A meth dealer at the center of one of the most far-reaching murder cases in recent East Valley history was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison Tuesday in federal court in Phoenix.
Jose Rios Rico, 31, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a long series of crimes, including the murder of Angela Pinkerton, who disappeared in 2003 while delivering high-grade methamphetamine to Rios Rico at a Chandler apartment.
With his plea, he avoided the death penalty. However, on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James Teilborg decided Rios Rico will never get the chance for release or parole.
Rios Rico's sentencing came as the final turn in the lengthy case, which took years of intense investigation by authorities from Chandler and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives.
The case has been cited as a factor in the 2006 firing of Paul Charlton, Arizona's top federal prosecutor at the time.
The case began on Feb. 26, 2003, when Pinkerton disappeared while delivering drugs to Rios Rico and his girlfriend, Sabrina Creeger. She was supposed to deliver the first part of a shipment to the couple and pick up $125,000 cash, but was not seen again.
At first, authorities had few clues about Pinkerton's disappearance.
They believed she could have just as easily skipped town with the money she was supposed to pick up as been killed in a deal gone wrong.
Part of the problem, authorities later learned, was that Rios Rico and his associates had days to scrub down the apartment, replace the carpeting and dispose of the body before Pinkerton was even reported missing.
Investigators had very little physical evidence as they attempted to unwind the tightly-knit circle that helped Rios Rico with the cover-up. There was no gun or body. Police had to rely on interviews with the suspects to turn the case.
By 2005, authorities were able to determine that Rios Rico had shot Pinkerton in the head and paid his associates with methamphetamine to get rid of the evidence. They then finally had enough to charge 10 people, including Rios Rico.
The prosecution, though, ended up being just as intriguing as the case itself.
Shortly after Rios Rico was charged with murder and other crimes, Charlton, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, told a Justice Department panel in Washington, D.C., that he did not believe the case warranted the death penalty.
The reason, he said, was because investigators never found Pinkerton's body or other key evidence.
Authorities had determined Pinkerton was dumped in a trash bin in a Chandler alley and wound up in a large landfill south of the Valley.
But Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., refused to spend the estimated $500,000 to $1 million to dig her up, according to congressional testimony.
Without that evidence, Charlton's office told the panel the case did not clear the threshold to seek the ultimate punishment. He was rebuffed, though, and soon was ordered by Alberto Gonzales, the Attorney General at the time, to seek the death penalty.
Charlton argued his side all the way up the ladder in Washington, asking Gonzales to reconsider his decision to press for the death penalty. But Charlton was ordered to move forward anyway.
The following year, he was fired, along with at least seven other U.S. attorneys, for not walking in step with the Bush administration.
Shortly after Rios Rico's sentencing late Tuesday, Charlton reacted by e-mail to word of Rios Rico's life sentence.
"Given Justice's refusal to exhume the victim's body, this is the right result," said Charlton.
Pinkerton's body, authorities believe, is still buried some 60 feet below the surface of the landfill.