October 23, 2021

3 charged in federal homicide

Three people — two arrested last year in Cortland County on drug charges — have been indicted on charges of homicide and drug conspiracy in a case that could bring the death penalty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Saturday.

Kyle Leeper, 36, of Palmyra, Pennsylvania, Ramon Nieves Cotto, 28, of DeRuyter, Madison County, and Arlene Rodriguez, 36, of Montebello, California, were named as defendants Thursday in a federal superseding indictment.

Leeper and Cotto shot and killed Robert Chavez on Jan. 17, 2019, near Barstow, California, Lt. Todd Caufield of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office said this morning.

The killing was part of a drug trafficking conspiracy involving 50 or more grams of methamphetamine, the Attorney’s Office states.

Leeper and Rodriguez were first arrested on Jan. 19, 2019, by the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office on methamphetamine and gun possession charges, but those charges were dismissed following the federal indictment.

The federal charges includes murder during a drug conspiracy, conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of methamphetamine, possession of 50 or more grams of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and possession of a rearm by a convicted felon.

They were announced jointly by Cortland County Sheriff Mark Helms, Barstow, California, Police Chief Albert Ramirez Jr., the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The indictment also charges Leeper and Rodriguez with possessing with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of methamphetamine on Jan. 19, 2019, in Cortland County.

All three also are charged with using and carrying a firearm during drug trafficking crimes, with Leeper further charged with discharging that weapon and killing Chavez. Cotto was charged with assisting in those crimes. Leeper also is charged with possession of a firearm as a felon on that same day.

If convicted of the homicide, Leeper and Cotto face a minimum sentence of 20 years, and a maximum sentence of up to life imprisonment, or death.

The other charges can bring sentences ranging between five years to life in prison and fines up to $10 million.

Cotto was arrested and arraigned Friday in Syracuse before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Baxter, and was ordered detained pending a bail hearing. Leeper and Rodriguez have been in federal custody since August, when they were charged in an earlier federal indictment that alleged drug and firearms charges only.