The Coke Machine 

The Story behind the Contra-crack cocaine story

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
When I came to work in the sprawling newsroom of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the early 1980s, I was assigned to share a computer terminal with a tall, middle-aged reporter with a long, virtually unpronounceable Polish name. To save time, people called him Tom A.

To me, arriving from a small daily in Kentucky, Tom A. was the epitome of the hard-boiled big-city newspaperman. The city officials he wrote about and the editors who mangled his copy were "fuckinjerks." A question prompting an affirmative response would elicit "fuckin-A-tweetie" instead of "yes." And when his phone rang he would say, "It's the Big One," before picking up the receiver. No matter how many times I heard that, I always laughed. The Big One was the reporter's holy grail - the tip that led you from the daily morass of press conferences and cop calls on to the trail of the Biggest Story You'd Ever Write, the one that would turn the rest of your career into an anticlimax. I never knew if it was cynicism or optimism that made him say it, but deep inside, I thought he was jinxing himself.

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The Big One, I believed, would be like a bullet with your name on it. You'd never hear it coming. And almost a decade later, long after Tom A., the Plain Dealer and I had parted company, that's precisely how it happened.

I didn't even take the call.

It manifested itself as a pink "While You Were Out" message slip left on my desk in July 1995, bearing an unusual and unfamiliar name: Coral Marie Talavera Baca. There was no message, just a number, somewhere in the East Bay.

I called, but there was no answer, so I put the message aside. If I have time, I told myself, I'll try again. Several days later an identical message slip appeared. Its twin was still sitting on a pile of papers at the edge of my desk. This time Coral Marie Talavera Baca was home.

"I saw the story you did a couple weeks ago," she began. "The one about the drug-seizure laws. I thought you did a good job."

"Thanks a lot," I said, and I meant it. She was the first reader who'd called about that story, a front-page piece in the San Jose Mercury News about a convicted cocaine trafficker who, without any formal legal training, had beaten the U.S. Justice Department in court three straight times and was on the verge of flushing the government's multibillion-dollar asset-forfeiture program right down the toilet.

"You didn't just give the government's side of it," she continued.

I asked what I could do for her.

"My boyfriend is in a situation like that," she said, "and I thought it might make a good follow-up story for you. What the government has done to him is unbelievable."

"Your boyfriend?"

"He's in prison right now on cocaine-trafficking charges. He's been in jail for three years."

"How much more time has he got?"

"Well, that's just it," she said. "He's never been brought to trial. He's done three years already, and he's never been convicted of anything."

"He must have waived his speedy-trial rights," I said.

"No, none of them have," she said. "There are about five or six guys who were indicted with him, and most of them are still waiting to be tried, too. They want to go to trial, because they think it's a bullshit case. Rafael keeps writing letters to the judge and the prosecutor, saying, you know, try me or let me go."

"Rafael's your boyfriend?"

"Yes. Rafael Cornejo."

"He's Colombian?"

"No, Nicaraguan. But he's lived in the Bay Area since he was like 2 or something."

It's interesting, I thought, but not the kind of story likely to excite my editors. Some drug dealers don't like being in jail? Oh. I knew what I would hear if I pitched Coral's story to my editors: We've done that already. And that was what I told her. She was not dissuaded.

"There's something about Rafael's case that I don't think you would have ever done before," she persisted. "One of the government's witnesses is a guy who used to work with the CIA selling drugs. Tons of it."

"What now?" I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly.

"The CIA. He used to work for them or something. He's a Nicaraguan too. Rafael knows him; he can tell you. He told me the guy admitted bringing four tons of cocaine into the country."

I put down my pen. She sounded so rational. Where did this CIA stuff come from? In 18 years of investigative reporting, I had ended up doubting the credibility of every person who ever called me with a tip about the CIA. I flashed on Eddie Johnson, a conspiracy theorist who would come bopping into the Kentucky Post's newsroom every so often with amazing tales of intrigue and corruption. Interviewing Eddie was one of the rites of passage at the Post. Someone would invariably send him over to the newest reporter on the staff to see how long it took the rookie to figure out he was spinning his wheels. Suddenly I remembered who I was talking to - a cocaine dealer's moll. That explained it.

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