Drug probe taints eatery?

We’re innocent, say owners of restaurant named in indictment

Claudia and Francisco Espinoza sit outside their restaurant, El Tapatio on North Avenue. They say business has fallen off since the recent issuance of an indictment that alleged the restaurant’s manager was involved in a regional ring dealing in illegal drugs.



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Claudia and Francisco Espinoza sit outside their restaurant, El Tapatio on North Avenue. They say business has fallen off since the recent issuance of an indictment that alleged the restaurant’s manager was involved in a regional ring dealing in illegal drugs.

You can find great salsa at Grand Junction’s El Tapatio.

And that’s no code for a drug deal, according to the ownership.

“We have nothing to do with this and we’re against illegal stuff,” Francisco Espinoza, co-owner of El Tapatio, 1145 North Ave., said during a recent interview with The Daily Sentinel, made possible by a Spanish-language translator.

On a Tuesday last week, around the time when Francisco said they once saw steady noon-hour business, about three or four patrons were inside grabbing lunch.

Since Mesa County law enforcement on April 25 announced the takedown of a 36-member drug ring — allegations which also spotlighted Espinoza’s eatery — the parking lot has been relatively vacant and longtime customers come inside not to eat but to see if they’re still open.

Old acquaintances haven’t been returning phone calls like they used to, said Claudia Espinoza, Francisco’s wife. Their own twin daughters have heard about it at East Middle School.

“Classmates say to them, ‘Your dad’s going to jail,’ ” Claudia said.

The Espinozas, who built up the North Avenue restaurant over 12 years, reject any association with drug organizations or drug dealing.

“We have nothing to do with these people and we have clean records,” Francisco said.

Public records in the investigation of the organization, which allegedly was headed by Meeker restaurant owner Francisco Peralta-Cabral, 44, include allegations of one — and possibly two — drug transactions occurring in the parking lot of El Tapatio. The indictment alleges the group had a sophisticated network of distributors, couriers and dealers, using telephone code such “salsa” and “chickens” in negotiations for quantities of methamphetamine or cocaine.

The indictment issued by a Mesa County grand jury alleges Jose Zepeda-Osuna, 34, of Rifle, and an unnamed individual drove to the El Tapatio restaurant on Dec. 20 and provided the restaurant’s manager six-kilogram packages, or 13 pounds, of methamphetamine or cocaine.

An application in support of wiretap surveillance said a confidential informant claimed to have been present when Zepeda-Osuna gave “two bags” of money to the restaurant’s manager. The date of the alleged transaction isn’t specified.

“(Informant) had observed Zepeda write information in his notebook stating the manager of El Tapatio gets 6 ‘bricks’ on each load,” reads the application.

The manager isn’t identified in indictments and has not been charged with any crimes.

Francisco Espinoza said he and his wife were in Mexico during the alleged drug transactions in the parking lot of his restaurant on Dec. 20. They first learned of it after the Sentinel reported the allegation on April 25, Francisco said. The couple says the manager no longer works at El Tapatio and Francisco said he’s looking at installing additional video security systems on the exterior of his property.

“This is a family restaurant,” Francisco said. “We want people to feel comfortable here.”



COMMENTS

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Had dinner there Friday night and it was just as good as ever.

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