Family, Friends Doubt Ties To Drug Traffickers
Richard Cramer was first a foot soldier and then a leader in the war on drugs. He once ran the Nogales office of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement and was twice assigned as an attache to Mexico.
Incorruptible, dedicated, tireless - a cop's cop. That's how Cramer's family and friends describe the Sahuarita resident.
But this week, Cramer's reputation was shattered when he admitted that he worked with Mexican drug dealers. In a Miami federal courthouse, Cramer, 56, pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by helping two drug traffickers avoid arrest, a felony that carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
His plea makes Cramer one of the highest-ranking ICE officials to admit to or be convicted of corruption in the six years since the agency was created. And it raises questions about the ability of Mexican drug cartels to reach the upper echelons of U.S. law enforcement.
Cramer's supporters insisted that the charges were the product of overzealous investigators and prosecutors. They said he would never knowingly break the law.
"This goes counter to everything I know about Richard," Rene Andreu, a former assistant ICE chief who hired Cramer as a customs investigator in the early 1980s, said weeks before the plea. "If somehow, some way, he is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, my paradigm on life itself will be changed."
Cramer's family said any plea deal is grossly unfair but is better than spending the rest of your life behind bars for something you didn't do.
As part of the plea agreement, Cramer admitted that he "corruptly attempted to obstruct, influence and impede" an official investigation.
The charge stands in contrast to the host of accusations levied against Cramer after his arrest in September. A federal complaint charged Cramer with using his position to supply drug dealers with intelligence on informants and investing his own money in a 300-kilogram ( 660-pound ) shipment of cocaine.
In exchange for the plea, the government dropped three cocaine-smuggling charges and will recommend that Cramer serve two years in prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 18.
In nearly 30 years of chasing drug smugglers, winnowing out corruption and enforcing justice along the border, Cramer had seen it all. He had turned down bribes, busted dirty agents and stood his ground when traffickers threatened his life, according to colleagues who worked with him on the front lines.
"He was costing drug-trafficking groups south of the border a lot of money," said Andreu, adding that Cramer stacked up more arrests than almost any other agent. "In Nogales, you were in constant contact with drug-trafficking organizations. You got information about competitors. . You worked one against the other."
Andreu said Cramer was a great undercover agent with a flawless understanding of his native Mexico, including the language and the people.
Cramer rose from a customs officer to an investigator and then worked internal investigations before being tapped for the highly selective post of Mexican attache in the late 1990s. When he returned to the U.S. in 2001, he was put in charge of Nogales.
Cramer's counsel was so highly valued that, when he accepted a new stint as an attache in Guadalajara, he was able to name his replacement: ICE supervisor Matt Allen.
Allen, who is now special agent in charge of the Arizona ICE Office of Investigations, would not comment on Cramer.
"While even one betrayal of the public's trust by a ( Department of Homeland Security ) officer or agent is too many, the vast majority of our employees are dedicated public servants who uphold the highest standards of integrity and professional responsibility," Allen said.
Cramer retired to his Sahuarita home in a gated golf community in 2007, but he found it impossible to trade the gun and badge for golf and country-club gossip.
So this year, he took a $30,000-a-year job as a corrections officer with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, where he had started his law-enforcement career three decades earlier.
The father and grandfather joined the academy, started a physical-fitness regimen, took and passed a lie-detector test and sailed through a psychological exam and background investigation.
"He was one of those success stories," county Sheriff Tony Estrada said, emphasizing that not a single red flag arose. "I kept saying, 'Richard, I'm impressed. Why do you want to do this?' "
Now, Estrada said, the question everyone is asking is: "What made him jump to the other side?"
Accused of trafficking
Cramer's conviction comes amid a rise in criminal-corruption cases involving U.S. law-enforcement officials along the border, many involving Customs and Border Protection officials, who are tempted with bribes of money or sex to look the other way as smugglers move drugs and illegal immigrants into the country.
No ICE agent in Arizona has been arrested on bribery or drug-smuggling charges since the creation of ICE in 2003.
Cramer was arrested Sept. 1 after his regular shift at the Santa Cruz jail. He was called to Tucson for an interview with his former colleagues in ICE and subsequently placed in custody on drug-trafficking charges. The charges stem from a 2006 investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration into a Mexico cartel operating in Florida.
According to the DEA, while Cramer was stationed in Mexico, he supplied a drug-trafficking organization with information on the workings of U.S. law enforcement, including how it conducts records checks, investigations and the turning of informants. Agents said that Cramer was linked to the cartel through e-mail addresses and a direct push-to-talk phone line that connected traffickers to his home.
The DEA built its case largely through confidential informants, who reported that Cramer quit his job with the government to work for the cartel. Agents said Cramer also invested in a shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Spain, which was later seized by agents. In an attempt to identify who tipped off authorities to the shipment, members of the cartel discussed using Cramer to oust the traitors, saying he had "very powerful friends," including DEA agents.
In court, Cramer pleaded guilty to arranging to run the names of a Mexican money launderer and his associate through U.S. law-enforcement databases to determine whether they were being investigated.
Federal prosecutors said the money launderer was hiding in Miami and wanted to return to Mexico but needed assurance he was not being sought by authorities. Members of an unidentified drug-trafficking organization reached out to Cramer, prosecutors say, and he provided them printouts of criminal records searches that allowed the money launderer to return safely to Mexico.
When smugglers were later busted, agents found they were carrying copies of the background checks.
Cramer's lawyer in Miami told the Associated Press that his client did not profit from this activity, which he described as mistakenly handling computer records.
Cramer might have been born in Mexico, but he had lived in the U.S. since childhood. Family and friends say he is American to the core, which makes his arrest and plea even harder to comprehend.
"He is beyond reproach, has been for every minute of my life that I have known him," said Hector Ayala, a Tucson high-school teacher who has been friends with Cramer since fifth grade. "I am devastated."
Cramer was reared dirt poor in Nogales. His mother worked as a restaurant cook and his stepfather was a decorated World War I and World War II veteran.
Although Cramer's stepfather died when he was about 10 years old, he left his stepson a legacy of service and love of country.
"He idolized his father," Ayala said, remembering how Cramer used to talk about the military as if it were a higher calling.
When he was 17, Cramer answered that call, dropping out of school to join the Marines and go to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star for bravery when he defended his platoon from a vicious assault.
Friends and family say Cramer brought that sense of duty home, instilling it in his three children, who followed in their father's steps; his son became a Navy corpsman, his daughters law-enforcement officers.
"That's what makes no sense," Ayala said. "He would not betray his wife or his son and daughters, who are in law enforcement, or his nephews who are in law enforcement."
Cramer's oldest daughter, Michelle Cramer, who worked in the Army Criminal Investigative Division, said she does not believe her father switched sides. She points out that she has dealt with many criminals and does not believe that her support is based on naive assumptions.
She described the case against her father as circumstantial, based primarily on words from confidential informants.
In letters to his daughter, penciled on yellow memo sheets from his solitary cell in Miami, Cramer has repeatedly insisted he is innocent and intended to fight the charges in a jury trial.
"I write to my father every other day. And he has written back every day," she said. "A couple of times he has gotten emotional. . . . He said, 'You know I never had anything to do with this.' "
At other times, Cramer has reminded her of his faith and his feeling that God is testing him.
"But his faith has never wavered," Michelle said.
But she wants to be pragmatic. Should her father risk spending the rest of his life in prison in an attempt to clear his name? She doesn't think so. Even before a plea bargain was offered, she said her father should consider one if it were offered. "It is really ( awful ), admitting to something you didn't do," she said. "He doesn't deserve any of this."
December 12, 2009