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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
As the cops outside watched the hotel, they were surprised to see Estrada emerge from the lobby, cross the parking lot, and appear to fiddle with something inside a parked car. A woman also exited the lobby, walked to a Mitsubishi van two spaces away from the drug dealer, and loaded some small packages inside. Estrada and the woman then turned and walked back to the hotel together, virtually side by side. The spectacle was acutely disturbing because one of the Customs agents quickly recognized the woman as the wife of a Washington, D.C., DEA agent. And it seemed to the watchful eyes of the stakeout team that the boxes the woman was loading into the van might well contain stacks of cash. "Immediately it came into my mind - do we have a dirty DEA agent here?" recalls Alaimo.
The question was resolved when the woman got in the Mitsubishi van and departed - and was pulled over by heavily armed police. As it turned out, the DEA agent and his wife, just transferred to Miami from Washington, knew nothing of the ongoing drug deal at the hotel. "She was a little bit shaken up, but she took it well," one cop recalls. "She said, `Is this what I can expect in Miami?' We said, `Yeah. In Miami you have the dopers and DEA agents staying at the same hotel, with Customs and local police keeping them under surveillance.'"
Around midnight, Ivy and Alaimo decided the dealers at the Wellesley Inn might never come through with any more cash. They ordered the Homestead SWAT team to break down the door of room 107 and arrest them.
"Later we called Colombia," Chong says. "The guy is mad. He's really mad. He says, `Our father is very angry. He wants to talk to you two.' We say, `We don't know nothing about it,' but he ain't giving in this time. The guy goes, `Look, you're going to hide out down here.' We said, `We got families.' He says, `Bring your families with you. We'll take care of you down here.' We told him we'd pass. And that was pretty much the end of the story. We knew we were burnt, so the department changed our phone numbers."
There were two more arrests before the operation ended, one of them unexpected. In Ocho Rios, businessman Carl Brandon was seized by the Jamaican Constabulary the morning of November 15. Even after he was handcuffed and put in a jail cell, Brandon remained incredulous that his freedom was being taken away - after all, he had never even touched the cocaine. "This was one of the first cases in which Jamaican prosecutors have used the country's old conspiracy laws against drug dealers," Alaimo notes. Brandon's trial was scheduled to continue this week in Ocho Rios.
Last month, while scores of townsfolk crowded into the Ocho Rios courthouse to hear the testimony of Homestead Police Sgt. Scott Kennedy in the Brandon trial, Kennedy suddenly picked out a face in the curious throng. It was one of the two men who had helped load the duffel bags of cocaine from the dugout canoe into the trawler. After a brief chase down the courthouse steps, Jamaican police arrested the man.
The five men arrested in Miami all refused to cooperate with authorities in naming their accomplices. All were convicted of drug possession or other charges. The five cocaine producers Swarnes met in Panama remain free. The Colombian broker, whom federal authorities refuse to name, is a fugitive in Colombia, where he had previously been convicted on separate drug charges and subsequently jumped bond.
Two weeks ago, on Halloween night, Homestead's Randy Chong was officially named Florida Officer of the Year at a ceremony in Tampa sponsored by the 6000-member Florida Retail Federation. The honor comes with a $4000 check. A memorandum by Chong's superiors describing his exploits during the past year includes the fact that Chong's undercover work led to a permanent split with his fiancee. It also notes that Chong's cocaine seizure was the largest in Homestead history. And that the Homestead Police Department and U.S. Customs evenly split the seized $300,000.
"I've worked dope deals before, but they were all Mickey Mouse compared to this," Chong says. "It's rare in Homestead to see more than a kilo or two. And this was the pure stuff, not cut at all. It depends on the time of the year, but it might have been worth about six million dollars."
"Federally it was no small potatoes either," says Joe Alaimo, the Customs senior special agent who has worked South Florida smuggling cases since the early Seventies. "We got drugs, money, cars, information. Carl Brandon was a pretty big fish."
Chong says it's been a while since he's seen his old comrade Rick Swarnes. "He invited me to go flying with him a couple times last winter," Chong muses. "He doesn't have a pilot's license, and he's crashed five or six planes. I said no." The former smuggler, now known to his handlers in the shadow world of big-league federal drug enforcement simply as "749," is reported to be working for another agency on other cases. Shortly after the arrests in Miami and Jamaica last autumn, a rumor began circulating to the effect that cocaine interests in Cali, Colombia had placed a million-dollar bounty on Swarnes's head. Chong and several other officials say they were at first skeptical of the rumor, but have since confirmed its veracity.