Unsuspecting Landlady Thrust Into Drug War : Landlady Was a Casualty of War on Drugs

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A year and a half ago, Marge Andrews put her La Habra Heights home up for rent. It was a big place--$2,500 a month--with a tennis court and weeping willow trees. Within days, a tenant had come forward, a Sacramento businessman named William Black Jr. He signed a six-month lease, and the 61-year-old grandmother handed him the keys, unaware she had just been drawn into the local war on drugs.

Three months later, Andrews dropped by her three-bedroom home and found the aftermath of a three-quarter-ton cocaine raid. The house was deserted, door locks had been smashed and someone had dug a concrete vault the size of a wine celler under the bathroom downstairs. Outside, her 50-year-old trees had been stripped bare.

When she complained, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies told her that a cadre of Colombian drug dealers had been living in her home, and Black--a law enforcement operative--had set them up for arrest.

Andrews' story illustrates how the cocaine wars in Southern California have reached even the most tranquil corners of suburbia, thrusting unsuspecting citizens into the fray. Each year, drug traffickers rent several hundred homes in Los Angeles County to store cocaine before distribution, said Curt Hazell, head of the district attorney's major narcotics unit.

The dealers typically are drawn to quiet residential communities like La Habra Heights because, Hazell said, "their whole M.O. is to be low key."

Although narcotics officers make frequent drug raids--the sheriff's major narcotics teams alone conducted 1,426 such raids last year--damage complaints from homeowners and tenants are relatively rare.

The county counsel's office estimates that 25 claims a year are filed against the county for damage done in narcotics raids on homes from South-Central Los Angeles to Diamond Bar to Malibu. And the county normally pays no more than $25,000 a year to repair homes where narcotics squads have kicked in doors or done other damage.

In November, however, Andrews won a settlement of $137,500, one of the largest such payments by the county in recent years.

Behind the settlement, Andrews said, is a story so bizarre that "when I tell people about it, they look at me like, 'uh-oh--Marge has gone round the bend."

Even for a sting, the raid on Andrews' house had unusual intrigue--and ironies. A sheriff's operative rented the house. Two of the narcotics officers involved in the case are now targets of a larger investigation into alleged skimming of seized drug money. And a neighbor who allowed deputies to use his home for surveillance now fears for his life and claims that he was a gunman's target.

Andrews says no homeowner should become an unwitting participant in the battle against cocaine cartels.

"I'm definitely against drugs," she said. "But they can't just say, 'Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead' and drag innocent citizens along in the wake."

The house sits on an acre and a half of rustic land in the foothills between La Habra and Whittier. Built in 1958, it was just three months old when the Andrews family moved in.

"I loved that house. I never wanted to sell it," Andrews said. She raised a son and a daughter and kept two dogs and a horse there. On a clear day, she said, you could see Santa Catalina Island. Even when her children left home, she stayed.

Her son, Calvin Andrews, 38, of San Luis Obispo, said, "After my parents divorced eight years ago, I tried to get my mother to move many times, but it was her tie to the past."

But eventually, to be close to her children, Andrews did buy a second home. In the summer of 1988, she set up housekeeping in the Northern California community of Fairfield and put a "For Lease" sign outside the house on West Road.

A man soon contacted Andrews' real estate agent, introducing himself as William Black.

"He was a very nice young man, in his early 30s, well groomed, curly dark hair," recalled the agent, former La Habra Heights Mayor Glenda Tuppan.

Black said he was in the janitorial supplies business and was just separating from his wife, according to Tuppan. He was looking for a house where he could bring his children.

"There was no reason not to believe him," Tuppan said, adding that one of Andrews' neighbors had even vouched for Black.

Officials acknowledged later that the neighbor was a longtime friend of the department who had once donated a battering ram for narcotics raids.

At Andrews' insistence, Tuppan ran a credit check. Black's record consisted of a checking account with $50,000 in it, an American Express card and a driver's license that traced back to a post office box.

"Of course, now I know that anybody can get set up with a credit record like that," Andrews said. But at the time, she said, she had no reason to question it.

Nor was she suspicious when Black paid her the first three months' rent in cash. Nor when he mentioned that he would like to trim the trees back from the tennis court a bit, and that he would not need help from the Andrews' regular handyman.

