Former Weld District Court judge Ryan Kamada, 41, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to a federal felony charge for obstructing an investigation into a cocaine trafficking ring in northern Colorado.
Judge William Martinez accepted Kamada’s plea Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Colorado. Kamada will remain free on bond until his sentencing 2 p.m. Dec. 4.
Kamada, of Windsor, took a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, pleading guilty to one count of obstructing a pending investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration between April 24, 2019, and July 15, 2019. The DEA worked with the Weld County Drug Task Force and the FBI on the investigation.
In a video teleconference hearing Tuesday, Kamada explained he was the on-call judge in the evening hours of April 23, 2019, when an investigator asked him to review a search warrant for someone he knew and a mutual friend of his best friend, Geoffrey Chacon, who was hired in the summer of 2019 to serve as the assistant principal at Prairie Heights Middle School and worked as a teacher and coach in Greeley prior to that. Chacon resigned about a month after he was hired.
The subject of the warrant appears to have been Alberto “Beto” Loya, a well-known businessman and philanthropist.
Kamada said he recused himself from signing off on the warrant, due to his familiarity with Loya and mutual association with Chacon. Out of fear of the impacts to Chacon’s reputation, he warned Chacon to stay away from Loya, Kamada said Tuesday.
Kamada knew Loya since high school, and the two served together on the board of directors for the Weld County Latino Chamber of Commerce, according to a stipulation of facts in the plea agreement.
Kamada recused himself from the case after a task force officer pointed out to Kamada that he was friends with Loya on Facebook, a release from the U.S. Department of Justice states. Early the next morning, Kamada called Chacon and told him that law enforcement was “watching” Loya’s house, car and phone, according to the release. Kamada then told Chacon to “stay away” from Loya.
That disclosure prompted Chacon to repeat the warning to Loya. As a result, Chacon distanced himself from Loya and his associates and instructed an associate of Loya’s to correspond with Chacon using their work phones rather than their personal phones. Chacon pleaded guilty in November to destroying evidence in the investigation, specifically May 4 text messages between himself, Loya and Kamada.
Loya slowed down the pace of his operation, according to court records, and cleaned his house of evidence relating to drug activities.
Chacon later asked Kamada about the investigation through an online Xbox video game, which the two played multiple times per week. Kamada said he fabricated that the investigation was ongoing even though he had no further knowledge beyond the call about the search warrant.
Prior to the disclosure, on Jan. 27, 2019, Kamada and Chacon were texting about a fight Loya got into with another drug dealer, according to court records. Chacon told Kamada about the fight and said the second dealer “was all drunk n high on coke.”
Kamada responded that the second dealer “(n)eeds to grow up” and “(i)f he wants to play big boy stuff, then he needs to be a big boy,” court records state. Kamada began in his role as Weld District Court judge Jan. 1, 2019.
Kamada has been prohibited from all contact with Chacon and Loya as a condition of his release.
Kamada appeared to be nervous through the hearing, as the judge requested multiple times for Kamada to stay still in an attempt to limit noise on the video teleconference, which was required due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
John Taddei, a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, clarified that the modified behaviors as a result of Kamada’s disclosure impacted the investigation.
A defendant normally faces no more than five years in prison, no more than $250,000 in fines, no more than three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment for the charge to which Kamada pleaded guilty, but Martinez can impose a more or less severe sentence as a part of the plea agreement. Prosecutors agreed to file no other criminal charges against Kamada based on the matters already known to the government, as well as a three-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility and a sentence at the bottom of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines range.
According to court records, Kamada likely faces 12-18 months of imprisonment and no fines. He faces at least one year of supervised release and no more than three years.
In exchange for the prosecutors’ concessions, Kamada waived his right to appeal any matter in connection with the prosecution, unless the imposed sentence is above the maximum allowable penalty, exceeds the guideline range for the total offense level or the government appeals the sentence.
Michael Bender of the Denver law firm Perkins Coie LLP argued for Kamada to remain free on bond until his sentencing by citing his cooperation so far with the court. Kamada had to surrender his passport and has enormous ties to Weld County and across the state, Bender said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2018 appointed Kamada to succeed Elizabeth Strobel as Weld District Court judge. Prior to taking the district court judge position, Kamada served as a Weld County magistrate starting in 2015. He resigned Aug. 20, 2019, a day before Greeley police released news of Loya’s indictment and the arrest of some of his associates.
The investigation began in October 2018 after police learned Loya was involved in a cocaine distribution ring in the Greeley area. Investigators learned Loya was selling large amounts of the drug at his office, 3400 16th St., Suite MM, in Greeley, or at his house. Deals were also made at various Greeley businesses.
Greeley Police Cmdr. Steve Black, head of the Weld County Drug Task Force, said investigators wiretapped Loya’s office and were authorized by court order to establish video and audio surveillance from within Loya’s office.
“We would hear drug deals being arranged,” he said. “We would see somebody go to his office and then they’d later be stopped and they’d be holding cocaine.”
No one was arrested following the execution of the search warrants, suggesting Loya and others successfully destroyed or removed evidence targeted by investigators. Black said they found cocaine residue in Loya’s office and money in his home.
Black said Kamada’s disclosure to Chacon could have meant more trouble than the destruction or removal of evidence. An undercover officer was working the case.
“If a target becomes aware of police involvement in a case, he could start viewing the undercover (officer) with suspicion, or if the undercover (officer) were to say or do something that could raise alarm … that could obviously put them in danger,” Black said.
If the motivation is significant enough, Black said, the targets of a search warrant could also prepare to do physical harm to officers executing the warrant.
The Weld County Grand Jury convened July 11, 2019, to investigate the trafficking and indicted 19 suspects including Loya and Chacon on 62 felony counts.
Loya was sentenced in June to serve 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute a controlled substance, a Class 1 drug felony, and conspiracy to money launder, a Class 4 felony. He originally faced 21 charges and made a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Chacon has a sentencing hearing 9 a.m. Aug. 21 in Colorado District Court.