December 4, 2021

Trial dates set in Calif. homicide

Police say 2 defendants in case have ties to 2019 drug arrests in Cortland County

A tentative April 13 jury trial date has been set for three people arrested, two of whom were arrested in Cortlandville on drug charges 14 months ago on federal charges from a homicide and drug conspiracy in California, Richard Southwick, an assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, said Tuesday.

“It’s likely that it could be continued,” Southwick said, noting the defendants would appear March 10 in front of the judge in U.S. District Court in Utica to discuss, among other things, scheduling of the case.

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

Leeper and Cotto shot and killed Robert Chavez, of Baldwin Park on Jan. 17, 2019, near Barstow, California, Lt. Todd Caufield of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office had said. Electrical workers found Chavez’s body in a rural area and called police who found Chavez had been shot multiple times, reports the Daily Press of Victorville, Calif.

Leeper and Rodriguez were arrested two days later, Jan. 19, 2019, by the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office on methamphetamine and gun possession charges, following a traffic stop in Cortlandville. Those charges were dismissed following the federal indictment.

The federal charges include 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 firearm by a convicted felon.

The federal charges 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 using the gun to kill Chavez. Cotto was charged with assisting in those crimes. Leeper also is charged with possession of a firearm as a felon.

If convicted of the homicide, Leeper and Cotto face 20 years to life in prison, or the death penalty.

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 in February in Syracuse before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Baxter, and was ordered to be 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.