Seven Charged With Thefts Along River : Miami Police Drug Trial Nearing Close

Times Staff Writer

The Miami River was once a crystal clear flow. Coconut palms lined the shore, and Seminole Indians paddled up the twisted path to a single trading post. But by the 1930s, the river had been dredged and stretched for barges and tankers. Fisheries and junkyards opened along the banks, and pollutants darkened the water into a brown ooze.

As the decades passed, it was almost inevitable that this 5.2-mile meander would become the rusted-out back door for Miami's best-paying commerce. Drugs were hauled up the river, and that is how it has come to lend its name to the biggest police corruption trial in city history.

On Tuesday, the defense began its closing arguments in the so-called Miami River Cop Case, now in its fourth month, a trial as slow-moving and full of twists as its namesake.

Drug Thefts Charged

Seven current or former city policemen--men who had been assigned to safeguard the river--are charged with instead becoming a gang that stole drugs along its docks and boat yards.

"Brotherhood and fraternity--maybe that's the one thing these men learned during their tenure as police officers: the brotherhood of greed and the fraternity of criminal violence," prosecutor Trudy Novicki said in her closing statement.

The defendants--Armando Estrada, Rodolfo Arias, Roman Rodriguez, Armando Garcia, Arturo de la Vega, Osvaldo Coello and Ricardo Aleman--are all aged 30 or under, friends who together lifted weights and played touch football when they were off duty.

Each is charged with conspiring to set up a criminal enterprise that allegedly began with small-time thefts of drugs from motorists stopped for traffic violations and grew into multimillion-dollar drug rip-offs.

The trial began Oct. 6, and more than 100 witnesses have been called. One or more of the defendants is charged in each of 26 related counts, a complicated knot the jury must untangle when it gets the case, probably Thursday or Friday.

Many Scandals

In the past few years Miami has suffered numerous police scandals, though the river case is easily the most notorious.

In July, 1985, three panicky drug smugglers drowned when men in police uniforms rushed them at the Jones Boat Yard at the river's edge. Estrada, Garcia and Rodriguez face possible life terms for allegedly causing the three deaths during a cocaine heist.

Defense attorneys contend that the young, muscular officers are being sacrificed amid hysteria about police corruption. "Going out on a witch hunt and trying to find a scapegoat is one of the most dangerous and perilous things that a courtroom can be used for," argued Sam Burstyn, who represents Arias.

Much of the defense effort has been toward discrediting two key prosecution witnesses, Armando Un and Pedro Ramos, a task made easier because both are cocaine dealers with surly manners and hazy memories.

Ramos seemed especially malign on the witness stand, bragging that he had $200,000 in drug profits stashed away at home.

"If you want the address, I ain't going to give it to you," he snapped during testimony.

Hidden Microphones

Ramos and Un became police informants in 1985. They wore hidden microphones that recorded suspicious conversations with Rodriguez, Estrada and Garcia:

Rodriguez: "Do they know about that rip-off?"

Un: "Oh, man."

Rodriguez: "That was the rip-off I didn't go on."

Other strong evidence for the prosecution includes financial records that show each of the officers making large bank deposits as well as enjoying luxury vacations and buying expensive homes, cars and furniture.

Jacqueline Quintana, former lover of defendant Ricardo Aleman, testified that she was smoking marijuana with him in his new Corvette when he boasted of easy money.

"The Miami River (case), well, I baby-sat the cocaine and I got $100,000 for it," she recalled him saying.

On the other hand, a variety of relatives and friends came forward to say that it was they who bankrolled the policemen during the flurry of purchases.

For instance, prosecutors had charged that defendant Armando Garcia had bought his 22-year-old fiancee a $13,000 Datsun 300ZX.

Not so, said Giselle Porras-Pita. She herself had bought it with $8,000 that her father, a truck driver, kept in the family's piano. The rest of the money, she testified, came from "this little box I have on my dresser."

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