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Ire Raised as Henley Signs Rams Pact : Courts: Player’s freedom on bail aggravates attorneys for other defendants in the drug case in which he awaits trial.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Professional football cornerback Darryl Henley signed a one-year, $350,000 contract Wednesday to rejoin the Rams even though he is awaiting trial on cocaine-trafficking charges, triggering complaints from attorneys for other defendants in the case.

“My client is not facing a (possible) minimum mandatory 10-year sentence (as Henley is) and yet he’s in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles,” said Joan P. Freeman, a deputy federal public defender whose client is accused of extorting money from Henley and faces a possible maximum term of three to four years in prison. “I’m having some difficulty with this.”

However, Henley’s lawyer said the athlete is free on bail and within his rights to return to the playing field. Henley was a starter for the Rams last season until he took a leave of absence when his legal problems became public.

“I can’t see anyone saying that this guy is a flight risk,” Henley attorney Roger Cossack said. “He’ll be surrounded by 100 people and millions will be watching him on television every Sunday. It’s hard for me to think that the court would not allow Darryl Henley to make a living.”

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Of the eight defendants who have been charged in the combined cases of extortion and conspiracy to distribute cocaine, only Henley and his uncle were given the chance to make bail at the time of their arraignments. Henley is accused of masterminding a drug ring that distributed large amounts of cocaine throughout the country.

A third defendant, Tracy Donaho, a former Rams cheerleader who was named in a federal indictment as a courier for the drugs, was also given an opportunity to make bail but has since pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Henley and the others.

Another of the accused--James Timothy Saenz, charged in an alleged attempt to extort money from Henley--spent 10 months in federal prison. He was released last week, when bail was finally set at $10,000. The other four must wait until Jan. 10 for their trials to begin.

“There has been a real disparity in treatment in this case,” said one defense attorney in the case, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. “Darryl Henley is clearly a celebrity who has been in the limelight and although nobody is saying it, his case has been handled differently.”

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Federal prosecutors argued strenuously last December before U.S. Magistrate Ronald W. Rose that Henley should be kept in custody until his trial because he might disappear and is a danger to society.

Last December, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Henley, Donaho and three others as participants in a conspiracy last year to transfer two shipments of cocaine from Henley’s home in Brea to drop-off points in Atlanta and Memphis, using the 20-year-old Donaho as a courier.

Three men, including one of those charged in the trafficking conspiracy, have also been charged with threatening Henley’s life in an attempt to extort $360,000 they say he owed them for cocaine they delivered to him. All are scheduled to be tried together.

Federal agents began investigating Henley in July, 1993, after Donaho paid cash for a one-way ticket from Ontario International Airport to Atlanta. Such a purchase is a tip-off that a passenger may be carrying drugs, officials say.

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When she landed, agents allegedly discovered 26 pounds of cocaine in a bag she had checked. Donaho later said that Henley had recruited her.

Two months later, Henley--who was aware of the criminal investigation--went to police himself to report an extortion attempt. Henley said the threat came at gunpoint at the Rams’ practice facility in Anaheim. He reported that three men stole his 1992 Lexus 400 SE and a Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun inside the car. One of the men who allegedly threatened him was found shot to death in West Covina some hours after the confrontation.

After investigating Henley’s extortion claims and arresting several suspects, authorities focused on Henley’s alleged involvement in the cocaine ring.

Last December, after pleading not guilty to the charges against him, Henley was released on $200,000 bail. Bail for his uncle, Rex Henley, who was indicted last month as part of the cocaine trafficking conspiracy, was set at $500,000.

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Responding to the charges of disparate treatment for Darryl Henley, his attorney said the football player is an excellent candidate for release.

“I don’t know anything about the prior records about anybody else, but Darryl Henley has never been in trouble in all his life,” Cossack said. “He has been active in charity work and for the past 10 months, has been terrific in terms of making court appearances and keeping in touch with pretrial services.”

A condition of Darryl Henley’s bail is that he not travel outside a seven-county central California area.

Cossack said he will ask for a modification of the bail conditions, allowing Henley to travel to Rams away games.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Deirdre Z. Eliot, one of two federal prosecutors handling the Henley case, declined to comment Wednesday.

NFL and Rams officials say that Henley is considered innocent and free to play unless he is convicted.

Legal experts disagree over whether Henley should have been allowed to make bail in the first place, much less be permitted to play football.

“What’s unusual is that bail was set in an amount that was achievable,” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Police Foundation in Washington. “Generally, in a case (involving drug trafficking), there is a presumption that a person should be jailed. If an indictment alleges that (Henley) is the . . . central figure in this conspiracy, the fact that bail has been set that he can make is highly unusual.”

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But others say that Henley, the most prominent of the defendants in the criminal case, is the least serious flight risk.

“I can’t imagine he’d be a danger to the community and be a flight risk,” said Judy Clarke, head of the federal public defender’s office in Spokane, Wash., and an expert in federal drug cases. “I don’t find it unusual at all that he be granted bail. Presumably, he’d be under the watchful eye of managers and the team.”

One federal law enforcement official believes the others in the case still in prison have good reason to be unhappy.

“If I was one of the other defendants, I think I’d be pretty upset watching Darryl Henley play football on Sundays.”

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