Key Witness in Case Tied to Noriega Dies : Cocaine: The drug trial proceeds even though the man is killed in a car crash, which police believe to be a routine accident.


The drug-smuggling trial of two co-defendants of Manuel A. Noriega opened here Thursday with the surprising news that a chief prosecution witness had been killed hours earlier in a car crash.

Ramon A. Navarro, 41, who federal prosecutors said would describe a meeting between the two defendants and Noriega, was pronounced dead at the scene late Wednesday after his car left a road, crashed into a fence and then rammed into a concrete base of an electrical transformer in southwest Miami.

Police said there were no signs of drugs or alcohol in the wreckage. “It’s being treated as a routine traffic accident,” but crime lab and autopsy reports were still pending, Detective George Reyes said.

The crash site is just a few miles from the federal prison where Noriega is held.


Navarro, a drug smuggler who the government has admitted was paid $170,000 and given immunity in hundreds of drug cases in exchange for his testimony against Noriega, was driving a 1989 BMW, police said. He was alone in the car.

“I’m sorry to see him go,” said Steven Kreisberg, attorney for co-defendant William Saldarriaga. “He was the government’s main witness, but I think he would have helped the defense more. He tells more fables than the Brothers Grimm.”

Kreisberg and attorney Richard Sharpstein, representing Brian Davidow, moved for a mistrial on news of the death. U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler denied that motion, but he said he would consider a government motion that the jurors be told of the fatal crash.

Davidow, 29, and Saldarriaga, 46, are accused of helping to plan a 1986 shipment of 732 pounds of cocaine from Colombia to the United States. The trial is expected to provide a glimpse of the government’s pending drug-smuggling case against Noriega, the deposed Panamanian ruler who is charged with protecting shipments of cocaine to the United States in exchange for $4.6 million in payoffs from the Medellin cartel.

Even without Navarro, federal prosecutors pressed on with the first day of testimony Thursday, maintaining that their case is still strong enough to win a conviction. The first witness was a Colombian police colonel who traced the route of the luxury yacht Krill and described finding the cocaine in secret compartments after the 46-foot boat was intercepted at an island.

Davidow is a real estate agent and Saldarriaga a yacht broker who owned the Krill. Their attorneys have described them as businessmen who got entangled with the wrong crowd, a crowd that included Navarro.

Federal prosectors argue that Davidow and Saldarriaga are themselves drug smugglers who plotted with Noriega to ferry a load of weapons to Colombian guerrillas in exchange for cocaine.

Noriega is scheduled to go on trial June 24.