Launching his bid for a new trial, South-Central Los Angeles crack kingpin "Freeway" Ricky Ross put one of his own captors on the witness stand Thursday, accusing an INS agent of illegally supplying a green card to the Nicaraguan parolee who helped set him up for arrest.
Ross, whose conviction four years ago sparked an international furor over the U.S. government's alleged role in the drug trade, contends that the Immigration and Naturalization Service sanitized the files of Oscar Danilo Blandon, allowing the trafficker-turned-informant to obtain permanent residency despite his own cocaine-related crimes.
The agent who handled Blandon's case, Robert Tellez Jr., has already suffered an administrative rebuke and a demotion. But in U.S. District Court, where he spent nearly four hours being questioned, Tellez boosted Ross' hopes for freedom with some significant admissions.
A 26-year INS veteran, Tellez testified that he never placed records of Blandon's drug conviction in the proper immigration file, that he mistakenly told prosecutors that Blandon's green card had been approved before--and not after--his drug conviction, and that he failed to correct them when they repeated the error during Ross' original trial.
"I don't know if it was legal or illegal--it was just a process we used," Tellez testified. "Whatever means--whatever we needed to do to continue working those cases--we went ahead."
Assistant U.S. Atty. Laura Parsky had objected to reopening the case, saying that a jury had already heard overwhelming evidence of Ross' willingness to purchase 220 pounds of cocaine from Blandon outside a restaurant in Chula Vista. But Judge Marilyn Huff allowed Ross' attorney to continue probing the matter, scheduling more witnesses for next week.
If Huff decides Ross deserves a new trial, prosecutors would have to reveal to jurors that Blandon received an improper reward for his cooperation.
"This is not just a technical mistake," Ross, 40, said in an earlier interview from jail. "This is police corruption."
Ross--whose life term was also overturned on appeal and is now awaiting resentencing--had been making the same argument, to little avail, throughout his 1996 trial. Two years later, though, he received a boost from an unlikely source: the U.S. Justice Department. Its inspector general, Michael Bromwich, had been investigating allegations, raised by a controversial San Jose Mercury News series, that Nicaragua's CIA-backed rebels had funneled tons of cocaine to Ross during the 1980s, igniting South-Central's crack epidemic.
His 407-page report found that Blandon had no links to the intelligence agency and only the most tenuous of ties to the Contras. But it did conclude that Blandon--a longtime Ross supplier--had been granted a green card "in a wholly improper manner" and that the official version of how he had obtained it was "incorrect and misleading."
Blandon, an upper-class Nicaraguan who escaped the Sandinista revolution of 1979, was awarded political asylum in 1985 and applied for permanent residency in 1988. He never received it, partly because he was crisscrossing the nation, building a cocaine distribution network. When Ross first went to prison for interstate trafficking in 1989, Blandon stayed in the business--that is, until 1992, when he was indicted on conspiracy charges of his own.
Faced with a life sentence, Blandon agreed to become an informant. A DEA memo, dated Aug. 12, 1994, states: "It is anticipated that Mr. Blandon will be able to reestablished [sic] himself with Ricky Ross and his organization if released from custody."
Ross was paroled on Aug. 31 of that year.
Blandon was released three weeks later.
By October, the two men were trading taped phone calls between Los Angeles and Managua, plotting a dope deal that would eventually win Blandon a $40,000 government reward.
It was not, however, his only prize. Normally, a noncitizen convicted of a major drug offense would have faced deportation. Instead, Tellez arranged for Blandon to receive permanent residency upon his release, although convicted felons are barred from receiving such a benefit.
During his testimony Thursday, which was marked by frequent memory lapses and contradictory statements, Tellez insisted that he had told his supervisors about Blandon's criminal past. But he also admitted that he had failed to record the conviction in Blandon's immigration file. "I just neglected to do so," Tellez said. "It didn't seem important."
In his own reports, Tellez obfuscated the matter even further, writing that the INS had granted Blandon a green card in 1990--two years before his conviction, not two years after. "That was my mistake," Tellez testified, explaining that he had "misquoted the word 'granted,' instead of 'eligible.' "
Assistant U.S. Atty. L.J. O'Neale repeated the misinformation during Ross' trial, stating that Blandon "retains the permanent resident status that he had before his May 1992 arrest."
Blandon, when asked whether his legal status had been a reward for his cooperation, testified, incorrectly: "I have my green card already before that."