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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.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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.

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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.

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