« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

By Steven P. Wagner, Published October 31 2006

Man avoids death penalty in slaying

Four people may face the federal death penalty in North Dakota for roles in the 2005 drug-related murder of Lee Avila.

The defendants, including one who remains a fugitive, were indicted by a federal grand jury after Michael Petzold agreed to provide details to investigators.

Petzold, 24, formerly of Wahpeton, N.D., avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty Monday in Fargo’s U.S. District Court to four charges relating to drug trafficking, firearms and the June 30, 2005, murder at Avila’s East Grand Forks, Minn., home.

Federal prosecutors unveiled more details in Avila’s murder during hearings for several defendants, including Jorge “Sneaky” Arandas, who also faces murder charges.

Alan Michael Wessels, 21, of West Fargo and two unnamed defendants also face capital-eligible crimes, although prosecutors did not reveal details. Most court documents remain sealed in related indictments, which name 44 defendants for selling meth, cocaine and marijuana in North Dakota and Minnesota.

“Mr. Petzold was not the shooter, but provided materials and the firearm” for the killing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Myers said.

Arandas ordered Petzold, who managed five drug dealers, to kill Avila, 28, when a dispute about 5 pounds of meth escalated, Myers said. Petzold and three others traveled to East Grand Forks, where Avila was shot nine times, he said.

The sealed indictments tie a complex, intertwined network of drug-trafficking rings in the Red River Valley to Mexico, Washington state and California.

The series of arrests have been dubbed by prosecutors as “Operation Speed Racer” to help track defendants in a growing list of defendants.

U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said the decision against seeking the death penalty for Petzold was based on the defendant’s willingness to cooperate with investigators and accept responsibility for the murder.

A plea agreement between prosecutors and Petzold calls for 30 years in prison. There is no parole in the federal prison system, but he could qualify for up to 54 days of credit for good behavior.

The four remaining capital defendants must all go through the federal death penalty protocol, where prosecutors must recommend whether the U.S. attorney general should authorize capital punishment.

Each defendant must be appointed two attorneys, including one with experience in death penalty cases, as part of the process.

In addition, the victim’s family also is consulted. Wrigley said officials consulted with Avila’s family in making a decision for Petzold.

His mother, 45-year-old Francisca Avila Vargas of St. Paul, received a life sentence Sept. 28 after a jury convicted her in a separate drug-trafficking ring. She also faces charges in the same conspiracy naming Petzold, but isn’t charged in her son’s death.

In a May interview from the Cass County Jail, Vargas said she opposed the death penalty but claimed investigators were ignoring her son’s murder, which involved a disagreement about how much drugs her son received.

“I wish upon no one to lose a son or a daughter,” she said. “The pain is unbearable.”

Court records claim Petzold’s trafficking ring distributed at least 33 pounds of meth, with a street value topping $600,000, in the Red River Valley. The conspiracy involves a sophisticated operation of money laundering, wire fraud and bartering drugs for guns and vehicles.

Three people, all with less serious charges, have pleaded guilty in the Petzold ring. Three others – Vargas, 19-year-old Lacey Kathryn Johnson of Fargo and 22-year-old Soledad Ybarra of Moorhead – have yet to see their cases resolved.

The indictment against Arandas, also wanted for a drive-by shooting in Washington, names 21 other people, making it the largest drug-trafficking conspiracy filed in North Dakota. Those facing charges for Avila’s murder also are the first in the state to face capital-eligible crimes in a drug case.

Last month, a federal jury in Fargo sentenced Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a serial rapist from Crookston, Minn., to death for Dru Sjodin’s kidnapping and murder. The state doesn’t have a law allowing capital punishment.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542