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Steven P. Wagner, Published October 30 2006

Government won't seek death penalty in drug case

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A Nebraska man pleaded guilty Monday in the drug-related killing of a Minnesota man and is scheduled to be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Prosecutors had been considering whether to seek the federal death penalty against Michael Petzold, of Norfolk, Neb. U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said it would have been the first death penalty sought in North Dakota for a drug crime.

Petzold pleaded guilty in the death of Lee Avila, 28, of East Grand Forks, Minn. Avila was found shot to death in East Grand Forks on June 30, 2005.

Petzold was charged with murder in furtherance of a continuing criminal enterprise. Wrigley, who recently met with top Department of Justice officials in Washington, said prosecutors weighed factors that favored the death penalty against those that led to the life sentence.

"We carefully weighed all of those considerations, including his willingness to participate and assist in a federal investigation that is ongoing, and also his willingness to accept responsibility for his role in that conspiracy and homicide of Lee Avila," Wrigley said Monday morning on the steps of the federal courthouse.

Investigators have said Petzold led a group that brought large amounts of drugs from Mexico. Wrigley said the case has been termed "Operation Speed Racer" within the federal system.

Petzold and Avila's mother, Francisca Avila Vargas, were indicted along with four others in a drug conspiracy case stemming from Avila's death. Wrigley said several others are scheduled be indicted, but he would not elaborate Monday morning.

One of the defendants was set to appear in federal court in Dallas on Monday, Wrigley said. Some of the suspects have been indicted but remain at large, he said.