A Shadow World of Life and Death : Working Mostly Undercover, DEA Agents Live With Danger and Often Die Unheralded

Times Staff Writer

Special Agent Paul Seema had all the edges. Born in Thailand, he had worked its borders and jungle runs and at 51 was a unique and experienced hand on Asia, its drug dealers and their quickness to kill.

But in Los Angeles, it wasn't enough.

Special Agent George Montoya was younger but had caution. He was a meticulous arranger, an orderly 34-year-old with a knack for working any program and balancing its odds in his favor. He went to work with three guns, two government-issue 9mm Smith & Wesson automatics in his belt and a snub-nosed, five-shot revolver in the door of the car.

In Los Angeles, that still wasn't enough.

Both men died.

Montoya was killed instantly, shot in the head during a drug sting that turned into a drug dealer's rip-off on a quiet Pasadena street this month. Cautious George Montoya, who drank only Jim Beam on the rocks, liked eating soft steaks and firm sushi, was to have been married this summer.

Seema, also shot in the head, died later, on Feb. 6, the day before his 52nd birthday, at Huntington Memorial Hospital. Gentle Paul Seema, whose wife, Joy, was at his side when the life-support system was disconnected, had a son, Jason, 8, who that day hugged every nurse on the floor and told them: "Thanks for looking after my daddy."

Partners in Danger

Husband and father. Son and fiance. Seema's passion was fishing the big rivers of his wife's home state of Minnesota. Montoya, of a Latino father and a Japanese mother, liked the music of Hiroshima, a jazz fusion group, and one day wanted to tour Japan.

Ordinary men. Partners. The energy of youth playing off the stability of experience. Yet they also were companions in an extraordinary craft whose dangers, by their deaths, may now be seen in finer detail.

"Television glorifies us as fun and games and cops and robbers," said Rogelio Guevara, a Los Angeles agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, a friend of both men. "But it (DEA work) is also very real, a very dangerous job, and it is for keeps.

"We have the highest assault rate of any federal law enforcement agency, and if anything, we're seeing an increase. That's nothing to brag about, just a sad truth.

"Thirty-three federal narcotics agents have been killed in the last 50 years, and I venture to say the bulk of these were in the past 10 or 15 years. In the first 45 days of last year, one agent in Texas was shot and killed. One in Atlanta. A third in Florida. It's almost common for agents to be shot. It has become noteworthy only when they die."

Why did Seema and Montoya die?

Because, say fellow agents with the Los Angeles Field Office of DEA, there come moments when all the years of training and varieties of experience are overcome by drug dealers who hold the ultimate advantages: absolute greed, total cruelty and a facility for murder. Fearing no reprisals, they kill companion drug dealers. They murder federal officers who play too convincingly their roles as companion drug dealers.

"I wonder what they (Seema and Montoya) could have done if they'd had their guns in their hands?" asked Guevara. He answered his own question. "Nothing. It (the train of events) was all within the keeping of a, quote, legitimate, unquote, drug deal.

"Then it went down." Guevara snapped finger and thumb. "Like that. Before anyone had a chance to process what was going on, it happened. The only way they could have saved themselves would have been not to have been there that day.

"But they were paid to be there that day."

Guevara, a 16-year field agent before his transfer to a public information job with the DEA's 90-agent Los Angeles field office, carries the mark of such peril.

There's a long scar down the center of his forehead. It's from 1974 and an ambush in Mexico. Guevara was shot in the head and survived. His partner, Jose Luis Ballesteros, was killed.

Ballesteros can be named because he is dead. But those who live and continue to work in the faceless world of drug enforcement generally choose to remain anonymous. On the rare occasions they are interviewed, as for this article, the agreement is that they remain nameless.

Their dangers are everywhere, said one agent. So the mind-set, he added, must be constant vigilance, hit the ground running, always know an escape--and accept that you are the armed and dangerous one.

Many police officers have gone from induction to retirement without ever firing their weapons. In a January report in Insight magazine, Robert Bryden, training director at the DEA academy at Quantico, Va., raised the absolute contrast: "The DEA agent who graduates today probably will have to draw his gun within the first week."

For George Montoya, it was one month and two days from academy graduation before he probably should have drawn his gun. But then there wasn't time. Not even for a good, fast gun like Montoya, who, although new to DEA, had spent 10 years as a U.S. Border Patrol agent and then as an Immigration and Naturalization Service investigator.

"George was one of the top five shots in our (December, 1987) academy class," said his roommate. "He was always shooting 95 (per cent) plus and helped me along when I was having some problems with my shooting."

