Twenty-one people, including an Orange County lawyer who has defended alleged members of a Colombian drug cartel, have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of cocaine smuggling, it was disclosed Wednesday.
Santa Ana attorney Josue T. (J.T.) Prada was described by a federal Drug Enforcement Administration official as a leader of the international drug ring.
Prada is among 11 people who have been arrested so far in the case, which involved the importation and distribution of up to 1,000 kilograms of uncut cocaine in the United States every month for at least a year, officials said.
More than 60 kilograms of the drug were seized or purchased by undercover agents as the result of a yearlong operation by the DEA, the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office and several local police departments, including the Los Angeles department.
“This is just the initial stage,” and additional charges are expected, DEA Special Agent Robert Bender said.
Prada, 39, according to Bender, had boasted to undercover agents of his ties to members of a notorious cocaine cartel based in Medellin, Colombia.
Bender said Prada was the leader of the drug operation domestically, providing legal work and facilitating cocaine transactions across the country. He also served as a “conduit” to the Medellin group, Bender added.
Officials said they seized documents and $200,000 in cash from Prada’s premises.
“It seems like his whole law practice was interrelated with this (conspiracy),” said Assistant U.S. Atty. William McGivern at a press conference.
Role as Defense Lawyer
LAPD Deputy Chief Glenn Levant said Prada has served as the defense attorney for Colombian nationals in numerous drug cases in the United States, as well as for other major narcotics traffickers.
“It seems kind of hypocritical for a lawyer to be involved in the same crime as his clients,” Levant said.
Prada’s Los Angeles attorney, Michael Abzug, declined to discuss the case. “I will say he denies the charges,” Abzug said. “He is married, with three children, and in all ways has been a law-abiding and respected member of the community.”
Prada was arrested last week and is scheduled to have a bail hearing today in Los Angeles.
However, Abzug said a federal magistrate last week had denied the government’s request that Prada be held without bail. He said bail was set then at $350,000, adding that he expects Prada to post that bail today using family real estate as collateral.
Citing information provided to the magistrate last week by federal probation authorities, Abzug said Prada and his family moved to the United States in 1964 from Colombia. Probation authorities, according to Abzug, said Prada served in Vietnam, winning a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal, and has been a member “in good standing” of the State Bar since 1976.
Prada earlier this year represented Argentine ex-Gen. Carlos Suarez Mason, who unsuccessfully opposed extradition to Buenos Aires.
Suarez Mason currently faces 43 charges of murder and other charges in that country in connection with the deaths or disappearance of thousands of allegedly leftist elements during Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” of the 1970s.
Prada represented a Colombian defendant in 1986 in what was then the state’s largest cocaine smuggling case. In that case, investigators seized more than 1,784 pounds of cocaine valued at more than $500 million, plus $730,000 cash during raids on five locations in Anaheim, Placentia and Fullerton.
A Santa Ana attorney who has rented office space to Prada and worked with him on a few cases described Prada as busy and personable. “He was quite charming, really,” said James D. Riddet, who with his partner Sylvan B. Aronson rented space to Prada for about 8 months. “He was a very bright, up-and-coming lawyer who seemed to have a future ahead of him.”
Riddet said Prada was fluent in Spanish and had many Spanish-speaking clients. He also noted that Prada seemed to travel a lot. He remembers one business trip to Miami, another to New York, another to Chicago.
“There was never any indication that he was anything but a very busy lawyer with a lot of clients,” Riddet said.
Riddet added that he would be surprised if the allegations against Prada are true.
“This comes as a complete surprise to us,” Riddet said.
La Habra attorney Michael R. McDonnell, who said he will be assisting in Prada’s defense, said Prada “lives in San Jose and here (in Orange County) and handles a lot of major narcotics cases.”
He said Prada has known for at least a month that he was the subject of a grand jury investigation and would be arrested. “That’s what he was told,” McDonnell said, declining to say who told Prada.
‘Want to Get Lawyers’
“I’m not surprised when the government singles out lawyers who are handling major narcotics cases,” he said. “That’s kind of the trend. They want to get the lawyers.”
Also indicted was Medillin resident Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha, 41, described in court papers as a soccer team owner. According to Bender, Rodriguez-Gacha was the kingpin of the international conspiracy and is believed to be in Colombia.
Another Colombian national, Pablo Escobar-Gavira, 38, a senator and businessman from Medellin, also was indicted. Whether the two men can be arrested depends on the government of Colombia’s willingness to adhere to extradition treaties, authorities said.
Reflecting a trend toward increased technical and financial sophistication on the part of drug traffickers, the group allegedly hired its own private investigators to conduct counter-surveillance on law enforcement, used expensive communications equipment and even employed real estate brokers to seek out investment opportunities for their illegal profits, the officials said.
When the alleged conspirators were arrested last week, some had been negotiating with undercover law enforcement agents to purchase an airplane to be used for transporting the drugs, allegedly making international calls from cellular telephones.
Agents said most of the drugs seized had been shipped through Los Angeles. Five suspects were arrested in Los Angeles, and evidence including machine guns, automobiles and currency has been seized there.
Additionally, $650,000 in cash and $70,000 in gemstones were seized in Los Angeles. Electronic equipment, including cellular telephones and computers, were also found.
Investigators believe that the ring peddled cocaine to buyers in at least four states, including New York and Florida.
Times staff writers Jerry Hicks and Mark Landsbaum contributed to this story from Orange County.