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
Critics have long accused the CIA of using drug traffickers to raise cash for Ronald Reagan’s 1980s war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. Now, recently released FBI documents show that a former top agency official met throughout that period with Ronald J. Lister, an ex–Laguna Beach police detective who claimed to be the link between the South American cocaine trade, the Nicaraguan contras and the CIA.
The documents — released in response to the Weekly’s 1997 Freedom of Information request — concern Lister and William Earl Nelson, a vice president for security for the Irvine-based construction giant Fluor Corp. Nelson’s previous job: deputy director of operations for the CIA. The heavily redacted memos do not substantiate claims that the CIA was involved in drug dealing, but elaborate on troubling relationships first exposed in “Dark Alliance,” a 1996 investigative report by Gary Webb, then a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
How Lister and Nelson met isn’t clear, because of government censors. But the documents do show that Nelson told FBI agents he met with Lister three to four times a year until 1985 and discussed various business ventures, including one in Central America.
Citing U.S. national security, FBI censors blocked out the details of that project. But independent sources suggest the deal probably involved Lister’s security company, Newport Beach–based Pyramid International Security Consultants Inc. Lister founded Pyramid in 1979, a year before he quit the Laguna Beach Police Department as a burglary detective, and just months after he first met Nelson.
By all accounts, Lister was involved in some highly unusual “business” activity in Central America. According to a 1998 U.S. Justice Department Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report, the FBI investigated Pyramid five times between 1983 and 1986. “In September 1983, Lister’s company, Pyramid International Security Consultants, was listed as the subject of a neutrality violation investigation involving the sale of weapons to El Salvador and the loan of money from Saudi Arabia to the Salvadoran government,” the OIG report states. “Lister was also alleged to be attempting to sell arms to several other countries.”
In a 1996 interview with Mercury News reporter Webb, former Pyramid employee Christopher Moore (another ex–Laguna Beach cop) claimed Lister told him he had “a big CIA contact” at an Orange County company and that both Pyramid and its employees would be protected while in El Salvador.
“I can’t remember his name, but Ron was always running off to meetings with him, supposedly,” Moore told Webb. “Ron said the guy was the former deputy director of operations or something, real high up there. All I know is that this supposed contact of his was working at the Fluor Corp., because I had to call Ron out there a couple of times.”
Moore said he traveled to El Salvador on Lister’s behalf and met face to face with Roberto D’Aubuisson, a Hitler-admiring former Salvadoran army intelligence officer, leader of the right-wing ARENA party, and architect of El Salvador’s paramilitary death squads.
“That was probably the highlight of my life at that point,” Moore told Webb. “There I was, a reserve police officer who’d only been in the country for a couple of days, and I was sitting in this office in downtown San Salvador across the desk from the man who ran the death squads. He had a gun lying on top of his desk and had these filing cabinets pushed up to the windows of the office so nobody could shoot through them.”
The timing of Moore’s trip to El Salvador coincides with a 1982 Pyramid contract proposal to provide security to the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense; narcotics detectives found the paperwork in a 1986 raid on Lister’s home. On its cover page, the Pyramid contract lists a Richard E. Wilker as the firm’s “technical director.”
Wilker is identified in corporate paperwork as an employee of another Newport Beach company, Intersect Inc. His current whereabouts are unknown, but the firm’s vice president, former CIA agent John Vandewerker, said Wilker had traveled to El Salvador with Lister, and that either Lister or Wilker had helped him apply for a job with Nelson at Fluor Corp.
During his FBI interrogation, Nelson claimed Lister had also applied for a job with Fluor. “He was never offered a job,” states the FBI memo. The next sentence was â censored by the FBI, but the memo continues, “Nelson thought Fluor might be able to use his [Lister’s] company” — an apparent reference to Pyramid. “Nelson said [Lister] started traveling overseas, Lebanon and Central America, and he always had some scheme that never materialized.”
By 1985, according to voluminous law-enforcement records, Lister, along with Nicaraguan exiles Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon, had established a lucrative cocaine network throughout California. Lister kept Blandon well-stocked with surveillance gear and high-tech weapons: police scanners, Mack 10s, Uzis, even grenade launchers. Blandon said he passed the equipment on to his South-Central L.A. connection, “Freeway” Ricky Ross. Using Lister’s gear to avoid police detection, Ross emerged as the region’s most notorious crack-cocaine trafficker.
The 1998 OIG report cites an FBI memo from the same era concerning an informant who overheard Lister bragging over drinks that he worked for Oliver North, who directed the Reagan administration’s secret contra arms-supply network.