For the lawmen who have followed the exploits of Morgan Cody, justice was finally served Wednesday when a federal judge sentenced him to life in prison under an anti-drug trafficking law targeting repeat offenders.
Once the owner of a popular Redondo Beach nightclub, Cody has been convicted four times since the mid-1970s of felony narcotics charges. But it is not drug dealing for which he is best remembered.
Nearly two decades ago, Cody was accused of orchestrating the murder of Los Angeles Police Officer Gerald (Blackie) Sawyer, the department’s first undercover drug officer killed in the line of duty. Sawyer’s photograph still hangs in the department’s narcotics bureau.
Cody and three associates maintained during their trial that the officer pulled a gun on one of them during an undercover drug buy and that he was shot in self defense--a scenario that created “reasonable doubt” among the jurors, who acquitted the defendants. The presiding judge, among others, said he was shocked by the verdict.
So it was with a sense of deep satisfaction that those who knew Sawyer--or only knew of him--praised U.S. District Judge William J. Rea’s decision to send Cody to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
As Sawyer’s former partner, recently retired Detective Paul Kearney, put it: “It took 18 years for justice to prevail.”
Although the case that brought Cody before Rea on Wednesday had nothing to do with Sawyer, the memory of the slain officer dominated and shaped the proceedings.
In arguments before the court, Cody’s lawyer contended that the 1988 repeat-offender law was invoked in his client’s case because the law enforcement community had “never accepted” that Cody and his cohorts had beaten the Sawyer murder rap.
“That’s not fair,” said lawyer J. Tony Serra, who called his client a “martyr” in the government’s ineffective use of life sentences in its war on drugs.
“Defense counsel debases the word martyr, " retorted federal prosecutor John S. Gordon. “The real martyr is a man like Blackie Sawyer, who died doing undercover work in the drug war.”
As Gordon spoke, Cody shouted an obscenity and called the prosecutor “a weasel.”
Gordon insisted that Cody’s acquittal in the Sawyer killing “played no role” in the government’s decision to push for the mandatory life sentence. “This case cried out” for a life term, he said. “I’ve never seen a defendant caught with more than five kilos of cocaine with three priors.”
“He is the prototype of the kind of violator Congress had in mind when they enacted this law,” agreed veteran Drug Enforcement Administration Agent John Marcello, who witnessed Sawyer’s 1973 death and has tracked Cody’s career ever since.
In pronouncing the life sentence, Rea said only that “the defendant has a very serious criminal history relating to narcotics trafficking. . . . Under grants of probation and parole, he has not been able to rehabilitate himself.”
According to the Federal Sentencing Commission, Cody is the 42nd person to be given a life term under the repeat-offender statute, which was heavily criticized when it was first used in California because the target was a young, low-income black drug dealer arrested with only 5 1/2 ounces of crack at his mother’s South-Central Los Angeles home.
In contrast, Cody, whose original name was James J. Boyle III, is educated and has spent some of his adult years living in luxury. He has driven a Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes-Benz, a Porsche and, most recently, a Jaguar. When he was arrested in connection with the police slaying, he was renting a $3,500-a-month spread on the beach in Malibu.
For a time in 1985, he was married to Jennifer Conroy, the wealthy widow of Christopher Conroy, founder of the flower-store chain bearing his name. Cody and Conroy lived in a Marina del Rey penthouse until the DEA showed up with a warrant and confiscated $250,000 worth of cocaine along with three handguns.
Conroy, who was not implicated in the narcotics trafficking charges, divorced Cody, who had sought $500,000 in community property but got only $25,000.
In all, Cody has spent 11 years in prison on narcotics charges. He was last released in June, 1990, after serving five years of an eight-year sentence. He was let out early for good behavior. Among other things, he headed the prison’s Narcotics Anonymous group and talked openly about how his life was ruined by cocaine.
But last February, only eight months after his release, Cody was arrested for the fourth and final time. He was caught in a joint Los Angeles Police Department-DEA sting operation as he was about to sell five kilos of cocaine in the parking lot of an Anaheim restaurant. In a nearby hotel room, authorities found another five kilos. Cody was armed with a loaded 9-millimeter pistol.
During his trial, Cody said that he was forced into the deal by a Colombian drug pusher he knew from prison who threatened to kill him if he did not go along. Cody’s 76-year-old mother also took the stand to say that she was threatened by another Colombian man in New York.
On Wednesday, Cody’s mother was in court again--dressed in black, wearing sunglasses. She said her son was really a “good guy.” Maybe, she said with anguish, the police “should have shot him the first time they picked him up and saved me all this heartache. They never got off his tail.”
Authorities say that Cody began selling narcotics in 1972 after his Redondo Beach nightclub, Papa Joe’s Rock Emporium, burned down. Cody, who had been having financial problems, was charged with arson. Although he and two associates were convicted, the verdict was overturned and all three were acquitted after a second trial.
Soon, Cody became one of the first Southern California drug dealers to forge a smuggling network between here and South America. He and a friend simply purchased a map, some books on South America “and tried to teach ourselves as much as we could about cocaine,” Cody would later testify.
After Cody’s first narcotics arrest in 1973, he briefly became a DEA informant in exchange for being let out of jail without having to post bail. But agency officials soon learned that he was continuing to smuggle cocaine from Colombia. And it was then that they initiated a sting operation that would end in Officer Sawyer’s death.
Sawyer, posing as the prospective buyer of 20 kilos of cocaine, was introduced to Cody and an associate named Michael Elder through a police informant. The men agreed that the sale would take place on Nov. 6, 1973, in a fifth-floor room at a Holiday Inn in Santa Monica. In an adjoining room would be members of the DEA and the LAPD.
As planned, Sawyer, Elder and the informant met, while Cody remained at a nearby gas station.
Sawyer gave $140,000 in a briefcase to Elder, who counted it twice and informed Cody over the telephone that the cash was all there. Moments later, Elder opened fire with his .25-caliber pistol, striking the undercover officer in the midsection.
As soon as they heard shots, the officers next door stormed the room where the 32-year-old officer lay dying on the floor. Elder, Cody and another man were quickly taken into custody.
During the subsequent trial, the prosecution argued that Cody and Elder had no intention of selling the officer any drugs, that they intended only to steal the $140,000 and that Cody gave the word to kill Sawyer.
They supported their argument with the fact that neither Elder nor Cody had any drugs in their possession at the time.
The defendants, for their part, admitted that they were drug dealers but contended that Sawyer had pulled his gun first. Elder said he was forced to shoot in self defense.
After deliberating eight days, the jury acquitted Cody and the others, stunning even their defense lawyers. The jurors said later that the prosecution’s key witness, the informant, lacked credibility.
Sitting in the rear of Judge Rea’s courtroom on Wednesday was Sawyer’s ex-partner, Kearney. He said he still feels some guilt that Sawyer died in an undercover operation that may have lacked adequate protection for his friend. To this day, he said, he describes the case to rookie cops in stressing the dangers of undercover work and the need for good security.
As he walked out of the courtroom, Kearney stopped and remarked: “I loved what the U.S. attorney said--who the real martyr was.”