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Arrests Cut Key L.A. Cocaine Link, Police Say

Times Staff Writer

An investigation that stretched from South-Central Los Angeles to a small town in Denmark has resulted in the arrest of two men and the severing of a major link between a Colombian drug cartel and cocaine-dealing Los Angeles street gangs, authorities said Tuesday.

Federal and local officials said Brian (Waterhead Bo) Bennett, who recently moved to Tempe, Ariz., from South-Central Los Angeles, and Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado, a Colombian national, had organized a nationwide drug ring headquartered in Los Angeles that distributed 1,000 kilograms--more than a ton--of crack cocaine a week.

Bennett, 24, who apparently linked up with Villabona-Alvarado about two years ago, was arrested Nov. 19 at a luxury home he recently purchased in Tempe. Villabona-Alvarado, 28, allegedly a ranking member of Colombia’s Cali drug cartel, was arrested the same day in Malibu.

Arrest Called Significant

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Deputy Los Angeles Police Chief Glenn Levant and U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner described Bennett’s arrest as one of the most significant in recent years.

“Bennett is the highest-level street thug who’s ever connected with the Colombian cartels, and this is the single most important partnership ever established between a major South-Central drug dealer and the Colombians,” Levant said.

“He was dealing roughly $10 million worth of cocaine a week in Los Angeles and all over the country,” Levant added. “He was supplying thousands of rock houses from Los Angeles to Detroit. You won’t see a bigger dope dealer arrested in South-Central for a long, long time.”

While Bennett and Villabona-Alvarado were arrested more than a week ago on a criminal complaint alleging cocaine violations, there was no public disclosure of the case because of pending grand jury deliberations.

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Details were learned, however, from interviews with law enforcement officials and from court records filed in Los Angeles.

The investigation into Bennett’s alleged drug activities was largely a local Los Angeles police case at first, with investigators initially unaware of any link to Villabona-Alvarado. Coincidentally, however, a federal investigation of Villabona-Alvarado had begun producing evidence that he had laundered $500,000 in drug profits through a bank in Copenhagen.

The first direct link between Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett came after Danish authorities had already frozen Villabona-Alvarado’s assets. On Dec. 4, 1987, Danish national police told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that Villabona-Alvarado had showed up in Denmark, accompanied by his Danish wife, Helle Nielsen, and Bennett.

Using wiretaps easily approved under Danish law, Danish officials began listening in on a series of phone calls between Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett--first from their rooms at the Savoy Hotel in Copenhagen and later from a house owned by Villabona-Alvarado’s father-in-law in the small town of Aalborg.

After noticing that Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett frequently used a pay phone in the center of town, the Danes quickly added an additional wiretap. Within days, they had recorded conversations involving the shipment of 1,000 kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Los Angeles and the laundering of $1 million in drug profits to Colombia.

Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett continued their travels in Europe, journeying next to Milan where Italian authorities promptly added a wiretap on their room at the Milan Hilton, recording more drug conversations. From there, they flew to Mexico City, returning to Los Angeles in January, 1988.

When Bennett came back, the Los Angeles Police Department, the DEA and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department stepped up their investigative efforts.

At one point, more than 150 officers and agents were involved in tracking Bennett’s activities.

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Organization Called Sophisticated

What the investigators found, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman, who is in charge of prosecuting the case, was an exceptionally sophisticated organization that had set up a mortgage company, several check-cashing outlets, as well as other companies throughout the Los Angeles area--all allegedly serving as fronts for drug-dealing and money-laundering.

In addition to the business fronts, the Bennett group allegedly rented several houses throughout the Los Angeles area.

While Villabona-Alvarado and a girlfriend were installed at a residence in Malibu, Bennett reportedly moved frequently from apartments in the Wilshire area to houses in Northridge and Tarzana.

According to the criminal complaint filed at the time of Bennett’s arrest, he and Villabona-Alvarado are accused of distributing tens of millions of dollars worth of cocaine throughout the United States and laundering drug profit money back to Colombia.

