Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The "Drug Wars" (3), Las Vegas-1971

"He put me in my own jail"

From 1970-73, prior to joining DEA, I was working as a US Customs agent at Terminal Island, California (near Long Beach). I worked in a group that investigated drug smuggling by private or rented aircraft (which mostly consisted of marijuana being smuggled out of Mexico in quantities of hundreds of pounds per load.)

In our group, we had an older agent named Don (when I say older, I guess he was in his late 30s at the time.) Don was heavy set, with a butch haircut, dressed like a cowboy-usually in black and was known for his blunt talk. Though a nice guy, he was not known for his tact. He also had the dubious knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the early 1970s, as plane highjackings had become a problem, the Treasury Department instituted its Skymarshall program principally on flights between Europe and the US. Don served as a skymarshal on several occasions. One evening in Geneva, Switzerland, Don walked into his hotel bar to relax after a long transcontinental flight from New York. There were only a few people in the bar, so as Don placed his order, he told the waiter to serve drinks to everyone in the house on him. Well, seated at the bar was a Russian military attache and his ladyfriend. When the drinks arrived, and the waiter explained that the drinks were courtesy of the American, the Russian reacted angrily.

"No American is going to buy me a drink", said the Russian as he threw the glass at Don breaking a wall mirror in the process. After the big fight that ensued, Don wound up paying for much more than the drinks.

Then there was the time when Don walked into a Jewish deli in New York City, an elderly lady took one look at him and screamed, "It's Martin Bormann!!" Faster than you can say mistaken identity, the police were on the scene to ID Don and calm the old lady down. (Martin Bormann was Hitler's Chancellary adjutant who disappeared during the fall of Berlin in 1945. It was not confirmed until decades later-after this event-that he had, in fact, died in Berlin.)

But my greatest memory of Don was the one I was personally involved in. One night in 1971, our group was conducting surveillance on the home of a known smuggler based on information that he was going to pick up a load of marijuana being brought in from Mexico via private plane. It was a rainy night, and at about 9pm, the suspect and another person came out of the house and drove off in a van for who knew where.

As we followed them , they drove east from the Los Angeles area, past San Bernadino on I 15 in the direction of Las Vegas. Along the way, we had our radio operator call Don at home because he lived in that area in Apple Valley. Within minutes, he joined in the moving surveillance.

Keep in mind, we had no idea where the suspects were headed for their pick-up point to meet the plane carrying the marijuana. Due to the terrain of the Southwest, it was either a small uncontrolled airport or possibly a dry-lake bed in the vast desert area, where planes could land undetected.

Around 2 am, we found ourselves entering Las Vegas, where the van stopped and the suspects entered a Denny's restaurant to eat. At this time, we contacted the head of the US Customs office in Las Vegas, who joined in the surveillance.

While we were sitting in our cars conducting surveillance in the parking lot, we attracted the attention of a local police officer ( I will call him Officer X)who approached one of our cars, at which time one of our agents identified himself as a Customs agent conducting surveillance. The officer was puzzled by the presence of Customs agents so far from the border, but backed off. Yet, somewhat suspicious, he didn't leave the area, but parked nearby watching the scene.

After a while, the suspects got back in their van and continued their trip, with us following. Also following was Officer X, who fell in behind our cars. A short distance away, he decided to stop the last car in our surveillance-which was driven by Don. What happened next was not pretty.

As the officer approached Don's car, Don said something to the effect that the officer should go back to writing parking tickets and let the "big boys" worry about real crime. Not only was this undiplomatic, but it was the last thing you want to say to a brother law enforcement officer. The reaction was immediate:

Officer X: "Get out of the car and let me see some ID."

At this point, Don told the officer that he was on surveillance,and if he didn't let him go immediately, he (Don) was going to put him (the Las Vegas officer) in his own jail. Don also got on the radio and asked our Las Vegas agent to return to the scene or he would put this officer "in his own jail". (I should add at this juncture that unfortunately, these incidents do occasionally happen between officers of different law enforcement jurisdictions-unfortunate as they are.)

To make a long story short, it took our Las Vegas agent and a local police supervisor to iron out the dispute-as we continued our moving surveillance.

As time dragged on in the wee hours of the morning, we continued following the suspect van through the desert, mostly with our lights out, now joined by a helicopter. At one point, about 4 am, in the middle of nowhere, I saw a couple of buildings off the road lit up as if it were Christmas. I asked over the radio, "What are those lights off to the side of the road?"

"That's a whorehouse, you idiot!"


Again, to make a long story short, the next day, the van met a plane that landed on a dry lake bed loaded with hundreds of pounds of marijuana. As they drove back in the direction of California, they were stopped, arrested, and taken to the Clark County Jail in Las Vegas for processing.

A few hours later, we started making our way back home to LA. Don stopped at the Las Vegas Airport to make a call to the jail trying to contact the agent in charge of the case who was booking the prisoners. The call was answered by none other than Officer X- who had just been disciplinarily transferred to the jail for interfering with another law enforcement officer.

" Clark County Jail, Officer X speaking."

Don: "Officer X! You SOB! I told you I'd put you in your own jail!"

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