John Anthony Jackson was one of the flashiest federal drug agents in Los Angeles, a man known for his fancy clothes and luxurious tastes.
He drove a Mercedes-Benz to work and sometimes spoke of losing thousands of dollars in all-night poker games in Gardena, saying he made his money from an Amway franchise.
"They called him 'Action Jackson' long before the movie," a former colleague recalled. "He was as smooth as they come."
Darnell Garcia was an international karate champion described as "a legend in his own time" in one of two karate books he wrote. He told some fellow agents that he had a jewelry business on the side and others that he ran a chain of karate studios.
"He was one of the most arrogant bastards I've ever known," one drug agent said. "A real hotshot. Just overwhelming. He was also a bad agent, in constant trouble with the brass."
Bit of a Plodder
In contrast to his two friends, there appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary about Wayne Countryman, except that he had some money problems. He was, if anything, a bit of a plodder.
"Wayne was one of the nicest guys in the office," one DEA agent recalled. "A big, soft-spoken hard-working guy. Everybody liked him. They also knew he was running a private detective agency on the side."
For nearly a decade, the three worked together in the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, partners in the war on drugs. At some point, according to a federal indictment, they switched sides.
John Anthony Jackson
He was called "Little Johnny" Jackson in a yearbook photo at John Muir High School in Pasadena where he played baseball and basketball before graduating in 1967.
Former colleagues at the DEA say he spoke of being an outstanding athlete there, most valuable player in both sports.
But his former baseball coach is dead, and his basketball coaches have no memory of him.
Jackson, who moved to California from Hartford, Conn., as a child, went on to Pasadena City College and then to Cal State Los Angeles, where he graduated in 1972 with a degree in police science.
He joined the DEA in 1972 and spent his entire career in the Los Angeles division before retiring in 1987 during a grand jury investigation of his activities.
"J. J. was a real hotshot, the most gregarious guy in the whole office," one veteran agent recalled. "He was a hell of an undercover agent, but he had a tendency to never follow up."
Signs of Money
Other senior DEA agents with salaries in the $50,000-a-year range remember Jackson as a man who wore expensive suits and jewelry and drove his Mercedes to work while they drove government cars.
At the time of his arrest Nov. 22, Jackson and his wife were living in a $775,000 house in Claremont paid for in cash. They told neighbors their money came from a video arcade they owned.
"Back when he was an agent, it was already a joke," an agent said. "According to J. J. then, his wife had a very successful Amway business. He had some secretaries selling Amway products."
There was something else about Jackson that is remembered now as well.
"He had a big gambling problem," said one senior federal drug agent in Los Angeles. "He'd come into work in the morning looking terrible, and I'd ask him about it.
"He'd say he'd been up all night gambling . . . in Gardena. According to him, some nights he'd lose $5,000. Other times he'd win big. But it seemed to me that he was losing more than he was winning."
The gambling and the claims of outside income were possible warning signs, the agent said. But he never thought of reporting what he heard and saw.
"No cop wants to think another cop is a crook," he said.
"You either liked Darnell Garcia or you hated him," one agent recalled. "And most people didn't like him."
Garcia was born in New York City but moved to Los Angeles, attending Manual Arts and George Washington high schools.
He spent three years in the Army during the Vietnam era, later receiving a bachelor of science degree from Cal State Los Angeles in 1974.
During college, according to DEA sources, Garcia also worked as a professional karate instructor. He studied under Chuck Norris beginning in 1968 and became a world-class fighter.
"He had that air about him of somebody who has a black belt," a former colleague said. "He was quiet, cold. You just knew this is a man who could throw his gun away and rip your head off."
Said another veteran of the DEA's Los Angeles office:
"He had an attitude that the rest of us were a bunch of sissies. He came on like a thug."
But if Garcia had enemies, he also had friends. Among them were Jackson and Countryman, agents said.
Racial Bond Seen
In the view of some DEA agents, part of the bond involved a racial issue. Jackson and Countryman are black, and Garcia is black and Puerto Rican.
They joined the DEA at a time of discrimination against black agents that was not changed by the courts until the early 1980s.
Garcia claimed discrimination on the basis of national origin when the DEA fired him at one point for refusing a transfer to Detroit. He won reinstatement in a decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1986.
"Everybody knew Garcia was violating the rules around here in a lot of areas, but people were afraid to touch him," one agent said. "He was a guy with nine lives, and he always seemed to win."
So, according to several DEA sources, Garcia was tolerated. Because of the courts, the DEA had no choice.
During his DEA career, he wrote two karate books, including one titled "The Fighting Art of Tang Soo Do" in 1982, in which he is described as "a legend in his own time."
In a forward to the book, Garcia was credited with appearances in such karate films as "Enter the Dragon," "Black Belt Jones," "Blind Rage" and "Enforcer From Death Row."
Garcia emphasized "mind power" in his books on karate.
"One of the implications of mind power is the ability . . . to reach goals and not settle for anything less," he wrote.
According to his former colleagues, one of Garcia's major goals was money. In the end, according to federal prosecutors, he had enough to pay cash for a $581,000 home in Rancho Palos Verdes. He had more money in Swiss banks, prosecutors say.
But he was viewed as a failure as a drug agent.
"When they move a guy around from squad to squad, you know there's trouble," one former colleague said. "With Darnell, they switched him all around, finally switched him from days to nights.
"Then he just stopped showing up. He'd disappear for a week at a time. He was a ghost."
The biggest surprise for DEA agents in Los Angeles was the indictment of Countryman, described by federal officials as the least culpable of the three defendants.
"I heard his detective business had gone belly-up," an agent said. "It's too bad he's in this thing. He was a hard-working guy.
"His brother is the DEA's chemist in San Diego, and everybody knows him. Wayne had a lot of friends."
Like Jackson, Countryman, 45, grew up in Hartford, Conn. He obtained a degree from a junior college there, then spent nine years as a Hartford police officer before joining the DEA in 1977.
Lt. Brian W. Kelly, head of the Hartford police vice and narcotics division, told the Hartford Courant that he walked a beat with Countryman for three years in the early 1970s.
"He was very dedicated, very respected," Kelly said. "A genuinely nice guy.
Model for Many
"He was extremely good with people," Kelly added. "He was the model for a lot of the other police officers. I'm shocked by this."
In Los Angeles, however, Countryman also came under DEA scrutiny for running an outside business. According to sources, he was first warned about operating a private detective agency, then threatened with suspension for ignoring the warning.
About that time in 1986, Countryman retired from the DEA on a partial disability.
Unlike his co-defendants, Countryman was not known as a "fast runner." He was a family man with two children and a house in Walnut.
At the time of Countryman's arrest, while arguing that Jackson should be held without bail, Assistant U.S. Atty. Joyce Karlin agreed to Countryman's release on $120,000 bail.
"Nobody knows right now what he's going to do," one former colleague said. "If he is involved, maybe he can help himself. If he has anything to say, I hope they'll let him testify."