Documents released by a federal judge Monday show that Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies conducted raids in 1986 aimed at breaking up a drug ring they believed was selling cocaine in Southern California to finance the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
At the request of The Times and Century City defense lawyer Harland W. Braun, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie unsealed a 10-year-old Sheriff's Department directive telling deputies how to serve a search warrant on Oct. 27, 1986. The warrant, according to the document unsealed Monday, involved 12 locations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties and culminated a 30-day investigation by the Sheriff's Department, the Bell Police Department, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"The investigation centers around a male Nicaraguan named Danilo Blandon," a well-known Nicaraguan drug dealer, according to the Sheriff's Department document. "The Blandon organization is believed to be moving hundreds of kilos of cocaine a month in the Southern California area and the money is laundered through a variety of business fronts and then sent to Florida where the money goes toward the purchase of arms to aid the Contra rebels fighting the civil war in Nicaragua."
The document does not mention any involvement by the CIA, which backed the Contras and has become embroiled in a nationwide controversy over whether agency officials were complicit in Blandon's Southern California cocaine trafficking. But, according to Braun, the directive suggests the possibility of such a link.
"It shows that the DEA, the FBI and the Sheriff's Department knew in 1986 that the Contras were involved in bringing drugs into Los Angeles," said Braun, who became involved in the issue because he represented a sheriff's deputy charged in 1990 with skimming drug money.
"That is a millimeter short of the link to the CIA . . . everyone knew that the Contras were a CIA operation."
The Sheriff's Department directive surfaced the same day U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters released a number of other documents involving the 1986 raids. One of them, a sheriff's affidavit detailing the department's probable cause for the searches, apparently formed the basis of the directive released by Justice Rafeedie.
In the affidavit, a sheriff's deputy wrote that informants had reported that "money and arms" were supplied to the Contras through Blandon's drug sales. One of Blandon's dealers, according to the document, sold the cocaine "mainly to blacks living in the South-Central Los Angeles area."
This account, however, contradicts testimony Blandon gave earlier this year in the San Diego drug trial of another of his dealers: "Freeway" Ricky Ross, who is awaiting sentencing and whose name does not appear in the Sheriff's Department documents released Monday.
During the trial, Blandon testified that by late 1982 or early 1983--three years before the sheriff searches--he was not sharing his riches with the Contras.
Under questioning from federal prosecutors, he said of his drug sales: "I started doing it for myself, for my own benefit."
Exactly what Blandon was doing during the early- and mid-1980s has become a central question in the flaring controversy over a series in the San Jose Mercury News suggesting that Blandon, Ross and the CIA were responsible for Los Angeles' crack explosion.
Although the CIA has denied involvement with the cocaine sales--and the series has been criticized for failing to offer evidence of a CIA link to the traffickers' efforts--the stories have generated immense interest and outrage, fueled by Waters.
During a news conference, Waters responded to skepticism about the series by releasing the search warrant affidavit and other documents aimed at supporting the notion of CIA involvement.
Among the documents she released was a report written after the searches, showing that one suspected player in the cocaine network whose home was raided told authorities that he "worked with the CIA." The documents state that evidence seized from his Mission Viejo home included military films and training manuals--material Waters said proves the ring had ties to the Contra army in Nicaragua.
Waters said, moreover, that documents recovered in the raids have disappeared from the Sheriff's Department or are being hidden by the department, a contention disputed by Sheriff Sherman Block on Monday.
Other than the affidavit, most of the information released by Waters surfaced in 1990 during the trial of seven Los Angeles County sheriff's narcotics officers accused of skimming money and drugs during undercover operations. At that time, The Times and other news media recounted the statements of the man who claimed to work for the CIA and an allegation that documents were taken from the Sheriff's Department by federal authorities. Those statements were contained in a motion by Braun.
But with the controversy surrounding the Mercury News series, even previously disclosed information has been given new life.
Standing at Central Avenue and Adams Boulevard, Waters pointed to a check-cashing outlet that she said was once a bar where Blandon sold 10 kilograms of cocaine a week during the 1980s, part of a far-flung operation that targeted the black community by employing 200 people and 14 locations to distribute drugs.
"It is important to understand that law enforcement officials knew that Blandon and his operation sold cocaine mainly to blacks in the South-Central Los Angeles area," she said.
Waters said she obtained copies of the Sheriff's Department reports last week by showing up unannounced at the department and demanding copies.
One report shows that a location police raided was the home of former Laguna Beach Police Officer Ronald Lister, then a private security consultant.
According to a report by one deputy involved in the raid, Lister warned that "he had dealings in South America and worked with the CIA and added that his friends in Washington weren't going to like what was going on."
Waters also questioned Monday why materials taken from Lister's home--including the military training films and manuals--were not returned to him.
"These were the training films of the [Nicaraguan Democratic Force], this is the army of the Contras," she said, adding that the "evidence is somehow being held on to by the L.A. County sheriff's."
Reacting to Waters' suggestion of a cover-up in the Sheriff's Department, Block told reporters during a news conference that evidence taken from Lister's home, such as television monitors and ammunition, was used by the department. Other materials, including the training films and miscellaneous papers, were destroyed pursuant to department policy and state law because no charges were filed.
"There has been no effort to conceal anything," Block said.
Asked whether the CIA took any of the evidence seized in the raid, Block responded: "I'm saying it categorically, absolutely" that no one in the CIA removed the materials.
Block also said that when names of those with suspected links to the CIA surfaced during the investigation, a list was sent to the intelligence agency. According to Block, only one name was recognized and "all they said was they knew he was a cocaine dealer." The sheriff said he was not aware of the man's identity.
Waters, who made a surprise appearance at Block's news conference, insisted that charges should have been filed against Blandon, Lister and others targeted in the raids and that the documents should have been preserved. Block countered that prosecutors concluded there were not enough drugs to file trafficking charges.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors have denied that Lister, despite his statements to authorities during the raid, has CIA connections.
"That claim, I happen to know, is false," Assistant U.S. Atty. L. J. O'Neale said during Ross' trial early this year in San Diego.
O'Neale said Lister, whose name surfaced in the Ross trial last March, is a convicted drug dealer who has claimed CIA connections as a ruse to impress illegal business partners and "to try and deter prosecution."
Times staff writer Victor Merina contributed to this story.