On Aug. 18--about 2 1/2 weeks after Andrews moved out--a Colombian named Diego Venegas was seen carrying a pick and shovel into her house, according to court affidavits filed by narcotics officers. Soon, the officers said, neighbors heard jackhammers pounding at night and saw cars coming and going at all hours.

Surveillance outposts were set up nearby, including the home of the neighbor who vouched for Black, according to court records and interviews. The view, Andrews said, was excellent because the trees around her home had been pruned so severely that "they looked like telephone poles."

When a camper truck arrived at the house Oct. 6, 1988, narcotics officers watched as the Colombians unloaded about 40 cardboard boxes. A number of packages resembling kilogram packets of cocaine fell from the boxes, Deputy Stephen Nichols said in an affidavit.

Hours later, narcotics officers raided the house, seizing 743 kilos, or 1,635 pounds, of cocaine, court records show. Also confiscated were two vehicles, a cellular phone and a loaded MAC-10 machine gun.

Four Colombians were arrested, and three--including Venegas, the alleged ringleader--pleaded guilty to charges of possession of cocaine for sale. Last year, they received sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years in prison. The fourth defendant faces trial this spring.

About two weeks after the raid, Andrews dropped by her house to retrieve some belongings. She was barely into the driveway when she realized that something was very wrong.

The house "looked dead," she recalled. When she saw the extent of the damage, she "almost had a heart attack."

Ed Johnson, Andrews' 66-year-old fiance, said sheriff's narcotics Sgt. Ed Huffman finally explained what had happened at Andrews' house. Contacted by The Times, Huffman declined to comment. But Johnson said he was told that the house had been damaged in a raid, that Black was in on the "sting" and that the Sheriff's Department would pay for the repairs.

But months after his conversation with Huffman, the house remained in disarray, Johnson said. And Andrews was stuck with a $312.99 electric bill, a $102 phone bill and a $115 bill for a water softening service--plus three months of unpaid rent.

In her claim against the county, Andrews said it would cost $26,500 to repair and replace the damaged trees. The Colombians had done $18,000 worth of damage when they built the concrete-lined vault beneath a trap door, she said. Andrews also contended that $13,781.50 worth of family heirlooms were missing from a storage shed.

After the claim was rejected by the county, Andrews filed a $952,000 suit against the Sheriff's Department alleging fraud, theft and breach of contract related to Black's lease. She also said she received $200,000 less than market value when she sold her home because she had been forced under state law to disclose that the house had been the site of a major drug raid.

The county settled the suit for $137,500.

"I can appreciate the sheriff's standpoint. They wanted to see (the investigation) to its conclusion," Assistant County Counsel S. Robert Ambrose said. "But there was a lot of destruction, and it was apparently something our people were aware of . . . for a hell of a long time."

Undersheriff Robert Edmonds said the department agreed to the settlement because officers were aware damage was being done to the Andrews home and decided not to alert her. But he would not comment on Black or any role he may have played in the investigation.

From a law enforcement viewpoint, Deputy Dist. Atty. Hazell said, "it was an outstanding investigation."

"People are always saying that law enforcement should go after the big guys," he said. "Well, you can't go after the big guys by waiting until the stuff (cocaine) is broken down into rocks and then going after some guy on the street.

"I can understand she'd rather this had not happened," Hazell acknowledged. "But it takes extraordinary methods and imaginative methods if you're going to get the people at the top. And there isn't a significant narcotics case made that doesn't involve trade-offs and balancing."

But to Andrews, the damage to her home of 31 years went beyond dollars and cents.

"I lived a lifetime in that house," she said. "And what happened there ruined it for me. I was frightened to be there after that. It felt like I'd been raped." In the months since Andrews settled her case, fallout has continued. The narcotics team that set up the sting has been disbanded along with other major narcotics crews in the wake of a federal and local corruption investigation.

Eighteen narcotics officers--including Nichols, the lead investigator on the La Habra Heights case, and Deputy Leo M. Newman, who was part of the surveillance team--have been suspended amid allegations that they stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in money seized from drug dealers. The officers have denied the allegations.

In December, the neighbor who vouched for Black reported that a gunman riddled his car with bullets as he returned home one night. In an interview with The Times, the neighbor requested anonymity, saying he is "beyond petrified."

As for the mysterious William Black Jr., he phoned Tuppan after the raid.

She did not ask for an explanation and he did not offer one.

"He just said he wanted to apologize for all the trouble," she said.

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