Alleged Drug Kingpin's Quick Rise to Prominence

Times Staff Writer

A white-sheeted, Halloween ghost was still planted in front of Josue T. Prada's home in a quiet, suburban tract last week, as children from the neighborhood played on the front lawn.

If Prada, who had an undistinguished law practice in San Jose before moving it to Orange County, made millions as the kingpin of the Colombian-based Medellin cocaine cartel's California arm, he didn't show it.

Neither Prada nor his wife, Linda, drove flashy cars. Their children attend a nearby parochial school. His parents live 20 minutes away in Cupertino in a modest neighborhood.

"They're good people, just the kind of neighbors you want," said Mary Barcellos. "He was gone a lot, but he was just a nice guy and was always busy with the kids when he was around."

But on Tuesday, Prada is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in San Francisco where a judge will decide if he should be released on $1 million bail. He is at the top of a list of 24 people charged in a federal grand jury indictment with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.

Prosecutors say Prada, 39, masterminded an operation that smuggled and distributed as much as 1,000 kilograms of cocaine per month for the past 2 years. They allege that Prada arranged cocaine deals and airplane purchases for "the company," stashed millions in Panamanian banks and schemed to have Colombian prisoners transferred from one prison to another by bribing federal officials.

Prada declined to be interviewed from his cell in the federal corrections facility on Terminal Island. (He was transferred to a San Francisco prison last week for Tuesday's bail hearing.) Federal prosecutors have revealed few details of the massive case they plan to present against him. Prada's transformation from a struggling San Jose criminal attorney to a high-profile, Orange County-based narcotics lawyer--and finally to an accused cocaine ringleader--remains a puzzle.

But prosecutors in Los Angeles and Orange County, where Prada began handling major narcotics cases about 2 years ago, say that Prada's rapid rise despite his limited experience aroused their curiosity.

Prada's attorneys dispute the charges and attribute his local success in part to the fact that, as a native Colombian, he made his clients feel comfortable.

Prada's brother Luis said the case is flimsy, and he indicated that the government may be after his brother because he defends high-profile narcotics traffickers.

"What is the government's evidence?" he asked. "That somebody said that somebody told somebody else. . . . He's got clients like everybody else. He can't speak for what his clients do."

Josue Prada was born in Bogota on Aug. 26, 1949, and immigrated to the United States with his mother, four brothers and a sister 15 years later. The family settled in the Bay Area and, at the age of 18, with the Vietnam War raging, Prada joined the Army.

In February, 1969, Prada was sent to Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star the following year risking his life while aiding wounded American soldiers, according to military records.

He was released from active duty a few months later with the rank of Specialist 5.

After leaving the Army, Prada attended the Jesuit University of Santa Clara, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1975, then going on to receive a law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1978.

Robert S. Tafoya, a Bakersfield lawyer who was president of a Latino student group at Hastings when Prada was there, remembers Prada as someone who mostly kept to himself. "Very, very seldom did he come to our meetings," Tafoya said. "If he had any close friends there, I wouldn't know who they were."

Prada was admitted to the State Bar in 1979, but he did not established a practice in San Jose until a few years later, according to several San Jose lawyers. Luis Prada said his brother did construction work for a few years before launching his law practice.

In 1985, Prada moved into an office on West St. John Street near Santa Clara County Superior Court.

"He seemed to be struggling as an attorney," said Robert D. Baker, a lawyer who shared space with Prada that year. "He didn't handle any large cases . . . just little criminal things as they came in. . . . I'd say he was among the lower rung of lawyers in town, not extremely sharp."

Jill van de Velde, another attorney in the office, said that Prada had a brash, arrogant demeanor that often offended others in the courtroom and that he was not the type to spend much time on legal research.

But she recalled one case where Prada demonstrated a commitment to his profession. For a $500 fee, Prada took an attempted-rape case and persuaded a jury to acquit the man. "A lot of lawyers would have tried to get out of cases like that," she said.

But besides his cockiness and limited legal knowledge, lawyers around the courthouse noticed one other thing about Prada: his frequent trips home to Colombia.

"We used to joke about him going down there to pick up a couple of kilos," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Javier Alcala, quickly adding, "We probably would have made the same joke about any other attorney who handled drug cases going down there."

In January, 1987, with Prada already spending more than half his time out of San Jose, he moved out of the West St. John Street office and leased space on The Alameda, a thoroughfare that cuts through the city but is far from the city's courthouses.

His former associates saw little of him after that. Although he maintained the San Jose office until about 6 months ago, his San Jose colleagues said they hadn't really seen him around town in almost 2 years.

In April, 1986, Orange County prosecutors noticed that a San Jose attorney they had not heard of was brought in on a big, multi-defendant drug case with some of the top attorneys in town: Michael R. McDonnell, James D. Riddet and Stephan A. DeSales.

The case originally involved nine defendants in what was then the largest cocaine seizure in California history: 1,784 pounds, worth about $500 million on the street. That McDonnell, Riddet and DeSales were on the case came as no surprise to prosecutors, but who was this guy Prada?

Orange County Superior Court Judge James M. Brooks, who at the time was the prosecutor on the case, said Prada seemed to stay in the background, letting the other lawyers carry the load in court while he coordinated the defense from the fringes.

