By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Hemming and hedging, Ensley backed out of the deal with Valenzuela. ”Luis was champing at the bit to do business. I had to come up with all kinds of excuses -- my truck broke down, my mommy died -- anything to turn it off.“ But Ensley still believed he could sell the FBI on his nascent partnership with Valenzuela. He decided he‘d have better luck working with the agents in Southern California, and in 1996 Skip and Karen Ensley returned home. Karen wanted to be closer to her family, and Skip re-connected with the Riverside office of the FBI.
But while Ensley was picking up where he’d left off, most of the agents who first went after Luis Valenzuela had moved on in their careers -- Aukland, in particular, was stationed in Seattle. Ensley started from scratch, working primarily with a young FBI agent named Peter Freitag. Once more, Ensley had to demonstrate who Valenzuela was, and how close he could get.
Freitag insisted that Ensley set up a simple drug buy. Ensley knew that Valenzuela rarely made deliveries himself, but he also knew the dealer had a fondness for selling heroin, which yielded larger profits and which he could obtain outside the Tijuana cartel. Valenzuela quickly took the bait, meeting Ensley on March 22, 1997, in the parking lot of a restaurant in Montclair. As was customary, the deal was bifurcated; a week later, under the watchful eyes of an FBI surveillance team, Ensley delivered $24,000 in cash. It was a Sunday, and Casiano Valenzuela was the designated bagman. Skip made the payoff in the parking lot of their family church. Ensley recalls the meeting with a rare note of regret. ”Casiano was my best friend,“ he said.
Spurred by the successful undercover buy, Agent Freitag pressed Ensley for more details of the Valenzuela smuggling operation. Ensley says he told Freitag to ask the agents on the Southwest Border Task Force, some of whom had been on hand for the 1991 bust, but Freitag declined -- because, Ensley says, he feared losing control of the case.
Exasperated at the bureaucratic skirmishing, Ensley says he called Washington, D.C., and spoke to Thomas J. Kneir, then deputy assistant director for drug investigations at the FBI and now head of the bureau‘s Chicago office. Ensley laid out the whole story -- the start-and-stop investigations, the hoarding of information, the failure even to slow down the Valenzuela organization. Contacted recently in Chicago, Kneir said he did not recall the exchange, but said he was often asked to intervene in squabbles over turf. According to Ensley, the deputy director ordered Freitag and the task force to coordinate the case against Valenzuela.
Whatever the impetus, the record shows that in May, two months after Ensley made his heroin buy, Freitag contacted DEA Agent George Eliot, supervising agent at the L.A.-based Southwest Border Task Force. The conversation that ensued represented a major advance for the task force, the first real break in the investigation.
Operation Rio Blanco had been launched eight months before, in September 1996, when a DEA agent in Tucson contacted a man known only as Mario who boasted of shipping tons of cocaine across the border. Mario was looking for a driver. The agent offered his services.
A deal was struck: The agent would drive a truck laden with 300 kilos of cocaine from Nogales to Los Angeles, where he would collect a fee of $1,000 per kilo. It was a blind delivery: Mario provided the agent a single pager number. A day later, arriving in Los Angeles, the agent dialed. Someone named Julian called back and gave him another number. When the meeting finally took place, agents trailed the pickup man to El Monte, where they stopped the loaded car, recovered the dope and made a single arrest. Aside from that, all the agents obtained were numbers to a pager and a cell phone.
The hot numbers represented a thin lead. Depending on the extent of court authorization, agents could track the numbers dialed by some phones and could listen in on others. But the conversations they monitored were quick, sketchy and in code. Cocaine, for example, was referred to variously as ”wedding dresses,“ ”family,“ ”the girls,“ ”the boys,“ ”books from the library,“ ”cars,“ ”parts,“ ”platanos,“ ”chili,“ ”a hand“ (for 5 kilos) or simply as ”things.“ Meetings were arranged on the fly, as drivers conferred by cell phone while plying the freeways, making surveillance chancy at best. Piecing together who was who and what was happening was a daunting task, often virtually impossible.
And the numbers kept changing. Within a week of the 300-kilo bust, all the phones involved had been disconnected. The number for one cell phone was changed four times in the space of three months. Tracking the new phone registrations was made more difficult because the phone retailers where they did business were often in league with the smugglers. In particular, according to court affidavits, A-Tel Cellular, in Downey, and A-1 Beeper, in Hollywood, ”notify the trafficker of any inquiry by law enforcement.“ As the investigation progressed, the agents tapped the lines of the phone retailers themselves.
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