Six members of an international drug trafficking ring that distributed 1,000 kilograms of crack cocaine a week in the United States pleaded guilty Tuesday in Los Angeles as seven other defendants--including the two alleged ringleaders--went on trial in federal court.
The guilty pleas could ease the prosecution’s task of proving the complex case, which involves events that stretched from South-Central Los Angeles to a small town in Denmark.
One of the defendants who pleaded guilty was Stanley McCarns, 37, of Los Angeles, who was described in court documents as “a high-level member” of the Villabona-Bennett drug ring. The other five who pleaded guilty were arrested last year in Detroit and prosecutors said they were considered lesser figures in the case.
The two key defendants in the case, Mario Ernesto Villabona Alvarado, a Colombian, and Brian (Waterhead Bo) Bennett, face life in prison without possibility of parole if convicted of all the charges against them. The charges include conspiracy, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it, money laundering and running a continuing criminal enterprise.
When the two men were arrested a year ago, federal officials said they had severed a major link between the Cali, Colombia, drug cartel and cocaine-dealing Los Angeles street gangs that had been forged by Villabona and Bennett.
The trial of Villabona, Bennett and the five remaining defendants is expected to last about two months before U.S. District Judge William J. Rea. Prosecutors plan to introduce evidence of drug seizures in Missouri, money laundering, and wiretaps conducted in Los Angeles, Denmark and Italy.
Villabona, 29, allegedly a ranking member of the Cali drug cartel, was arrested Nov. 19, 1988, at his home in Malibu. Bennett, 25, was arrested the same day at a $500,000 home he had recently purchased in Tempe, Ariz.
Drug agents said Bennett and Villabona formed their enterprise sometime in 1986.
“This is the single most important partnership ever established between a major South-Central (Los Angeles) drug dealer and the Colombians,” Deputy Chief Glenn Levant of the Los Angeles Police Department said at the time of the arrests. He added that Bennett “was supplying thousands of rock houses from Los Angeles to Detroit.”
The indictment alleged that Villabona and Bennett ran a sophisticated organization, replete with its own mortgage company. The organization owned several check-cashing outlets and other businesses throughout the Los Angeles area, all of which allegedly served as fronts for drug dealing and money laundering.
Villabona, Bennett and the remaining defendants--Maria Barona, Luz Martinez, Jimmy Washington, Michael Harris and Michael McCarver--have pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them.
Defense attorneys attempted to keep a considerable amount of evidence from being introduced at the trial, including potentially incriminating transcripts of wiretapped conversations. The defense lost virtually all of those motions and, at that point, negotiations over the guilty pleas began in earnest.
McCarns agreed to plead guilty last Thursday after a man who is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case “rolled over” on him, exposing McCarns to charges beyond the five counts he faced in this case, according to sources close to the case.
McCarns, who has been described as Bennett’s “right-hand man,” agreed to testify for the prosecution and, in return, will receive a prison term and be placed in the federal witness protection program. The length of his sentence is expected to come to light soon when his plea agreement is unsealed.
The indictment charged McCarns with arranging for the transportation of 1,000-pound quantities of cocaine, including a shipment from Los Angeles to St. Louis that was intercepted on Nov. 6, 1988, by police in Springfield, Mo., when they stopped a truck for speeding. He also was charged with renting pagers under the names of third parties for use by other members of the cocaine trafficking organization.
Bennett’s defense lawyer, David Kenner, said he was “not entirely certain what the terms” of McCarns’ plea were, since the plea agreement is still under seal.
“We assume it (the agreement) left McCarns in a . . . situation where he’d be willing to say anything,” Kenner said.
Janet Levine, one of McCarns’ lawyers, declined to comment on the details of the plea agreement because it is under seal. Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman, chief prosecutor in the case, acknowledged that McCarns had pleaded guilty, but declined to discuss the terms.
The five Detroit defendants--David Paz, Jairo Sanchez, Miguel Rodriguez, Joseph Gough and Michael D. Robinson--all pleaded guilty Tuesday to conducting a financial transaction involving the proceeds of the sale of dangerous drugs.
The men had been arrested in Detroit last November by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who seized $5.4 million in cash being delivered by representatives of the Bennett organization to alleged Colombian money launderers, according to the indictment in the case.
Manuel U. Araujo, Paz’s lawyer, said that the charge his client and the other Detroit defendants pleaded guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, but he expects the sentences to be in the range of nine to 11 years.
Araujo and other lawyers for the Detroit defendants said their clients had not been required to testify at the trial as a condition of their pleas.
Jury selection began Tuesday and opening arguments are expected to be presented late next week.