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The Coke Machine 

The Story behind the Contra-crack cocaine story

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
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Page 2 of 7

"Oh, the CIA. Well, you're right. I've never done any stories about the CIA. I don't run across them too often here in Sacramento. See, I mostly cover state government."

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"You probably think I'm crazy, right?"

"No, no," I assured her. "You know, could be true, who's to say? When it comes to the CIA, stranger things have happened."

There was a short silence, and I could hear her exhale sharply.

"How dare you treat me like I'm an idiot," she said evenly. "You don't even know me. I work for a law firm. I've copied every single piece of paper that's been filed in Rafael's case, and I can document everything I'm telling you. You can ask Rafael, and he can tell you himself . . . He's got a court date in San Francisco coming up in a couple weeks. Why don't I meet you at the courthouse? That way you can sit in on the hearing, and if you're interested we could get lunch or something and talk."

That cinched it. Now the worst that could happen was lunch in San Francisco in mid-July, away from the phones and the editors. And, who knows, there was an off chance she was telling the truth. Flipping on my computer, I logged into the Dialog database, which contains full-text electronic versions of millions of newspaper and magazine stories, property records, legal filings, you name it. Okay. Let's see if Rafael Cornejo even exists.

A message flashed on the screen: "Your search has retrieved 11 documents. Display?" So far so good. I called up the most recent one, a newspaper story that had appeared a year before in the San Francisco Chronicle. My eyes widened. "4 Indicted in Prison Breakout Plot - Pleasanton Inmates Planned To Leave in Copter, Prosecutors Say."

I quickly scanned the story. Son of a bitch. "Four inmates were indicted yesterday in connection with a bold plan to escape from the federal lockup in Pleasanton using plastic explosives and a helicopter that would have taken them to a cargo ship at sea. The group also considered killing a guard if their keepers tried to thwart the escape, prosecutors contend. Rafael Cornejo, 39, of Lafayette, an alleged cocaine kingpin with reputed ties to Nicaraguan drug traffickers and Panamanian money launderers, was among those indicted for conspiracy to escape."

That's some boyfriend she's got there, I mused. The newspaper stories make him sound like Al Capone. And he wants to sit down and have a chat?

When I pushed open the doors to the vast courtroom in the San Francisco federal courthouse a few weeks later, I found a scene from Miami Vice. To my left, a dark-suited army of federal agents and prosecutors huddled around a long, polished wooden table, looking grim and talking in low voices. On the right, an array of long-haired, expensively attired defense attorneys were whispering to a group of long-haired, angry-looking Hispanics - their clients. The judge had not yet arrived.

I had no idea what Coral Baca looked like, so I scanned the faces in the courtroom, trying to pick out a woman who could be a drug kingpin's girlfriend. She found me first.

"You must be Gary," said a voice behind me.

I turned, and for an instant all I saw was cleavage and jewelry. She looked to be in her mid-20s. Dark hair. Bright-red lipstick. Long legs. Short skirt. Dressed to accentuate her positive attributes. I could barely speak.

"You're Coral?"

She tossed her hair and smiled. "Pleased to meet you." She stuck out a hand with a giant diamond on it, and I shook it weakly. We sat down in the row of seats behind the prosecutors' table, and I glanced at her again. That boyfriend of hers must be going nuts. She pointed out Cornejo, a short, handsome Latino with a strong jaw and long, wavy hair parted in the middle.

"Can we go out in the hall and talk for a minute?" I asked her.

We sat on a bench just outside the door. I told her I needed to get case numbers so I could ask for the court files. And, by the way, did she bring those documents she'd mentioned? She reached into her briefcase and brought out a stack an inch thick. "I've got three bankers' boxes full back at home, and you're welcome to see all of it, but this is the stuff I was telling you about concerning the witness."

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