The Coke Machine
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.
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."
"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."
"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.
"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."
"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.
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."
I flipped through the documents. Most of them were federal law-enforcement reports, DEA-6s and FBI 302s, every page bearing big black letters that said, "MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED - PROPERTY OF U.S. GOVERNMENT." At the bottom of the stack was a transcript of some sort. I pulled it out.
"Grand Jury for the Northern District of California, Grand Jury Number 93-5, Grand Jury Inv. No. 9301035.
Reporter's Transcript of Proceedings. Testimony of Oscar Danilo Blandon. February 3, 1994."
I whistled. "Federal grand jury transcripts? I'm impressed. Where'd you get these?"
"The government turned them over under discovery. Dave Hall did. I heard he really got reamed out by the DEA when they found out about all the stuff he gave us."
I skimmed the 39-page transcript. Whatever else this Blandon fellow may have been, he was pretty much the way Coral had described him. A big-time trafficker who'd dealt dope for many years, he started out dealing for the contras, a right-wing Nicaraguan guerrilla army, in Los Angeles. He'd used drug money to buy trucks and supplies. At some point after Ronald Reagan got into power, the CIA had decided his services as a fund-raiser were no longer required, and he stayed in the drug business for himself.
What made the story so compelling was that he was appearing before the grand jury as a U.S. government witness. He wasn't under investigation. He wasn't trying to beat a rap. He was there as a witness for the prosecution, which meant that the U.S. Justice Department was vouching for him. But who was the grand jury investigating? Every time the testimony led in that direction, words - mostly names - were blacked out.
"Who is this family they keep asking him about?"
"Rafael says it's Meneses. Norwin Meneses and his nephews. Have you heard of them?"
"Norwin is one of the biggest traffickers on the West Coast. When Rafael got arrested, that's who the FBI and the IRS wanted to talk to him about. Rafael has known [Norwin and his nephews] for years. Since the '70s, I think. The government is apparently using Blandon to get to Meneses."
Inside, I heard the bailiff calling the court to order, and we returned to the courtroom. During the hearing, I kept trying to recall where I had heard about this contra-cocaine business before. Had I read it in a book? Seen it on television? Like most Americans, I knew the contras had been a creation of the CIA, the darlings of the Reagan Right, made up largely of the vanquished followers of deposed Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and his brutal army, the National Guard. But drug trafficking? Surely, I thought, if there had been some concrete evidence, it would have stuck in my mind. Maybe I was confusing it with something else. During a break, I went to the restroom and bumped into Assistant U.S. Attorney Hall. I introduced myself as a reporter. Hall eyed me cautiously.
"Why would the Mercury News be interested in this case?" he asked. "You should have been here two years ago. This is old stuff now."
"I'm not really doing a story on this case. I'm looking into one of the witnesses. A man named Blandon. Am I pronouncing the name correctly?"
Hall appeared surprised. "What about him?"
"About his selling cocaine for the contras." Hall leaned back slightly, folded his arms and gave me a quizzical smile. "Who have you been talking to?"
"Actually, I've been reading. And I was curious to know what you made of his testimony about selling drugs for the contras in L.A. Did you believe him?"
"Well, yeah, but I don't know how you could absolutely confirm it. I mean, I don't know what to tell you," he said with a slight laugh. "The CIA won't tell me anything."
I jotted down his remark. "Oh, you've asked them?"
"Yeah, but I never heard anything back. Not that I expected to. But that's all ancient history. You're really doing a story about that?"
"I don't know if I'm doing a story at all," I said. "At this point, I'm just trying to see if there is one. Do you know where Blandon is these days?"
"Not a clue."
That couldn't be true, I thought. How could he not know? He was one of the witnesses against Rafael Cornejo. "From what I heard," I told him, "he's a pretty significant witness in your case here. He hasn't disappeared, has he? He is going to testify?"
Hall's friendly demeanor changed. "We're not at all certain about that."
