio Virgin, LLC with only two authorized signors – Coache and Johnson. Only two accounts opened in April 2008 reflected activity.
On May 21, 2008, Lonetti wired $1,327,500 into the Wells Fargo account after the water transaction was finalized by the Virgin Valley Water District, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Lonetti. DiGiacomo said “The business description on the account indicated it was for ”water rights.” Finally, the account had been depleted of its funds as of December 31, 2009, and the account was closed. The State also introduced detailed transactions demonstrating the funds being divided amongst both Defendants, including the purchases of numerous properties under different LLCs.”
Tax returns for Rio Virgin, LLC for 2008 said the purpose of the business was ‘consulting’ and that Coache and Johnson were equal owners. The return included a handwritten Real Estate Transaction Form along with a letter indicating the transaction stemmed from the Rio Virgin, LLC agreement effective February 1, 2007.”
The court documents also showed that the $1.327 million wire transfer from Lonetti made up 98.6 percent of the Rio Virgin LLC bank funds. Forty-four financial transactions totaling $10,000 or more were made during a 21-month period. Hence, the 44 felony charges of illegal financial transactions.
DiGiacomo concluded his opposition to the motion for acquittal and a new trial saying “As Winston Churchill stated, ‘The jury system has come to stand for all we mean by English justice. The scrutiny of 12 honest jurors provides defendants and plaintiffs alike a safeguard from arbitrary perversion of the law.’ The Defendant was afforded his Constitutional Right to that safeguard and now asks this Court to vacate that judgment or obtain a new trial based on mere dissatisfaction with the verdict. There is no legal basis to grant either extreme request.”
Apparently, the Judge agreed.
[Publisher’s note: Ellestad is a member of the Virgin Valley Water District Board of Directors.]