Winhall man wants to withdraw guilty plea

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BURLINGTON — A former pizza shop owner in Winhall, who officials say was part of a conspiracy to import about 500 pounds of heroin into southern Vermont from Guatemala, is fighting to withdraw his guilty plea.

Marco Antonio Lam Peralta, 44, maintained from the very beginning he was innocent of any charges and wanted a criminal trial, one of his former defense lawyers, Ernest "Bud" Allen III testified in U.S. District Court in Burlington last Monday.

Peralta, also known as Tony Lam, also was expected to testify Monday afternoon, but due to the lateness of the hearing, Judge William K. Sessions III agreed to postpone the testimony until this week.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Drescher questioned Allen about certain provisions in the signed plea agreement and with representations made by him and his client during the change of plea hearing on Aug 14, 2017.

Under the agreement, Lam Peralta admitted he conspired to distribute more than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin and that he could receive a sentence between 10 years, the mandatory minimum sentence, and 12.5 years. Any possible fine, restitution order and supervised release period would be left to the court.

Lam Peralta, the father of six children, was the owner of Tony's New York Style Pizzeria on Vermont 30 in the Bondville section of Winhall.

Federal officials charged Lam Peralta in March 2016, about five months after his cousin was arrested as he accepted a 90 pound delivery of heroin from Guatemala while parked outside a Mexican restaurant in Manchester Center, officials said.

His cousin, Diego Walther Anibal Mejia Paredes, 35, was busted on Oct. 8, 2015 outside the Cilantro restaurant on Main Street.

The Department of Homeland Security Investigations reported it located eight major shipments from Guatemala to addresses in the Manchester area linked to Lam Peralta within a two-month period, according to court records.

The final shipment, which contained two boxes, was initially flagged in Miami and Homeland Security investigators determined there was about 90 pounds of heroin inside, records show.

Once investigators determined the real contents, they allowed a portion of the drugs to continue to Burlington, where a delivery service was expected to transport it to Manchester.

A federal undercover agent posing as a delivery man pulled into the restaurant parking lot on Main Street where Parades, who was parked for an hour, flagged down the driver and accepted the package, records show. After they put the packages in the 2001 Silver Audi and drove off, Parades showed "hyper vigilant" actions by making turns to apparently try to shake any surveillance, investigators said. They stopped him about 10 minutes later and arrested him.

Mejia Paredes was sentenced Dec. 10, 2017 to 15 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than a kilogram of heroin. Judge Sessions also ordered Mejia Paredes to be under federal supervision for five years once he is discharged from prison.

"Diego Mejia Paredes coordinated the arrival and distribution of approximately 500 pounds of heroin into Southern Vermont," Drescher said in a federal sentencing memorandum. He had proposed a 27-year federal prison sentence.

Lam Peralta, formerly of South Londonderry, maintained he knew little about the purpose of the shipments and his cousin's business.

Authorities have said that Parades, while waiting at the restaurant for the 90 pounds of heroin, was in phone contact with Lam Peralta and also called the shipping company twice.

Allen told defense lawyer Mark Kaplan that the first discussion about pleading guilty happened on Friday Aug. 4, 2017 - the deadline day for accepting a plea bargain, or face a criminal trial. Allen said he was visiting Peralta at the Essex County (N.Y.) Jail when his client gave the first indication he had not been truthful about his involvement and that he was prepared to plead guilty and sign a seven-page agreement..

Allen said he was on his way back to Burlington when he called Drescher to see if some conditions of the plea agreement could be changed. Allen testified Drescher refused to budge and reminded Allen that the plea offer would be off the table at 5 p.m. that afternoon. Allen said he made a U-turn and went back to the jail to get his client's signature on the document.

Allen went on vacation, but on the following Monday his office assistant called Drescher to report there might be a problem — Lam Peralta had changed his mind.

Testimony showed that when the change of plea hearing was conducted on Aug. 14, 2017, Lam Peralta agreed to plead guilty, but had raised some concerns. At one point he was given a one-hour break to confer with Allen.

Drescher continued to show all the written and verbal comments the defendant made about his understanding what he was pleading guilty to in court and that he also understood the consequences.

Allen said he filed a motion to withdraw as legal counsel when Lam Peralta filed his own motion to withdraw his plea.

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