For the first time in years, somebody seemed to think that Mark Alan Bottorff was a big shot. For Bottorff, that meant serious trouble.
Jailed in Brazil on drug charges, the 35-year-old Ventura resident was identified by police there as a member of an international Bolivian cocaine ring stretching from the United States to Europe.
But Ventura County's top drug enforcement officials this week expressed strong skepticism about Bottorff's importance as even a low-level courier in any South American drug organization.
As relatives and friends filled in details of Bottorff's life, the story that emerged was not just about an accused drug smuggler, but also the final defeat of a man who had been on a losing streak for years.
The jet-set drug smuggler described by Brazilian officials was widely known in Ventura as almost always broke and despondent over a back problem that kept him unemployed and dependent on painkillers.
Ironically, some of Bottorff's closest friends said they were not as surprised by his troubles in Brazil as by the suggestion that he was part of a major international drug ring.
"I don't approve of what he did at all," said Susie Bottorff, his sister. "But he was never involved with any Bolivians. I know that for a fact. That's all I can say."
The official account of Bottorff's June 22 arrest in Brazil is that he was caught just before boarding a plane for Zurich, allegedly with nine pounds of cocaine taped to his chest.
A friend, however, added that one person who has been in contact with Bottorff since his arrest said it came only after Bottorff had become ill from an apparent overdose of the painkillers that he regularly took.
"He apparently had almost passed out and they found the cocaine while they were trying to give him medical care," said the friend, who asked not to be identified.
Brazilian police said the cocaine, which sells for as little as $500 a pound in Brazil, was being sent by a Bolivian drug ring to the expanding cocaine markets of Europe, where the drug sells for roughly $15,000 a pound.
The Brazilians said Bottorff told them that he was to be paid $10,000 for delivering the cocaine to Zurich. They added that they believe that he made an earlier drug run to Italy for the same group.
If convicted of drug charges, Bottorff faces a possible 22-year sentence in a Brazilian prison, where, according to Amnesty International, beatings and torture remain a problem despite some improvements in the system.
While officials in Brazil said Bottorff could be eligible for extradition to the United States after serving two-thirds of his sentence, David Hinkley, regional director for Amnesty International in Southern California, said any sentence for Bottorff could be difficult because of the nature of the charges.
"They are particularly hard on prisoners who are in prison on drug charges," Hinkley said. "It's a little better than Colombia or Peru, but it's not pleasant."
Both federal and local drug officials in California did not rule out the possibility that Bottorff had at least some low-level Bolivian contacts. One federal official said Bolivian cocaine rings have started moving operations into Brazil and looking for couriers to carry drugs to Europe.
"The Colombians would probably never have used somebody like Bottorff, but the Bolivians are not as sophisticated as the Colombians," said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Still, it sounds like he was pretty small-time."
U.S. officials raised questions about the quick assumption by Brazilian officials that Bottorff was tied closely to a major Bolivian drug operation.
They noted that Bottorff had recently received money from the settlement of a lawsuit involving an old back injury, reportedly more than enough to pay for the cocaine that he allegedly purchased in Brazil. Stressing the relatively small amount of cocaine involved, they said Bottorff could have been acting primarily on his own.
"I highly doubt that this guy was involved in any big-time South American drug ring," said Lt. Paul Anderson, head of the narcotics squad for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. "He could have been an independent looking to make a quick buck. That's what it sounds like to me."
By all accounts, prior to the recent settlement of his personal injury lawsuit, Bottorff struggled for well over a decade with personal and financial problems, in part related to the back injury he suffered on a job in San Diego in the 1970s.
He worked briefly at different jobs, but never permanently, several friends said. He never seemed to have much money either, except for disability payments.
Until recently, Bottorff did not have a place to live. Acquaintances said he would sometimes sleep on their couches. In June, he moved into a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Ventura that he rented for $650 a month with a school teacher he was planning to marry.
On his California driver's license, Bottorff, however, still listed the address of Concours Motors Ltd., a Mercedes repair shop in a Ventura industrial park, as his personal address.
An employee there said the manager had befriended Bottorff and let him use the firm's address for mailing purposes. He frequently hung out at the repair shop, where he sometimes discussed his financial problems with employees.
"He was depressed recently because he had been expecting $75,000 to $100,000 for the settlement of his back injury case," one employee said. "I don't know what it actually was, but I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000."
Angry Over Car
Bottorff also expressed bitterness about allegedly being cheated out of ownership of a red Jaguar that he purchased from his father several years ago, friends said. The story he told was that he was late in paying for a paint job on the car and that it was taken from him.
"He used to show pictures of the Jaguar," one friend said. "Nobody was ever really sure what the story was because Mark was capable of exaggerating things sometimes. I used to call it the phantom Jaguar."
Although he often struck friends as being short of money, Bottorff was a frequent customer at the Bombay Bar & Grill on California Street, where he is remembered by employees as an attractive man who briefly dated one of the bar's waitresses.
One of Bottorff's friends in recent months was Chuck Despenza, a 37-year-old Ventura chef, who said he met the accused drug smuggler at the Bombay club.
"He was always without cash," Despenza said. "But he was a nice guy, with a real good personality. I saw him every weekend. We'd go out carousing and usually hit the Bombay. He crashed at my house a few times."
Despenza and others who knew Bottorff, including many who spoke only on condition of anonymity, generally said they were surprised that he had been arrested in Brazil on drug charges. His sister, Susie, voiced the deepest grief at her brother's arrest.
Describing Bottorff's childhood in Oxnard, where he graduated from Santa Clara High School in 1971, Susie Bottorff said tragedy marked both their early years. Their mother died of cancer while they were young, she said, and a younger brother was killed by a hit-and-run driver while Bottorff was in his early teens.
Susie Bottorff said there were times when she and her brother were not close, partly because of differences in their life styles. But she said they became much closer in recent years and she was convinced that Bottorff had "turned his life around" after becoming engaged to a local school teacher, Laura Nolan.
"I can't believe this has happened," she said. "My first thought was how dumb to do something like that. He must have stood out like a sore thumb down there. And just when it really seemed like things were changing for him. He had just recently moved into his own place, he was working at Concours and he had met a great woman."
His fiancee "is just totally destroyed by this," Susie Bottorff said. "He told her he was going to visit his grandmother in Kentucky. She knew nothing of what was going on. They were talking about getting married and having a family. I really thought things were working out."
Despite the tragedies in his childhood and problems in his later years, there were some almost idyllic times. Mary Ann Jackson, organist at Santa Clara Catholic Church, remembers the Bottorffs as a "beautiful, beautiful" family.
"I used to take Mark and the other boys to pick strawberries out at Bob Jones' strawberry ranch," she said. "He and my son were on Little League. He was always playing ball, like all the other boys."
Several of Bottorff's classmates recalled him as a talented baseball and basketball player known for his competitiveness. One classmate, who said he used to smoke marijuana with Bottorff, said Bottorff always liked to take chances.
"We raised a little hell together, having a few beers, maybe smoking a little pot," the friend said. "Deep down, he's one fabulous guy. But he's like a person who likes a little danger and excitement in his life.
"I think he might have been put on to this by somebody else he met over the years," the friend added. "It was obviously a gamble, and he lost."