Montoya was born in Texas, one of three sons. His father was a civil servant who moved the family to Seal Beach in the '50s. Montoya studied criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach and joined the Border Patrol on graduation.

"But he wanted the freedom offered by DEA, the dress, the hours, and he wanted to work under cover," said the friend. "He felt he had a better chance for moving up with DEA but that this was going to be it for him. No more academies."

Academy classmates remember him as a man in control of himself, a keeper of clean notes and an immaculate bunk space. Montoya hated to run but when he did he never sweated, they recall. When eight members of the academy class went to Washington, D.C., for the Halloween weekend, it was Montoya who organized the hotel and the restaurants. The good wine. The correct music. Ask George.

And if a sense of fatality existed in Montoya, said an agent who shared that weekend, he never discussed it over his Jim Beam. Death was for others. Life was for Montoya. Although, as part of his meticulous pattern, Montoya had drawn up a will and assigned his federal insurance benefits.

"George had never been married but had been dating Martha, a friend from INS, for two years," said his friend. "Then he proposed to her by letter from the academy and she accepted."

By his culture, by age, by half a world of difference, Paul Seema was the counterpole of George Montoya. Seema was one of DEA's internationalists, a native of Thailand whose federal apprenticeship was spent working for the CIA and U.S. military intelligence in Bangkok during the Vietnam years. Then, in 1976, he transferred to the DEA and a 10-year tour at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

There, Seema married Joy, a DEA secretary at the Embassy. Jason was born. And, in 1980, Seema met another agent, one of DEA's men in Hong Kong, who would become his closest friend.

"We traveled to Northeast Thailand a lot, working for enforcement and intelligence," said the fellow agent, "just doing pretty much what DEA agents do. Paul would invite me to his home, we ate meals together in Bangkok . . . and in July of last year, Paul, Joy and Jason came to Los Angeles."

But in California there were changes in Seema, he said, "and the thrill of the chase wasn't that intriguing to him at 51 years of age." Although he liked Los Angeles and loved the United States, "he would have preferred to have stayed in Bangkok indefinitely. Uncle Sam pays the rent, for one thing, and then Paul, except for a brother at March Air Force Base (near Riverside) had no ties to Southern California."

Seema was also working on obtaining recognition of his U.S. government service before he joined DEA. That way, he could count on a pension for about 24 years of federal employment.

"I'm not sure Paul would have retired, but he wanted to have that option," said the agent. "He and I used to kid each other that we were doing two (years) to life in Los Angeles."

As a man, Seema was "energetic, loyal to family and friends and very sociable." As a friend, "three or four times a week he'd call me to go to lunch and we'd go to Chinatown and over a good bowl of noodles we'd exchange war stories about our times in Bangkok and talk about how we'd both like to go back there, together again one day.

"Hobbies? His hobby was his son. He spent a lot of time with him. He had plans for Jason's college and had already paid for it."

And at Huntington Hospital, it was Jason who had a final gift for his dad. He drew a pre-Valentine's Day heart and taped the paper to a door. It said: "I Love My Daddy."

For Seema and Montoya, partners for barely a month, their final day began as DEA rote.

Drove to Work as Usual

Montoya drove in from his Anaheim condominium shortly after 9 a.m. Seema's commute was from the three-bedroom house he rented in Simi Valley. They parked in the underground garage of DEA's downtown headquarters, two floors of the World Trade Center, an ironic address for an agency with offices and daily criminal trade in 65 countries.

There was a briefing for their special unit--Enforcement Group Four, the Los Angeles office's 13-man Asian Heroin Section. Seema, whose first language was Thai, was a natural asset to the group. So was Montoya, with his mixed Asian and Latino heritage. The day's work, went the brief, would be an $80,000 buy for two pounds of heroin, continuing DEA's successful infiltration of a local syndicate, all from Taiwan, suspected of handling heroin imported from the infamous Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand.

After the briefing, Seema spotted his old companion and waved.

"He was at his desk getting ready to go out on the case," said the agent. "He looked like he was busy and I try not to start too much chitchat at times like that."

Montoya bumped into his bunkie from the DEA academy. A mutual friend, another agent, was getting married the next day. They reminded each other not to forget the bachelor party at El Amigo Cafe that night. Nor the wedding.

Three agents formed the undercover team that would make the heroin buy--Seema, Montoya and Jose Martinez, 25, a 1-year man with DEA--and in the section office, even their desks were neighbors.

All their movements would be monitored by a surveillance team of 15 officers in three unmarked cars.