With constant surveillance and additional wiretaps in Los Angeles, federal and local officials said they slowly began to close in on Bennett and Villabona-Alvarado in the early months of 1988.

On Nov. 6, according to Hayman, 1,100 pounds of cocaine shipped by the two men and destined for the Midwest was intercepted by police in Springfield, Mo. Two weeks later, DEA agents in Detroit seized $5.4 million in cash being delivered by representatives of the Bennett organization to alleged Colombian money launderers.

The money alone, according to federal officials, weighed 700 pounds.

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Left Los Angeles

As the surveillance of Bennett’s organization increased, according to several sources, Bennett decided to leave Los Angeles, continuing to run his alleged drug operation from his new home in Tempe. He returned to Los Angeles frequently, however, investigators said.

Also accused in the case are several key associates of the two men--including Maria Barona, 30, and Janet Martinez, 23, both of Cali, Colombia; Jimmy Washington, 42, of Pasadena; Michael McCarver, 27, of Los Angeles, and Stan McCarns, 36, of Inglewood. All are being held without bail, except for McCarver and McCarns, who are fugitives.

Named repeatedly in the criminal complaint was Bennett’s mother, Minny Finley, who was frequently observed carrying packages in and out of some of the businesses controlled by Bennett. She has not been charged with any crime, however, officials stressed.

Bonner, preparing a news conference on the case for next week when official indictments are expected, said Tuesday that he regards the prosecution as the biggest case brought so far in Los Angeles involving both a high-level Colombian and a high-level South-Central Los Angeles drug dealer.

“Bennett appears to be a crucial (distribution) link between Colombian cocaine dealers and the L.A. street gangs involved in widespread distribution of crack, both in this city and the rest of the nation,” Bonner said.

While LAPD officials stressed that the breakup of Bennett’s distribution network will probably have no long-range impact on the availability of rock cocaine in South-Central Los Angeles, they did predict Tuesday that there will be significant short-term disruptions in street-dealing operations.

‘Make a Big Dent’

“It’s going to make a big dent in the distribution network in Los Angeles for the immediate future,” Levant said. “We’ve already taken down the major people, and there are about 20 others who will be going down, too. That’s going to cause some serious disruption at the street level.”

Ralph Lockridge, spokesman for the DEA in Los Angeles, added that the agency believes the Bennett organization is only the first of several major South-Central Los Angeles drug organizations facing prosecution in the future.

“This is a great start for all of us,” he said. “But there definitely will be more to come.”

ON THE TRAIL OF BENNETT AND VILLABONA

INTERNATIONAL SEARCH In May, 1987, a search by authorities revealed Villabona had about $500,000 in Danish banks. Danish authorities were alerted. At the time, L.A.P.D. was investigating Bennett and federal authorities were investigating Villabona, but the two had not been tied together. 1. The Danish government froze the bank accounts, and on Dec. 3, 1987, Villabona, Bennett and Villabona’s Danish wife, Helle Nielsen, arrived in Copenhagen. On Dec. 5, Danes authorized wiretaps on rooms 310 and 312 of the Savoy Hotel in Copenhagen, intercepting calls to Colombia and Los Angeles discussing drug transactions. 2. On Dec. 8, the trio moved to the small town of Aalborg, Denmark, to visit Villabona’s father-in-law. Wiretaps were placed on the father-in-law’s phone, plus the only pay phone in town, intercepting more drug calls. 3. On Dec. 9, the trio moved to Milan, Italy, where Italian authorities tapped their phones at the Milan Hilton Hotel. 4. On Dec. 11, Villabona and Bennett left Milan for Mexico City and did not surface again in Los Angeles until January 1988. DOMESTIC DRUG CONNECTIONS Detroit, Mich.: Nov. 18, 1988, two Bennett associates arrested delivering $5.4 million in cash to Colombian drug dealers to pay off outstanding debts. Springfield, Mo.: Nov. 6, 1988, 1,100 pounds of cocaine and two of Bennett’s associates arrested. San Francisco, Calif: Investigative sources say San Francisco was a major destination point for some of Bennett’s shipments.


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