When I got back to Sacramento, I called my editor at the main office in San Jose, Dawn Garcia, and filled her in on the day's events. Dawn was a former investigative reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle and had been the Mercury's state editor for several years.
"So, what do you think?" she asked, editorese for "Is there a story here and how long will it take to get it?"
"I don't know. I'd like to spend a little time looking into it at least. Hell, if his testimony is true, it could be a pretty good story. The contras were selling coke in L.A.? I've never heard that one before."
She mulled it over for a moment before agreeing. "It's not like there's a lot going on in Sacramento right now," she said. That was true enough. The sun-baked state capital was entering its summertime siesta, when triple-digit temperatures sent solons adjourning happily to mountain or seashore locales. With any luck, I was about to join them.
"I need to go down to San Diego for a couple days," I said. "Blandon testified that he was arrested down there in '92 for conspiracy, so there's probably a court file somewhere. He may be living down there, for all I know. Probably the quickest way to find out if what he was saying is true is to find him."
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.
I called Jack Blum, the Washington, D.C., attorney who'd headed the Kerry investigation, and he confirmed that Meneses had been an early target. But the Justice Department, he said, had stonewalled the subcommittee's requests for information, and he had finally given up trying to obtain the records, moving on to other, more productive areas. "There was a lot of weird stuff going on out on the West Coast, but after our experiences with Justice . . . we mainly concentrated on the cocaine coming into the East."
"Why is it that I can barely remember this?" I asked. "I mean, I read the papers every day."
"It wasn't in the papers, for the most part. We laid it all out, and we were trashed," Blum said. "I've got to tell you, there's a real problem with the press in this town. We were totally hit by the leadership of the administration and much of the congressional leadership. They simply turned around and said, 'These people are crazy. Their witnesses are full of shit. They're a bunch of drug dealers, drug addicts; don't listen to them.' And they dumped all over us. It came from every direction and every corner. We were even dumped on by the Iran-Contra Committee. They wouldn't touch this issue with a 10-foot pole."
"There had to have been some reporters who followed this," I protested. "Maybe I'm naive, but this seems like a huge story to me."
Blum barked a laugh. "Well, it's nice to hear someone finally say that, even if it is 10 years later."
There were two reporters, Blum said, who'd pursued the contra drug story - Robert Parry and Brian Barger of the Associated Press - but they'd run into the same problems. Their stories were either trashed or ignored. When I called Parry in Virginia, he sounded slightly amused.
"How well do you get along with your editors?" Parry finally asked.
"Fine. Why do you ask?"
"Well, when Brian and I were doing these stories, we got our brains beat out." Parry sighed. "People from the administration were calling our editors, telling them we were crazy, that our sources were no good, that we didn't know what we were writing about. The Justice Department was putting out false press releases saying there was nothing to this, that they'd investigated and could find no evidence . . . We ended up being out there all by ourselves, and eventually our editors backed away completely, and I ended up quitting the AP. It was probably the most difficult time of my career." He paused. "Maybe things have changed, I don't know."
I was nonplused. Bob Parry wasn't some fringe reporter. He'd won a Polk Award for uncovering the CIA assassination manual given to the contras, and was the first reporter to expose Oliver North's illegal activities. But what he'd just described sounded like something out of a bad dream.
A few days later I got a call from Coral. My one chance to hook up with Blandon had just fallen through. "He isn't going to be testifying at Rafael's trial after all," she told me. "Rafael's attorney won his motion to have the DEA and FBI release the uncensored files, and the U.S. attorney decided to drop him as a witness rather than do that. Can you believe it? He was one of the witnesses they used to get the indictment against Rafael, and now they're refusing to put him on the stand." I hung up the phone in a funk. But pretty soon the San Diego attorney who had been out of town when I was looking for Blandon returned my call. Juanita Brooks had represented Blandon's friend and co-defendant, a Mexican millionaire named Sergio Guerra. Another lawyer in her firm had defended Chepita Blandon. She knew quite a bit about the couple.
"You don't happen to know where he is these days, do you?"
