The day was just getting started for Covington residents on a bright Thursday morning in March 2013 when Jaime Jauregui hopped into a parked SUV and headed out with an arms dealer to secure more than 100 assault rifles, dozens of hand grenades, grenade launchers, night-vision goggles and other high-powered tools of the violent Mexican drug trade.
At least that’s where Jauregui, the buyer, said the cache was headed once they followed a tractor trailer to Texas, got paid and left the arms to be smuggled across the border.
Jauregui also brought along friends to drive some of the weapons back to his Florida ranch, federal authorities say. He had already paid the dealer $46,000 as a deposit on the expected cache.
But moments after he loaded several wrapped assault weapons into an ice chest at a Mandeville storage facility, he was left shouting “entrapment” while being arrested. The arms dealer turned out to be a federal Homeland Security Investigations agent.
Jauregui, 35, sat in federal court in New Orleans on Tuesday in a black satin Western-cut suit, staring at the witness stand while the agent testified about a sting that stretched for more than a year. On a screen in front of the jury, Jauregui was captured on clear video as the two men sat in the SUV, discussing the weapons deal, making small talk and working out the mechanics of the shipment.
“When we get this one down, I guarantee you there will be a next one right away if everything goes good,” Jauregui told Special Agent Brian Lomonaco.
The night before the planned trip to Texas, Jauregui got spooked by a report that helicopters were flying over his Florida ranch and called the agent. But he still showed up the next day for the trip to the storage locker, where he loaded up wrapped assault rifles before armed agents swarmed him.
At a trial expected to wrap up Wednesday, Jauregui faces conspiracy and illegal gun possession charges from an indictment handed up last year.
Three co-defendants were accused of planning to assist in the transport of the weapons for Jauregui. All three pleaded guilty last year to lesser charges, with only one receiving prison time.
Jauregui’s defense attorney, George Chaney, suggested Jauregui was roped in by Lomonaco, never took control of any weapons and may have just been talking a big game about a Mexican drug cartel.
Chaney described the federal sting as a “little charade,” noting that the hand grenades were duds, or “props.”
“He was never going to leave that locker or that parking lot. All of that was done so you could do this show here,” Chaney told the agent.
Lomonaco said he told Jauregui he was supplying him with stolen military weapons as part of the ruse.
“I was just building up to show him I was an arms dealer and that I was for real,” he said.
“So you lied,” Chaney responded.
“That’s part of my job.”
According to federal authorities, the sting started with a call to Homeland Security investigators in New Orleans in January 2012, indicating that Jauregui wanted weapons to smuggle to Mexico.
The agent and Jauregui connected through a third party, and negotiations took place by phone until a face-to-face meeting in the parking lot of the Cracker Barrel in Covington. Lomonaco drove to the Mandeville storage unit to show Jauregui 15 assault rifles — a teaser.
On the drive back to Covington, Jauregui said he wanted everything the agent had offered: 60 M-4 rifles, 50 AK-47s, grenade launchers, grenades and night-vision goggles also were part of the order, which Jauregui said were headed for a drug cartel over the border.
He gave the agent $1,000 as an initial deposit, later returning with $20,000, then another $5,000 and, on the day of the arrest, still another $20,000.
“It started off he wanted everything I had, but he wanted to pick it up himself,” the agent testified.
Plans kept changing, with Jauregui later saying he wanted his money back, and the agent refusing, saying he’d already spent it on arranging the big shipment. At one point Jauregui said he just wanted a few weapons for himself.
“I told him I wasn’t breaking anything up. It was either a big deal or no deal,” the agent said. “I pressed him all the time for money. That’s part of being in a role. He wants the stuff, he’s gotta pay for it.”
Jauregui called the agent the night before the planned trip to say that helicopters were flying over his Florida home. Lomonaco repeatedly asked him if he wanted to call off the deal.
After packing several weapons in the cooler, Lomonaco walked out of the storage unit, testifying Tuesday that it was a signal for the arrest.
He testified that he would have continued with the drive to Texas, in hopes of snaring bigger fish, had Jauregui been willing to cooperate.
Jauregui faces up to 10 years in prison for illegal firearms possession and up to five years on the conspiracy count if he’s convicted. The indictment alleges that he illegally kept two Colt M4 automatic assault rifles.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.