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Border Agent Convicted Of Aiding Smugglers

A federal jury in San Diego Friday convicted a veteran U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer of allowing tons of marijuana and loads of undocumented immigrants to be smuggled through his inspection lanes for years.

The panel deliberated for five days before finding Lorne Leslie "Hammer'' Jones, 50, guilty of conspiracy to engage in bribery, and drug and alien smuggling.

According to testimony during a two-week trial before U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff, Jones was on the take for a decade, beginning in 2000, first waving cars and vans full of migrants and drugs through his lane at San Ysidro Port of Entry, and eventually graduating to tractor-trailers jammed with marijuana.

Jones, an inspector since 1994, worked at both the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa border crossings and had been a canine officer since the 1990s.

The Chula Vista resident was indicted by a federal grand jury and arrested at work in 2010, charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and smuggle drugs and immigrants, as well as bribery and attempted marijuana importation, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego. Jones was acquitted of bribery.

A dozen witnesses testified that Jones was corrupt, including Michael Taylor, a former colleague and friend of Jones' who also was on the take; Jones' former wife, who recruited him to be a smuggler; and a friend and financial adviser who testified that the two had discussed ways to hide ill-gotten gains.

Prosecutors also presented evidence from a database that tracks information about people crossing the border -- such as license-plate numbers and names of those inspected.

During trial, prosecutors said the data proved that Jones was allowing known load vehicles and drivers for drug-trafficking organizations to pass though his lanes for years without being inspected.

According to testimony, Jones volunteered to work overtime shifts as a primary inspector so he could wave through vans jammed with aliens and drugs, and trucks full of marijuana.

Jones had a beeper code system to tell smugglers which one of the 24 inspection lanes Jones was working when they approached the border crossing, prosecutors alleged. However, the system failed in 2002 when Jones was randomly and unexpectedly reassigned to another position, and a load driver was forced to abandon his van full of drugs in the inspection line.

A few months later, a van stuffed to the ceiling with four tons of marijuana was detected by a roving officer and his dog. The van was in Jones' lane, just car lengths from Jones' booth as he furiously waved other drivers through the lane. The driver and passenger ran from the van, and all the inspectors hurried to help, except Jones.

"Where was Hammer?'' prosecutor Mark Conover asked during his closing argument. "Sitting in his booth, paralyzed with fear. His load was caught.''

That narcotics seizure remains the largest at San Ysidro.

One of the government's key witnesses was Taylor, the former inspector and friend of Jones' who had been indicted in 2004, convicted of corruption-related charges and had served 48 months in prison. Taylor testified that he and Jones were smuggling aliens and drugs in the early 2000s.

According to trial testimony, security was tightened at the ports of entry around 2007, making it more difficult for Jones to single-handedly allow loads of drugs and people through.

Jones' sentencing was set for March 24.

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