The operation began before noon, Feb. 5, when the agents met their contact, a Taiwanese immigrant, at Tiny Naylor's coffee shop in Monterey Park. It was agreed they would all drive to Pasadena to pick up the dope. They left in a DEA undercover car, a white Volvo. Martinez was driving. Seema, short, stocky, was seated alongside.

The suspected drug dealer, a 27-year-old motel janitor from Monterey Park, sat in the back seat, behind Seema. Beside him was the well-armed Montoya.

But the suspected dealers, according to court documents filed at the subsequent arraignment of one, had no heroin and planned only to rip off the money carried by Seema, Montoya and Martinez. Nor did they know that their intended victims were DEA officers.

Seema and Montoya died in that shoot-out on sedate, residential Marengo Avenue in Pasadena at noon on a bright Friday. Special Agent Martinez was shot through both calves and collapsed firing at the escaping suspects.

Backup teams pursued the getaway car. Two men were shot to death in a second shoot-out. A third suspect was shot eight times but survived and has been charged with the killings of Seema and Montoya and the assault on Martinez.

Another man has been arraigned and charged with being an accessory to the killings, abetting an assault and abetting robbery of a federal agent. Two other people, both Taiwanese, are being held as material witnesses.

Now Seema's friend remembers: "I walked out of my office and heard people talking about a shooting and that there were agents down. I heard that at least George and Paul had been shot and that at least George was dead."

Montoya's friend remembers: "I heard it on the radio while going out to interview an informant. I got to the scene and they told me that George was dead, instantaneously. I just stood there feeling empty and immediately thought of Martha and the family. I got in touch with the ASAC's (assistant special agent in charge's) office and offered to help with the family.

"George would have done that for me."

There have been other reactions to the killings.

For DEA's senior agents ("people with the time commitment in the job," said one) there was a necessary, realistic return to business almost as usual.

Investigation Carried On

Said Guevara: "We went to the funeral on Wednesday (Feb. 10), to bury Paul Seema. That afternoon, one of the enforcement groups continued its investigation, an undercover agent situation. They met with the bad guys, had negotiations all night until 6 a.m. . . . then arrested six individuals who happened to be hashish traffickers, and seized around $1 million in cash."

The response of junior agents, however, was not quite so stolid. Some have talked of resignation. Said one agent: "Not me, because this is just something I want to do and callous as it might seem, it (the death of an agent) is part of the job. But I have talked to others . . . and there's one with a wife and a kid on the way and he is thinking about it (resignation) real hard."

Another agent said: "My only argument to them (those thinking of resignation) would be: 'If people like Paul, Jose and George don't do the job, who will do it?' "

Guevara, however, said he could not blame anyone who quits a dangerous job with a starting salary of $24,000 a year. Three thousand DEA agents is a pretty thin line to stretch against world drug traffickers. He acknowledges that drug enforcement clearly is outmanned, outgunned and outfinanced by international drug organizations.

Yet the challenge, the social purpose and national importance of such law enforcement, he said, remains an attraction for college-educted young Americans in search of exciting and exacting opportunities in foreign lands.

And, said George Heard, assistant special agent in charge of the Los Angeles field office, the death of two agents only strengthens the resolve of those carrying on the work.

"Throughout the agency, particularly here, everybody feels probably a little closer because of their loss," he said. "It won't deter us from pursuing our ultimate objective to bring about a reduction, a change in the drug trafficking in the United States."

In life, by the very nature of their craft, DEA agents must remain obscure and unobtrusive. They are rarely photographed, even on social occasions.

In death, a similar quiet surrounded Seema and Montoya. No flags flew at half mast across the city because, said Heard, "we're not a Los Angeles entity . . . we belong to the entire nation. I don't think our people would expect one particular locale or city to place them above one of their (Los Angeles') own."

But an estimated 2,000 mourners attended both funerals.

Martinez, recovering from his leg wounds, hobbled in on crutches. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was at both funerals. So were representatives of 26 California law enforcement agencies. A police general from Thailand flew to Los Angeles for services for Paul Seema.

"We know that we're cops," said one agent. "But we sometimes think that other agencies forget. We were very complimented to see our thinking proved wrong."

Both funeral services were kept largely non-public. That was partly by request of the families. But also by DEA preference because public memorials attract the media.

"They (media) were not excluded but they were not encouraged to attend," said Guevara. "Because the pall bearers were undercover agents who were out there when Paul and George got killed. We would have been doing them a disservice to put their faces on the 6 o'clock news."

Yet some photographers were there. They, said Guevara, represented drug dealers. They too were interested in the identities of undercover agents.

"It's a free country," said Guevara. "What can we do?"

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