Onetime crack cocaine kingpin "Freeway" Ricky Ross, whose case renewed a national controversy about alleged CIA involvement in drug dealing, was sentenced to life in prison by a judge who said Ross cannot use unproven allegations about the CIA to escape the maximum punishment for being an "eager participant" in the illicit drug trade.
"Mr. Ross does not get a free pass to deal drugs the rest of his life and addict further people because of something that happened in the 1980s," said U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff.
Huff added that accusations that the Central Intelligence Agency condoned drug dealing in South-Central Los Angeles by sympathizers of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua are based on "innuendoes, speculation and rumors."
In a heavily guarded courtroom packed with friends and relatives of Ross, as well as members of law enforcement agencies that have long sought to send Ross to prison, Huff said that Ross never hesitated to be part of a drug deal put together by Oscar Danilo Blandon, Ross' former partner.
Blandon, a onetime Contra supporter, was serving a life sentence as a drug dealer when he agreed to act as an informant. As a result, he served only 28 months in prison and was put on the payroll of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), one of several African American leaders who have taken an active interest in the Ross case, said later from Washington, D.C. that she was surprised and disappointed by the severity of the sentence.
"For heaven's sake, for heaven's sake," said Millender-McDonald, whose district covers part of South-Central Los Angeles. "I can't condone what he did, but I certainly think we must look at the fairness of the sentencing. If you compare Blandon to Ricky Ross, you have to ask, where is the fairness?"
Under a new federal law aimed at repeat drug criminals, Ross will not be eligible for parole. Ross was given a life sentence because of his two prior drug convictions: one in Ohio, one in Texas.
Ross, 36, dressed in a tan prison jumpsuit and speaking in a subdued voice, asked Huff for leniency on the basis that Blandon, his onetime supplier before both men went to prison, had tricked him into going back into the drug business in late 1994.
"I was broke, I had been in prison for five years," Ross said. "They offered me a chance to make $2 million. They knew my neighborhood was infested by drugs. Everybody I knew dealt drugs. . . . I was minding my own business. I was trying to do what was right."
But Assistant U.S. Atty. L.J. O'Neale said that it was Ross who contacted Blandon about resuming their supplier-retailer relationship that allowed them to become major players in the crack cocaine market in the 1980s.
"This is the man who reveled in his fame as a cocaine dealer and a reformed cocaine dealer, but as it turned out he wasn't all that reformed," O'Neale said.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who sent a representative to the sentencing, doubted the wisdom of Huff's decision to recommend that Blandon be deported to his native Nicaragua if he is no longer helping the government in drug cases.
"This smacks of the kind of mystery that causes distrust in the criminal justice system," said Waters in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "Shouldn't Danilo Blandon be in jail, or at minimum, available to answer questions in the ongoing investigation about the government's role in drug trafficking?"
O'Neale also sought unsuccessfully to have Huff impose an unspecified but hefty fine on Ross in case he succeeds in selling his life story to movie-makers. O'Neale said Ross and San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, whose accounts of the case sparked the CIA controversy, have both tried to sell their stories to Hollywood.
"I do not think we ought to offer opportunities for enrichment for selling a tale of criminality," O'Neale said.
With Webb and another Mercury News reporter in attendance, Huff wondered aloud about "a very close relationship that has been established between Mr. Ross and Mr. Webb" in which Webb helped Ross' attorney, Alan Fenster, during the trial with questions to ask Blandon and may also have provided the defense lawyer with an important document that he lacked.
Huff, who represented media organizations while a private attorney, suggested that the Ross-Webb relationship is a proper topic for journalism magazines to debate. "Sometimes you cross the line between reporting of a story" and becoming a participant, Huff said.
After the sentencing, Ross' mother, Annie, tearfully told reporters that her son is the victim of a government scheme to destroy black communities.
"It is supposed to be a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people,' but it's not," she said, clutching her Bible. "Over and over the government tries to destroy the black race. The CIA let the Contras sell drugs to black people and the government didn't care."
Wearing T-shirts saying "Freeway Academy: Doing What's Needed," supporters packed the courtroom for the sentencing of Ross and two co-defendants. Freeway Academy was started by Ross after he was released from prison in Texas to provide anti-graffiti and anti-gang community services in South-Central Los Angeles.
Several months after establishing the program, though, Ross and his two co-defendants were caught in a reverse sting set up by the government and orchestrated by Blandon. The three were arrested in Chula Vista in March 1995; Ross and Curtis James of Baltimore were convicted by a jury, and Leroy Brown of Los Angeles pleaded guilty.
The three defendants were convicted of buying 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cocaine from Blandon, with a down payment of $169,000. Ross was caught on tape discussing the deal with Blandon and asking to buy even more cocaine.
Huff gave James 11 years and 3 months and Brown 7 years and 6 months.
Before Huff pronounced sentence, Ross' attorney made a last attempt to convince Huff that Ross was a victim of the CIA-backed Contras. "We have evidence that the Contras were selling drugs to fund their revolution," Fenster said.
The long-running controversy over such assertions was given fresh life earlier this year when the Mercury News published a series suggesting that Ross, with support from CIA-backed Contras, introduced crack to Los Angeles. Other newspapers, including The Times, have disputed the Mercury News account, particularly the assertions that the Contra dealers were the major source of cocaine and that they funneled mass amounts of money to Nicaragua.
The controversy grew so intense that CIA Director John M. Deutch appeared last Friday at an extraordinary public meeting in Los Angeles to attempt to refute allegations that his agency was involved in such a plot.
Several of those who came to court to support Ross had attended that meeting. One of those was David Ross, 44, Ricky Ross' brother, who picketed the San Diego courthouse during the lunch break.
"This is a mass cover-up," said David Ross. "Everybody is playing a role: the government, the CIA, the judge."
Fenster argued that Ross' sentence is too stiff, given the lesser sentences meted out to the other co-defendants. But Huff noted that Brown had no prior convictions and James had only one, for which he was given probation.
Reacting from Los Angeles, Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, said the Ross case "makes one wonder if the system is going to be equally as vigilant in pursuing those in high places that we believe are truly responsible for this epidemic of drugs and violence that is rampant in our community."
Two members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which had sought for years to catch and convict Ross, were in the courtroom. Retired Los Angeles Police Officer Stephen Polak also attended and was exultant when Huff passed sentence.
"It's a just conclusion," Polak said. "The cancer has been stopped."
In giving Ross a life sentence, Huff declined to consider his Ohio and Texas convictions as a single offense. If she had, she could have given him a lesser sentence.
Still, she said that if she had the power to do so under federal sentencing guidelines, she would have given Ross a sentence of 21 to 27 years, based on the fact that he cooperated with prosecutors after his drug conviction in Ohio. She invited Fenster to use that argument in his appeal.
Times staff writer John L. Mitchell contributed to this story.