By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Dawn okayed the trip, and a few days later I was in balmy San Diego, squinting at microfiche in the clerk's office of the U.S. District Court.
I found Blandon's case file within a few minutes. He and six others, including his wife, Chepita Blandon, had been secretly indicted May 5, 1992, for conspiring to distribute cocaine. He'd been buying wholesale quantities from suppliers and reselling to other wholesalers. Way up on the food chain. According to the indictment, he'd been a trafficker for 10 years, had clients nationwide, and had bragged on tape of selling other L.A. dealers between two and four tons of cocaine.
He was such a big-timer that the judge had ordered him and his wife held in jail without bail because they posed "a threat to the health and moral fiber of the community."
The file contained a transcript of a detention hearing, held to determine if the couple should be released on bail. Blandon's prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O'Neale, brought out his best ammo to persuade the judge to keep the couple locked up until trial. "Mr. Blandon's family was closely associated with the Somoza government that was overthrown in 1979," O'Neale said. "He is a large-scale cocaine trafficker and has been for a long time." Given the amount of cocaine he'd sold, O'Neale said, Blandon's minimum mandatory punishment was "off the charts" - life plus a $4 million fine - giving him plenty of incentive to flee the country.
Blandon's lawyer, Brad Brunon, confirmed the couple's close ties to Somoza and produced a photo of them at a wedding reception with El Presidente and his spouse. That just showed what fine families they were from, he said. The accusations in Nicaragua against Blandon, Brunon argued, were "politically motivated because of Mr. Blandon's activities with the contras in the early 1980s."
Damn, here it is again. His own lawyer says he was working for the contras. From the docket sheet, I could see that the case had never gone to trial. Everyone had pleaded out, starting with Blandon. Five months after his arrest, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy, and the charges against his wife were dropped. After that, his fugitive co-defendants were quickly arrested and pleaded guilty. But they all received extremely short sentences. One was even put on unsupervised probation.
I didn't get it. If O'Neale had such a rock-solid case against a major drug-trafficking ring, why were they let off so easily? People did more time for burglary. Even Blandon, the ringleader, only got 48 months, and from the docket sheet it appeared that was later cut almost in half. As I read on, I realized that Blandon was already back on the streets - totally unsupervised. No probation. No parole. Free as a bird. He'd walked out of jail September 19, 1994, on the arm of an INS agent, Robert Tellez. He'd done 28 months for 10 years of cocaine trafficking. The last page of the file told me why.
It was a motion filed by U.S. Attorney O'Neale, asking the court to unseal Blandon's plea agreement and a couple of internal Justice Department memorandums. "During the course of this case, defendant Oscar Danilo Blandon cooperated with and rendered substantial assistance to the United States," O'Neale wrote. At the government's request, his jail sentence had been secretly cut twice. O'Neale then persuaded the judge to let Blandon out of jail completely, telling the court he was needed as a full-time paid informant for the U.S. Department of Justice. Since he'd be undercover, O'Neale wrote, he couldn't very well have probation agents checking up on him. He was released on unsupervised probation. I walked back to my hotel convinced that I was on the right track. Now there were two separate sources saying - in court - that Blandon was involved with the contras and had been selling large amounts of cocaine in Los Angeles. And when the government finally had a chance to put him away forever, it had opened up the cell doors and let him walk. I needed to find Blandon. I had a million questions only he could answer.
Back in Sacramento, I did some checking on the targets of the 1994 grand jury investigation - the Meneses family - and again Coral's description proved accurate, perhaps even understated. At the California State Library's government-publications section, I scoured the indices that catalog congressional hearings by topic and witness name. Meneses wasn't listed, but there had been a series of hearings back in 1987 and 1988, I saw, dealing with the issue of the contras and cocaine: a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
For the next six days I sat with rolls of dimes at a microfiche printer in the quiet wood-paneled recesses of the library, reading and copying many of the 1,100 pages of transcripts and exhibits of the subcommittee hearings, growing more astounded each day. The subcommittee's investigators had uncovered direct links between drug dealers and the contras. They'd gotten into BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) years before anyone knew what that banking scandal even was. They'd found evidence of Manuel Noriega's involvement with drugs - four years before the invasion. Many of the subcommittee witnesses, I noted, later became U.S. Justice Department witnesses against Noriega. Kerry and his staff had taken videotaped depositions from contra leaders who acknowledged receiving drug profits with the apparent knowledge of the CIA. The drug dealers had admitted - under oath - giving money to the contras, and had passed polygraph tests. The pilots had admitted flying weapons down and cocaine and marijuana back, landing in at least one instance at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. The exhibits included U.S. Customs reports, FBI reports, internal Justice Department memos. It almost knocked me off my chair. It was all there in black and a white. Blandon's testimony about selling cocaine for the contras in L.A. wasn't some improbable fantasy. This could have actually happened.