By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
For Swarnes, the meeting with Chong was critical. After recent arrests by both local and federal authorities, the smuggler was trying to build up good will with law enforcement officials by assisting as many agencies as possible with undercover drug investigations. At the same time, he was trying to make the process profitable. Drug operations involving large cash seizures were the only way he could hope for a cut of the proceeds, and the deal he was describing to Chong had all the hallmarks of a classic seizure. In addition to fear and greed, Swarnes was motivated by daredevil pride: The more he played the dangerous game of confidential informant, the more thrilling it became. Swarnes's reputation for success was growing among federal agents, and he envisioned himself, in his frequent grandiose moments, as a potential successor to Barry Seals, the legendary drug informant assassinated by a cartel hit man in 1987. In short, Swarnes was trying to launch his career as a high-level snitch.
The meeting was a turning point for Chong, too. The vast majority of local cops would never have the chance to take several hundred kilos of cocaine off American streets. This case, by virtue of his past association with Swarnes, had fallen into his bailiwick. The informant, Chong would later explain, "felt comfortable with Homestead because he had worked here before. He knew people in the unit. He felt at home here." And Chong was convinced that Homestead P.D., a department transforming itself from a Podunk cop shop into a progressive law enforcement agency, now had the resources and finesse to handle a large international drug case. It would be necessary to set up a meeting between Swarnes and federal agents, but there was no way Chong was going to simply hand over this case. On a more personal level, Chong missed his days working undercover. His hard-won promotion to sergeant had put him back in uniform, and, ironically, made his professional life somewhat less exciting.
And there was that oppressive summer heat.
On his way to Miami International Airport one afternoon in mid- August, Randy Chong was thinking about the meeting with the feds that had taken place a few days earlier. None of the growing number of law enforcement officials involved with the case could now remember who had first suggested the Dadeland Mall food court as a rendezvous. "It was not exactly the ideal place for this kind of thing," recalls Joe Alaimo, a senior special agent for the United States Customs Service. But if the location of the meeting was less than perfect, the outcome had been definitely to Chong's liking.
Alaimo and the other Customs agents had expressed great interest in Rick Swarnes's entree into the Colombian drug world. Their interest was piqued by the fact that neither Swarnes nor any of the feds had a clear idea who the Colombian broker was. By the morning of the Dadeland meeting, both Swarnes and Chong - with the cop playing the role of the smuggler's favored associate - had spoken briefly with the broker by telephone on several occasions. (Neither Chong nor Swarnes spoke Spanish, but the Colombian spoke excellent English.) Officials from U.S. Customs Group 7, the busy smuggling unit located at Homestead Air Force Base, questioned Swarnes about his other contacts, and were impressed. But for the time being, they had told Chong, they would wait and see whether any concrete plans for a deal materialized. That was all the invitation Chong had needed.
At the airport Rick Swarnes got off a plane from Panama, settled his large frame into the passenger seat of Chong's rental car, and the two sped away. Chong weaved through the streets of Miami to lose any car that might be tailing him, then headed south on Florida's Turnpike toward Princeton, an old railroad community straddling U.S. 1 in South Dade. Chong and Swarnes were heading home. A few days after the Dadeland Mall meeting, the two men had decided their lives would be simpler if they moved in together. Both now occupied an apartment a couple of miles from Chong's Princeton bungalow. Chong says he thought the novel arrangement was necessary to the successful prosecution of the case. "He [the Colombian connection] had my home number," Chong says. "He would call me and I would get ahold of [Swarnes] for him. He would call from Colombia like 5:30, 6:00 in the morning. I was making a lot of calls to them, too, and the department was paying the phone bills. I'm sure the phone company was beginning to wonder: calls to Jamaica, Colombia - lots of 'em - every day. Anyway, after a while it became really annoying, because they wanted to talk to [Swarnes] a lot. So he just moved in. I'm an individual person, that's why I don't have roommates. What I did, I did for the job. We're a small department, we couldn't afford to house him somewhere else for that period.
"[Swarnes] needed to answer the phone with me because all these phone calls from Colombia were being recorded," Chong adds. "For them to stand up in court, I had to be recording them. He can't record them and give them to me. They'll tear him apart on the stand. My credibility is a hell of a lot stronger on the stand, I would hope, than he would be. I had to be there when the calls were made. And I volunteered, they didn't ask me. I said, `Hey look, this guy's an old neighbor. It would save the department a lot of money.'" Chong referred to an odd coincidence several years before when he was working undercover. Before the cop ever met the smuggler, Swarnes had moved in a few doors down the street from Chong. At the time, eyeing one another in the morning on the way to work, Swarnes had taken Chong for a musician; Chong assumed Swarnes was a building contractor.