An exhaustive, self-critical investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has uncovered no evidence of CIA involvement in Southern California drug trafficking, but has turned up controversial new details about the conduct of local narcotics officers--including admissions that one group of sheriff’s deputies stole roughly $50,000 during a 1986 raid.
The 3,500-page investigation represents the first comprehensive law enforcement review of allegations that the CIA and Nicaraguan Contra rebels fueled Los Angeles’ booming cocaine trade in the 1980s--the premise of a controversial series in the San Jose Mercury News in August.
Specifically, the Sheriff’s Department investigation centered on more than a dozen 1986 drug raids during which one suspect allegedly boasted of ties to the CIA. The search warrant itself cited confidential informants as saying drug profits were being funneled to the Contras.
In virtually every respect, however, the Sheriff’s Department concluded there was no evidence to support those contentions.
During a press conference to unveil an 84-page summary of the far-ranging probe, Sheriff Sherman Block stressed that investigators found no indication that any government agency, including the CIA, was involved in the Los Angeles activities of Nicaraguan cocaine trafficker Danilo Blandon or one of his primary customers, South-Central crack dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross.
“The inquiry has not uncovered any evidence that Ricky Ross was used as a pawn to distribute cocaine to specific neighborhoods,” Block said, adding that the probe also showed that his department was not “in any way involved in a cover-up of any inappropriate activity by any other government agency.”
In its investigation, the Sheriff’s Department also demonstrated a willingness to criticize fellow law enforcement officers: Investigators concluded that one deputy falsified search warrant information and that deputies stole between $40,000 and $63,000 during the subsequent 1986 raids.
The investigation also found that a detective from the city of Bell allowed informants to peddle drugs under his supervision in the late 1980s. That detective accused a former prosecutor, who is now a judge, of approving the operation.
The report was prepared by a special Sheriff’s Department team of seven full-time investigators who reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed 58 people during a two-month period. In addition to the 84-page summary, The Times reviewed the entire 3,500-page investigative file.
“As far as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is concerned,” Block said, “this case is closed.”
That view is not universally held.
Despite its breadth and emphatic conclusions, the sheriff’s report is unlikely to persuade those who passionately subscribe to the notion advanced by the Mercury News: that Contra supporter Blandon, with the help of Ross, ignited the nation’s crack epidemic to fund Nicaraguan guerrillas backed by the CIA.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who has emerged as the most vocal advocate of this view, attended Block’s news conference and later called his report flawed and incomplete.
“Let me say that without a doubt, I do believe that there is a connection between Danilo Blandon, his drug operation and the CIA, the DEA and others,” said Waters, who recently was chosen to head the Congressional Black Caucus.
“The fact of the matter is that this report raises more questions about the [drug trafficking] operation,” she said. Waters vowed to raise those issues during congressional hearings.
Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade, accompanied Waters at the news conference. He said he appreciated the sheriff’s efforts but predicted that the findings will only serve to generate more skepticism.
“We don’t want there to be a cover-up,” he said. “We want truth to prevail.”
Although a congressional committee concluded in the mid-1980s that some Contra backers had, in fact, been smuggling drugs into the United States with the apparent knowledge of CIA agents, the Sheriff’s Department report said it found no evidence of such activity in Los Angeles.
A series in The Times in October similarly concluded that neither the Contras nor the CIA introduced crack cocaine to South-Central.
Sheriff’s investigators repeatedly discovered that evidence purporting to link the CIA to the local drug trade turned out to be false.
A missing document seized during the 1986 raids, for instance, has long been alleged to contain evidence of CIA involvement in drug trafficking. In fact, that document, which finally surfaced in the sheriff’s investigation, turns out to be 10 handwritten pages containing no solid evidence whatsoever.
The author of the notes, Ronald J. Lister, told investigators he never had any ties to the CIA--a statement that CIA officials have attested to in court documents and public statements--and a diagram attached to the notes appears to sketch out a route for trafficking in arms and other equipment, not for drug dealing.
Asked about the document by sheriff’s investigators during a Nov. 6 interview, Lister responded: “This was used by me in 1985 in a grand jury investigation on my relationship with Soviet agents. Crazy, huh?”
According to the investigative file, Lister “went on to say that he had sold an FBI ‘scrambler system’ to somebody overseas and the FBI had investigated only to find out that the equipment was declassified and available on the open market.”
In part, the suggestion that Lister was a link to the CIA came from a motion filed in 1990 by defense attorney Harland W. Braun, then representing Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Garner, who was charged with stealing drug money. Braun’s motion described the raid on Lister’s house and said that investigators watched as Lister called a CIA contact in Virginia to inform him that his house was being searched.
Although many sheriff’s officials have heard that story over the years, the investigation returned to the original sources and found no evidence that it was correct. Both Lister and a deputy in charge of the search denied that any such call was placed.
