Fifth District Court Judge Robert J. Elgee struggled with a decision to send a convicted drug dealer to prison, noting that separation will be difficult on the defendant's three young children. But in the end he sentenced the man to four and one-half years behind bars.
Francisco Vega-Salinas, a 29-year-old Bellevue man, must spend one and one-half years in prison before he's eligible for parole. Sentencing was pronounced Monday morning against the defendant, one of the final suspects to be sentenced from a major Blaine County drug bust in April.
Vega-Salinas is a Mexican citizen with legal residency in the United States. Free on bail since shortly after his arrest, Vega-Salinas had lived with his parents in Bellevue, who also have legal residency status. He has custody of his three children, a 2-year-old daughter and sons 3 and 6. All three of the children are U.S. citizens.
He has spent most of his life in Blaine County, having graduated from Wood River High School. He worked as a construction supervisor and has only a few misdemeanor convictions in his past.
He pleaded guilty in November to one felony count of delivery of methamphetamine, a conviction that could subject him to removal from the United States at the conclusion of his prison term.
"It's really a hard choice what to do with you," Elgee told the defendant. "You don't have a bad record, as far as records go, and you have a good family.
"I don't know if you'll be deported," the judge continued. "The children are caught in the middle. There's no question about that. I hope you don't get separated from them. I know you are very important to them.
"But dealing methamphetamine is probably one of the worst things you can come to court with," Elgee said. "I hope your children are OK while you're in prison. I wish I didn't have to do this, Mr. Vega. It's not always pleasant."
Elgee knocked half a year off the recommendation of the Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, which recommend a five-year sentence.
"The defendant has been caught dealing methamphetamine and we need to show that people who are caught dealing meth will not be tolerated in this community," said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Matt Fredback.
Vega-Salinas was one of 13 suspects indicted by a Blaine County grand jury following last April's drug bust by the county's Narcotics Enforcement Team. Eleven of them have now been sentenced to either prison or jail. Charges were dismissed against one suspect and the final defendant has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Defense attorney Michael Kraynick argued forcefully for leniency for Vega-Salinas, telling the court that his client has successfully completed past probationary sentences, is the sole supporter of his children, has a good work record and recognizes that he made a mistake.
"He knows what he did, and he knows it was wrong," Kraynick said. "I've come to know Mr. Vega over these past several months and he has always been honest and he has always worked hard to try to fix his mistakes.
"Most of his transgressions were when he was a youth and a juvenile," Kraynick said. "It would be hard on those children if their father went to prison."
Vega-Salinas briefly addressed the court: "I'm not happy with what I did. If I get a chance to redeem myself I will," he said.
Kraynick told the Idaho Mountain Express following sentencing that the hearing was "very emotional" for him personally.
"You don't always get clients you believe in," he said. "Sometimes we get clients where we as attorneys just try to do the job. But I do believe in Francisco. We'll see how Francisco does. He's a really good guy."
Kraynick said that Vega-Salinas will not automatically be removed from the United States once he's out of prison. He explained that "removal" is the correct legal term for non-citizens who are in the country legally. "Deport" is the term used for illegal immigrants.
He said immigration authorities are somewhat inconsistent with the way they apply the law.
"I don't know if they roll the dice or what," he said. "It's an incredibly arbitrary system."
Conviction of a felony is a "removable offense," Kraynick said. He said the fact that a defendant's children are U.S. citizens is sometimes considered and sometimes not.