It was a pattern that other prosecutors soon noticed. On case after case, in both Orange and Los Angeles counties, Prada would surround himself with top-flight attorneys and let them make the motions and cross-examine witnesses.

Carl W. Armbrust, head of the Orange County district attorney's narcotics unit, said that he and his prosecutors quickly realized that "Prada was very close to the Colombian drug cartel."

"It appeared that he was hired by them to go around and engage other lawyers to defend those persons arrested on narcotics," Armbrust said. "In almost every one we had, Mr. Prada showed up but very seldom did any work on the case himself. . . . We always got the impression he was there to make sure that none of the defendants told anything about the cartel."

Armbrust and other prosecutors said that Prada seemed unusually interested in search warrants on cases involving Colombian drug defendants in Southern California. Both in Los Angeles and Orange County, Armbrust said, Prada would read the affidavits for search warrants "on case after case after case, even where he wasn't involved. . . . It appeared that Mr. Prada was seeking desperately to find out who the informant was."

McDonnell, who is assisting Los Angeles attorney Michael D. Abzug on Prada's defense, disputed the prosecutors' assertions that Prada hired lawyers and coordinated their efforts on big cases on behalf of the Medellin cartel.

"I was usually the lead attorney," McDonnell said. "Prada speaks Spanish, he is Colombian, and those people trust him. His name spread through the Orange County jail when he got down here, and they started coming to him."

About 8 months ago, Prada rented space in a building on Broadway in downtown Santa Ana from Riddet and Sylvan B. Aronson, another well-known criminal defense attorney. Riddet said the allegations against Prada came as a complete surprise to him.

"He was quite charming, really," he said. "He was a very bright, up-and-coming lawyer who seemed to have a future ahead of him."

While Prada's practice since he left San Jose has mostly been devoted to narcotics cases, there was at least one major diversion: his defense of retired Argentine Gen. Carlos G. Suarez Mason, charged with murdering and kidnaping dozens of people during his country's "Dirty War" against alleged leftists and subversives.

Prada was not the first attorney to be asked to take the case. San Francisco lawyer Ephraim Margolin, president of the National Assn. of Criminal Lawyers, said he turned down the case "because I did not want to represent somebody on those kinds of charges." Margolin said he called several other prominent lawyers in Northern Calfornia but could find no one willing to take the case.

Eventually, Jack Hill, who maintains practices in Dallas and San Francisco, took over Suarez Mason's defense. But after a few months, he discovered that Suarez Mason's wife had been meeting with Prada and had engaged his services.

Prada did bring in a more experienced attorney on the case--Riddet--but last April, U.S. District Judge Lowell D. Jensen ordered the retired general extradited to stand trial on 39 counts of murder.

Why Suarez Mason would hire a relatively unknown, Santa Ana-based lawyer remains a puzzle to Hill and other attorneys who watched the highly publicized case.

Prada's old San Jose officemate, Robert Baker, bumped into Prada in federal court in the course of the extradition hearing. "I was surprised he got it, and I asked him how it happened," Baker said. "He just said he had some contacts."

When he was in Southern California, Prada lived in a house in Buena Park he rented from Michael McDonnell. McDonnell got the house as a fee for defending Cayetano Sinisterra, a Colombian currently in jail on drug charges.

Investigators found $164,000 in a briefcase stashed in a wooden cabinet in the garage when they searched Prada's Buena Park house. They found another $340,000 in two briefcases hidden in the attic in a San Jose house owned by one of his brothers.

The arrests of Prada and 10 other defendants in the indictment last month (an additional two were arrested last week) capped an investigation that began in August, 1986--shortly after Prada burst on the scene in Southern California as a narcotics lawyer.

A year later, in September, Prada arranged to sell through his alleged lieutenant, Lenin Francisco Molano, about a pound of cocaine to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent, the government contends in court records. The deal was consummated in San Francisco a month later--the transaction was one kilo for $16,000--and Molano drove directly to Prada's San Jose law office after receiving the cash, prosecutors say.

Last April, according to court documents, Prada discussed the initial transaction with the undercover agent, telling him that he was suspicious of him at the time but that that was no longer the case.

"When Frank (Molano) or I tell you a deal is white, it's white," Prada allegedly said.

A few months later, the government says, the agent bought 2 kilograms of cocaine for $36,000 at San Francisco International Airport from Paul Eugene Smith, a private investigator Prada had used in his law practice in San Jose, and who he now was allegedly using to check the backgrounds of cocaine buyers for his drug business.

The deals got bigger. In August, a DEA agent bought 10 kilos of cocaine from Molano, who indicated that Prada was in on the deal and had millions stashed in Panamanian bank accounts, court records show.

In September, Molano arranged to sell the agent 49 kilos.

The following month, the government struck, searching 17 locations in Southern California and the San Jose area and arresting Prada, Molano, Smith and the other defendants they could find.

Eleven defendants named in the indictment remain at large, including Colombian Senator Pablo Escobar-Gavira and soccer team owner Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha, two of the suspected kingpins of the Medellin cartel.

Also at large is Isidro Prada, Josue Prada's 36-year-old brother. He is a former AirCal employee and is believed to be in Colombia, as are several other fugitives.

The U.S. Attorney's Office plans to add charges against Prada under federal organized-crime statutes. He already could face life imprisonment on the current charges.

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