Former DEA Agent Convicted
Former federal drug agent Darnell Garcia was convicted Tuesday in Los Angeles of trafficking in stolen narcotics and laundering his illicit profits through Swiss bank accounts. The verdict brought to a close an investigation that rocked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Garcia, 44, a black belt karate expert who seemed to personify the image of the cool, street-wise narcotics agent, showed no emotion as the five-count verdict was read in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr.
Several of Gracia’s former colleagues were present in the packed courtroom, quickly filing out afterward. His wife, Brigitte, who watched the entire four-month trial, did not witness the reading of the verdict, remaining outside the courtroom, where she broke down in tears.
The lengthy investigation produced evidence that Garcia, along with two other renegade agents, engaged in a 1980s crime rampage that made them millionaires, swelling their Swiss bank accounts and supporting jet-set lifestyles.
The evidence showed that for years--at a time when the DEA was stepping up its war on drugs in the Los Angeles area--they stole cocaine, heroin and cash directly from dealers, traded in seized contraband and pilfered from the evidence vault at the DEA’s downtown Los Angeles office.
The scheme began to fall apart in the mid-1980s, when an informant tipped authorities that a DEA agent was trafficking in cocaine. Garcia and agents John Jackson and Wayne Countryman were indicted in December, 1988, a month after Garcia fled the country. He was apprehended seven months later in Luxembourg after an international manhunt. Jackson and Countryman pleaded guilty and testified against Garcia.
“This is a sad day for the Drug Enforcement Administration,” Robert C. Bonner, the DEA’s top administrator, said from Washington. “Garcia violated his solemn oath to uphold the law and stands convicted of serious crimes. Dishonesty and corruptions cannot be and will not be tolerated at the DEA.”
Hatter scheduled sentencing for July 15. Garcia, who declined to comment to reporters as he was escorted handcuffed from the courtroom by U.S. marshals, faces a maximum prison term of 90 years plus fines totaling almost $6 million.
The verdict followed five days of deliberations by the jury.
Throughout the trial, Garcia appeared confident that he would be acquitted despite Jackson’s and Countryman’s damaging testimony that he had helped orchestrate the theft of millions of dollars in cocaine, heroin and cash.
“Garcia was very smart,” said the jury foreman, Nazene Green of Gardena. “He just got careless and a little too greedy.”
The government prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attys. Joyce Karlin and Stefan Stein, said the jury’s verdict should serve as a warning.
“If law enforcement officers violate their oath to uphold the law,” Stein said, “we will spare no time nor expense in rooting out the corruption they are a part of.”
Garcia’s attorneys attempted to impeach the testimony of Jackson, 41, Countryman, 48, and convicted Brooklyn, N.Y., drug dealer Mahlon Steward, 60. The three described in detail how the thefts occurred and how the drugs were sold through networks in New York and Los Angeles.
Garcia’s lawyers argued that all three lied on the witness stand to help themselves.
”. . . The government got what it paid for,” attorney Mark Overland told jurors, “liars, perjurers and those subject to threats.”
All three government witnesses entered into plea-bargain agreements in exchange for their testimony. Jackson faced about 45 years in prison and Countryman faced 35 years, after pleading guilty to drug trafficking and money laundering allegations. Their pleas last August came after testimony from Steward, who said he distributed drugs that had been stolen by the trio through his Brooklyn street network.
Under the agreements, Jackson could be sentenced to 15 years in prison; Countryman to seven years, if approved by Hatter.
Jackson testified that the scheme was so audacious that he even cut seized narcotics for illicit street sales at his desk, and that some of the profits from the sales were mailed to the agents at the World Trade Center, where the DEA maintained its Los Angeles headquarters.
As the federal investigation progressed, changes were made within the DEA office in Los Angeles to prevent pilfering by agents. For instance, the DEA’s vault was caged so that agents could be more carefully monitored when they had access evidence.
But “it could happen again,” said a DEA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There’s no foolproof way to prevent people from becoming corrupt.”
For his part, Garcia alleged that the DEA had been hounding him for years because he had charged the agency with discrimination in its minority promotion policies. Moreover, in 1987, Garcia won a legal fight with the DEA, which was forced to reinstate him after he had been fired two years earlier for refusing a job transfer to Detroit.
Garcia, who used to walk a downtown beat for the Los Angeles Police Department, joined the DEA in 1978.
A native of New York City, he is a wiry individual with a trim mustache. One of his passions has been karate, which played a major role in his lifestyle. A black belt who studied under Chuck Norris, Garcia taught the discipline, wrote about it and even appeared in both instructional and entertainment martial arts films, including the Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon.”
“He had that air about him of somebody who has a black belt,” a former colleague said. “He was quiet, cold. You just knew this is a man who could throw his gun away and rip your head off.”
