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Expensive Residues of Crumbled Cocaine Empire Seized by U.S.

Times Staff Writer

The rags-to-riches drug story of two South-Central Los Angeles gang members ended in a wealthy Encino neighborhood Friday when federal officials seized a $1.1-million hilltop house used in running a cocaine empire that reached halfway across the country.

The seizure of the Encino house and two other luxury homes in nearby Tarzana, along with five expensive cars and an expensive speedboat, was hailed by local and federal officials as the most dramatic move yet against major suppliers of cocaine in the South-Central area.

Mayor Tom Bradley, flanked by officials of the Los Angeles Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, called the action a new “beginning” in an increased effort to cripple major cocaine dealers financially by seizing their assets.

“This seizure is a clear signal to other dope dealers that you may live high on the hog for a while, but we’re going to get you,” Bradley said. “We’re going to seize whatever assets we can to put the drug dealers out of business.”

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According to police, the dismantled cocaine ring, which had moved into the San Fernando Valley, was started only a few years ago in South-Central L.A. by two brothers, David and Michael Harris, who began their drug careers as low-level “crack” dealers while affiliated with the Rolling 60s Crips.

By 1987, according to both the LAPD and the DEA, the Harris brothers had built an organization that was shipping loads of up to 220 pounds of cocaine at a time to such distant points as Chicago, Detroit and Shreveport, La. At one point, a $1-million return shipment of cash from Detroit was intercepted.

Besides their national distribution system, according to police documents, the two brothers ran a chain of cocaine “rock houses” in the South-Central area and Long Beach. They bought the houses in Encino and Tarzana in late 1987, using family members to make the actual purchases.

As the Harris brothers grew increasingly wealthy from their cocaine profits, they purchased such luxury items as a 1988 Jaguar and a 1981 Mercedes-Benz. David Harris, 26, also bought a 37-foot speedboat for $150,000 in September, 1987.

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Almost as quickly as their empire was built, however, it began to fall apart.

Michael Harris, 27, who had a lengthy record of gun violations, was arrested in June, 1987, for the kidnaping and attempted murder of one of the members of his drug ring, James Lester, who was suspected of trying to steal $100,000 from the group’s rock house operations.

Lester later testified that he was driven to the Antelope Valley by Michael Harris and two accomplices, shot several times and left for dead. Michael Harris was convicted of the crime in June and is in Los Angeles County Jail awaiting sentencing.

Meanwhile, David Harris, 26, was killed May 29 when his speedboat sank in the Long Beach Harbor. The boat has since been salvaged for federal auction, along with the houses and the cars.

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While noting that the total assets of the Harris brothers exceeded $3.2 million, LAPD Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said Friday that the two former gang members were only “mid-level” suppliers of cocaine in the South-Central area.

“This represents the first major seizure of real property in Los Angeles since passage of the federal drug forfeiture act in 1984,” Levant said. “But it is only the beginning. There are a dozen bigger suppliers operating right now that I know of. We can expect $15 million more in seizures like this in the near future.”

Joining Levant and Bradley at a news conference outside the Encino house were John M. Zienter, special agent in charge of the DEA in Los Angeles, and Gary A. Feess, chief assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California.

Feess and Zienter said the federal seizure of the Harris assets marks the beginning of an increase in federal-local cooperation under a street gang drug trafficking task force announced earlier this month by U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner.

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The LAPD alone has seized more than $88 million in cash from drug dealers since passage of the federal asset forfeiture act four years ago, has been paid $18 million of that for its role in various drug investigations and awaits payment of another $24 million.

To increase the local focus on seizing real property in addition to cash, Bradley announced Friday that he wants to add 12 officers to the LAPD’s anti-gang unit to track hidden assets of drug dealers either under arrest or investigation.

“Drug money is not welcome in our city,” Bradley said. “We will go after anyone--gang members, accountants, lawyers or bankers--who deal in illegal money.”


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