"No, but I can tell you where he'll be in a couple of months. Here in San Diego. Entirely by coincidence, I have a case coming up where he's the chief prosecution witness against my client."
"You're kidding," I said. "What case is this?"
"It's a pretty big one. Have you ever heard of someone named Freeway Ricky Ross?"
Indeed I had. I'd run across him while researching the asset-forfeiture series in 1993. "He's one of the biggest crack dealers in L.A.," I said.
"That's what they say," Brooks replied. "He and my client and a couple others were arrested in a DEA reverse sting last year, and Blandon is the confidential informant in the case."
"How did Blandon get involved with crack dealers?"
"I don't have a lot of details, because the government has been very protective of him. They've refused to give us any discovery so far," Brooks said. "But from what I understand, Blandon used to be one of Ricky Ross' sources back in the 1980s, and I suppose he played off that friendship."
My mind was racing. Blandon, the contra fund-raiser, had sold cocaine to the biggest crack dealer in South-Central L.A.? That was too much.
"Are you sure about this?"
"I wouldn't want you to quote me on it," she said, "but, yes, I'm pretty sure. You can always call Alan Fenster, Ross' attorney, and ask him. I'm sure he knows."
Fenster was out, so I left a message on his voice mail, telling him I was working on a story about Oscar Danilo Blandon and wanted to interview him. When I a got back from lunch, I found a message from Fenster waiting. It said: "Oscar who?"
My heart sank. I'd suspected it was a bum lead, but I'd been keeping my fingers crossed anyway. I should have known; that would have been too perfect. I called Fenster back to thank him for his time, and he asked what kind of a story I was working on. I told him - the contras and cocaine.
"I'm curious," he said. "What made you think this Oscar person was involved in Ricky's case?"
I told him what Brooks had related, and he gasped.
"He's the informant? Are you serious? No wonder those bastards won't give me his name!" Fenster began swearing a blue streak.
"Forgive me," he said. "But if you only knew what kind of bullshit I've been going through to get that information from those sons of bitches, and then some reporter calls me up from San Jose and he knows all about him, it just makes me . . ."
"Your client didn't tell you his name?"
"He didn't know it! He only knew him as Danilo, and then he wasn't even sure that was his real name. You and Ricky need to talk. I'll have him call you." He hung up abruptly.
Ross called a few hours later. I asked him what he knew about Blandon. "A lot," he said. "He was almost like a godfather to me. He's the one who got me going."
"Was he your main source?"
"He was. Everybody I knew, I knew through him. So really, he could be considered as my only source. In a sense, he was."
"When was this?"
"'81 or '82. Right when I was getting going."
Damn, I thought. That was right when Blandon said he started dealing drugs.
"Would you be willing to sit down and talk to me about this?" I asked.
"Hell, yeah. I'll tell you anything you want to know."
At the end of September 1995 I spent a week in San Diego, going through the files of the Ross case, interviewing defense attorneys and prosecutors, listening to undercover DEA tapes. I attended a discovery hearing and watched as Fenster and the other defense lawyers made another futile attempt to find out details about the government's informant, so they could begin preparing their defenses. Assistant U.S. Attorney O'Neale refused to provide a thing. They'd get what they were entitled to, he promised, 10 days before trial.
"See what I mean?" Fenster asked me on his way out. "It's like the trial in Alice in Wonderland."
I spent hours with Ross at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. He knew nothing of Blandon's past, I discovered. He had no idea who the contras were or whose side they were on. To him, Danilo was just a nice guy with a lot of cheap dope.
"What would you say if I were to tell you that he was working for the contras, selling cocaine to help them buy weapons and supplies?" I asked.
Ross goggled. "And they put me in jail? I'd say that was some fucked-up shit there. They say I sold dope all over, but man, I know he done sold 10 times more than me. Are you being straight with me?" I told him I had documents to prove it. Ross just shook his head and looked away.
"He's been working for the government the whole damn time," he muttered.
Reprinted from the new book Dark Alliance by Gary Webb, with permission from the author and Seven Stories Press.