In addition, Braun’s motion stated that evidence seized during the 1986 raid was whisked away from sheriff’s headquarters by federal authorities.
Again, the sheriff’s investigation concluded otherwise.
“This allegation is false,” the report says, adding that an FBI agent came to sheriff’s headquarters and copied some files but took nothing. “No property was taken by ‘federal agents.’ ”
Nonetheless, Braun said Tuesday that he stands behind the veracity of his motion. “The Contras were dealing drugs to get weapons,” he said. “The government covered it up, and the government is covering it up to this day.”
Braun’s motion was offered in part to suggest that the government’s conduct was so outrageous that the charges against his client, Garner, should be dismissed. Garner, in his interview with sheriff’s investigators, stressed that he believes the U.S. government was involved in the drug trade. Still, the report states that Garner acknowledged that the motion was a gambit to turn the tables on the government and “get the heat off” him and the other defendants.
Garner’s case was the first of a string in which sheriff’s deputies were charged with stealing drug money. A number of deputies ultimately were convicted of theft, tax evasion and other charges. But the investigation into the claims of CIA trafficking revealed another, previously undiscovered, theft.
According to the investigation file, the 1986 raids on the homes of Lister and trafficker Blandon, who is now a government informant, yielded little evidence but offered deputies an easy opportunity for personal gain.
Former Deputy John Hurtado “said he conducted a search of the upstairs bedroom and found a small briefcase underneath a piece of furniture,” the report states of his Nov. 7 interview. “He said he pried open the briefcase with a bayonet and discovered that it was completely full of money. . . . He estimated the amount to be in excess of $50,000.”
Hurtado said he gave the money to Garner, who later delivered “several thousand dollars” to his colleague.
Asked about those allegations, Garner told investigators that he did not recall that theft but that “it is possible that one occurred.”
Other law enforcement officials take a beating in the sheriff’s report as well. Deputy Thomas Gordon drafted the affidavit for the 1986 warrant and cited confidential informants as supplying the basis for the probable cause to search the houses and other properties. But some of his information came from another sheriff’s deputy, Richard Wenig, who now says statements were falsely attributed to him.
“After reading the search warrant, Deputy Wenig stated, ‘Off the top of my head, I would say it’s probably a lie,’ ” the report notes.
The sheriff’s report also recounts a set of allegations against former Bell Police Det. Jerry Guzzetta, including accusations that he stole drugs from a police storage facility. Guzzetta, who has since retired, was not charged.
Another allegation came from Susan Bryant-Deason, a former prosecutor and now a Superior Court judge. According to the sheriff’s investigative file, she accused him of allowing drugs to be sold to Ross, who recently received a life sentence stemming from a San Diego drug case.
“Susan Bryant-Deason alleged that Guzzetta [and another agent] watched as the CI’s [confidential informants] delivered 40 kilos of cocaine to ‘Freeway Rick’ without appropriate interdiction.”
Confronted with that accusation, Guzzetta responded that in one case he had allowed informants to deliver 30 kilos of cocaine to Ross, for which they were paid $10,000. The informants were allowed to keep that money, Guzzetta added. But the detective said Bryant-Deason had approved that transaction.
“We told Guzzetta that Susan Bryant-Deason had stated that she had forbidden him to conduct operations which would intentionally allow cocaine to be dealt to consumers,” the investigative file says. “Guzzetta responded, ‘She’s a liar.’ ”
Neither Guzzetta nor Bryant-Deason could be reached for comment.
Although the sheriff’s investigation was focused on the CIA, it also included some material related to Gary Webb, the author of the Mercury News series. Sheriff’s investigators uncovered copies of correspondence from a New York literary agent to Ricky Ross, a central player in Webb’s series, offering him a deal for the “dramatic rights to his story.”
One of the agent’s letters to Ross was sent care of Webb, and the agent described the deal to Ross as being identical to one accepted by the reporter.
Although the agent later amended that statement, saying Webb had never formally accepted the deal offered to him, sheriff’s investigators joined with other authorities in concluding that it was evidence that Webb had grown too close to the defendant to be considered reliable.
Quoting a federal prosecutor in San Diego, the sheriff’s investigation summary notes: “It is now clear that the pretense of Gary Webb being a detached journalistic observer has been dropped, and that there is now no doubt that he was an active participant in the Ross defense team.”
“It’s not true,” he said. “We don’t have any business relationship whatsoever. My only relationship with Ricky Ross is as a source.”
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* The Assignment: Determine whether the CIA and Nicaraguan Contra rebels fueled L.A.'s booming cocaine trade in the 1980s.
* The Inquiry: Seven full-time sheriff’s investigators reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed 58 people during a two-month period. They focused on 1986 drug raids during which one suspect allegedly boasted of CIA ties.
* Findings: No evidence of CIA or Contra involvement was found, although the 3,500-page report does cite other law enforcement misdeeds, including theft of $50,000 by sheriff’s deputies.