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Two Receive Life in Prison Without Parole in Drug Case : Crime: They were key figures in a ring that linked Colombian cocaine lords to Los Angeles street gangs.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two men convicted of playing key roles in an international ring that linked Colombian drug lords to Los Angeles street gangs were sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

U.S. District Judge William J. Rea imposed the sentences in Los Angeles on Brian (Waterhead Bo) Bennett, 25, a native of South-Central Los Angeles, and Colombia-born Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado, 29, a reputed high-ranking member of the Cali, Colombia, cocaine cartel.

“You don’t know what damage you’ve done to other people,” Rea told the convicted men in imposing sentence. “There may have been dozens or hundreds of crimes committed by reason of these drugs. It’s got to be stopped. If we don’t stop them, we’re going to be in terrible, terrible shape.”

Villabona asked the judge, “Man to man, as a friend, I want to know why, when it’s my first offense, why the government has to tell you how to sentence me.

“I don’t understand that. I don’t get any second chance?”

“The government isn’t doing that, Mr. Villabona. Congress is doing that,” Rea responded. “I’m bound by what the law is.”

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The terms were mandatory under the so-called “drug kingpin statute,” which calls for harsh prison sentences for people found guilty of being key figures in continuing criminal enterprises.

Villabona and Bennett were convicted of that offense last May, when they were also found guilty, along with four others, of conspiring to possess cocaine--1,452 kilograms, about 1 1/2 tons--with the intent to distribute it, and money laundering.

In addition to the life sentences, Villabona and Bennett were each sentenced to 24 years and 4 months on the other charges.

In September, Rea sentenced each of two women who were among those convicted to 19 years and 7 months, without the possibility of parole.

Later Monday, Rea sentenced the remaining two defendants. Michael Harris, whose age and home city were not known, was ordered to spend 19 years and 7 months behind bars. Michael McCarver, 29, of Los Angeles was given a 20-year term.

Bennett’s lawyer, David Kenner, called his client’s sentence a Draconian and unconstitutional “excuse in the so-called war on drugs for the government’s unwillingness or inability” to stop drug trafficking.

“They make kids like Brian scapegoats for their own inabilities,” Kenner said. “It’s not a question of whether or not a person should be punished. It’s a question of what price you pay.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Dean G. Dunlavey, one of the prosecutors, has called the case one of his office’s “most significant drug prosecutions,” because it is the first to establish a connection between Colombian cartels and street gangs.

Of the life sentences imposed on Bennett and Villabona, he said: “I hope (they) send a message to somebody thinking about getting involved in narcotics, that they should think about the consequences.

The cocaine ring, Dunlavey said, in addition to servicing Los Angeles, supplied dealers in San Francisco and Detroit and included warehoused stockpiles in such Midwest cities as Springfield, Mo.

Villabona was arrested at his Malibu home on Nov., 19, 1988, the same day that Bennett was arrested at his newly purchased $500,000 home in Tempe, Ariz.

The events in the case stretched from South-Central Los Angeles to towns in Denmark and Italy.

Much of the government’s evidence consisted of phone calls that were wiretapped in Denmark. Kenner said he will challenge that evidence in his appeal on the grounds that wiretaps obtained in the European nation did not conform to due process rights as guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.

Drug agents believe Bennett and Villabona established their enterprise in 1986. The indictment alleged that they ran a sophisticated operation that had its own mortgage company and owned several check-cashing outlets and other businesses in Los Angeles that served as fronts for drug dealing and money laundering.

One of his former landlords told investigators that Bennett was regularly seen trudging to his Wilshire Boulevard apartment with shopping bags full of cash.

According to the government, Colombian drug dealers began arriving in the Los Angeles area en masse several years ago, in tandem with a revolution in the nationwide marketing of cocaine that involved fast-paced street sales.

It was not long before ambitious dealers, and gangs looking for easy money, tapped into the trade. Police say Bennett, who grew up with seven siblings in a three-bedroom house on West Florence Avenue, became a millionaire within two years of meeting Villabona.

Kenner said Bennett, who is not believed to be a gang member, was not shocked by the life sentence.

“We knew going in it was mandatory,” the lawyer said. “He expected it.”


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