Such mental discipline was displayed during the trial. He revealed little emotion throughout, even during an eight-day grilling on the witness stand. Prosecutors ripped into Garcia, calling him everything from a traitor to his country and the DEA to a remorseless thief who would steal anything.
Prosecutors cited 14 separate thefts of cocaine, heroin and drug cash in which, they alleged, Garcia participated between 1982 and 1986. They alleged that Garcia orchestrated the money laundering, instructing Jackson and Countryman how to hide their illicit fortunes in secret Swiss bank accounts.
“Instead of keeping the public safe from the terrors of drug dealing, Darnell Garcia went over to the other side and became a drug dealer himself,” Stein told jurors in his closing argument.
Garcia’s defense was novel. He readily admitted that he had committed numerous felonies while a DEA agent, but said he had dealt not in drugs but in gold jewelry chains he smuggled into the United States for an Italian-based firm, Oro Aurora. Garcia testified that commissions paid to him by the company, plus bank interest, accounted for his expensive house in Rancho Palos Verdes and about $3 million he had on deposit in Swiss and other foreign accounts in Luxembourg.
Garcia was a fugitive from November, 1988, when Jackson and Countryman were arrested, until he was captured in Luxembourg in July, 1989. Of the dozens of counts he faced after his indictment, only five were presented to jurors--all related to drug trafficking and money laundering--because those were the counts under which he was extradited.
He was never charged under the extradition agreement with smuggling, a felony.
Garcia’s defense attorneys, Overland and Mark Borenstein, also laid out an explanation for Garcia’s flight, presenting evidence that he feared for his life. They characterized the case against him as a vendetta prompted by his discrimination claims against the DEA.
“When the government has a vendetta, eventually the government has the resources to carry it out,” said Overland.
It was the defense’s contention that the DEA was out to harm Garcia because he successfully challenged his transfer to Detroit on the grounds it was racially motivated. Garcia’s mother is black; his father was Puerto Rican.
Prosecutors denied that there was any vendetta.
Much of Garcia’s defense turned on his personal calendar books, a detailed daily accounting of his activities between 1982 and 1988. Throughout the trial, Garcia used the books to try to prove he was never present at the time of alleged thefts.
Using these date books, Garcia testified that on the November, 1985, night of the alleged theft of 400 pounds of cocaine from a Pasadena stash house--dubbed “The Big Rip"--he was aboard a plane to Germany on a business trip for Oro Aurora.
Overland told jurors in his closing argument that the government had presented only part of the evidence, never the full picture of Garcia’s involvement with Oro Aurora’s international operations--which would have justified Garcia’s multimillion-dollar bank account.
The prosecution maintained that Garcia had doctored his date books and produced a forensics expert to challenge their authenticity.
In the end, prosecutor Karlin told a news conference after the verdict, Garcia’s own financial records hurt him the most. Karlin said the defendant never adequately explained how he had gotten so rich on a $45,000-a-year government salary.
“It’s hard to explain $3 million,” Karlin said.
Friends of Garcia and members of his family were in the courtroom as the verdict was read. They included his mother, son and a woman identified during the trial in a court document as his “paramour” and traveling companion. The woman, Maria Angie Zuniga, and Garcia’s wife left the courthouse arm-in-arm, declining to speak to reporters.
Green, the jury foreman, said there was little dissent among jurors as they deliberated.
“Garcia broke the law,” she said. “He got caught. It’s just that simple.”
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this story.
CHRONOLOGY OF THE DEA CASE Here are some key dates in the government’s allegations against Drug Enforcement Administration agents Darnell Garcia, John Jackson and Wayne Countryman. Garcia was convicted Tuesday of stealing cash, cocaine and heroin from the DEA and drug dealers. Jackson and Countryman pleaded guilty to related charges last year and testified against Garcia.
OCT. 26, 1982: Garcia steals about $16,000 in seized drug cash and splits it with Countryman. This, according to the government, was the first instance of theft by the agents.
OCT. 5, 1984: Garcia and Jackson steal more than two pounds of heroin from the agency’s evidence vault in Los Angeles.
NOV. 11, 1985: Garcia, Jackson and Countryman steal 400 pounds of cocaine worth $18 million from a Pasadena stash house.
MARCH 24, 1986: All three men fly to Zurich: Garcia deposits $798,000, Jackson $774,000 and Countryman $512,700 in their individual bank accounts.
SEPTEMBER, 1986: Government investigation, spearheaded by DEA, Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney, moves into high gear with questioning of drug trafficker about cocaine thefts.
AUG. 17, 1987: Garcia goes on administrative leave.
APRIL 20, 1988: Garcia withdraws $2 million from Switzerland account and transfers $1.9 million to a new account in Luxembourg.
NOV. 22, 1988: Jackson and Countryman are arrested. Garcia flees, triggering worldwide manhunt.
DEC. 7, 1988: Federal grand jury indictment is issued.
JULY 3, 1989: Garcia is arrested in Luxembourg and subsequently extradited to the United States.