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
In Homestead - the last piece of American terra firma before the floating realm of the Florida Keys, a place of blurred borders and naturally occurring surrealism - the summer heat has been known to drive the worst townsfolk to baroque conspiracies, and the best to strange odysseys of self-discovery. And sometimes both at once.
In the summer of 1978, for example, the city's vice mayor was found to have bought and loaded with 40 tons of marijuana a certain shrimp boat, moored at the time of its seizure in Savannah, Georgia. Years after serving an eighteen-month prison term, the same former vice-mayor last week campaigned to win back a seat on the city council - and nearly succeeded. "Touched by the heat," says one sage observer, explaining both of the politician's strange episodes in a single breath. Summer in Homestead, like summer in all Southern farm towns, can be more than a tad tedious. The heat that by any rights should break in September never does; the torpor and boredom roll on well into October, inspiring unlikely dramas.
So it happened, in August 1990, that two long-time residents of Homestead sat talking at a Dunkin Donuts near the corner of North Kendall Drive and 137th Avenue. Their meeting in suburban Kendall was a chance to get out of sweltering, insular Homestead, almost like a trip to the big city for a pair of country cousins. But more important, the location of the out-of-town rendezvous served the purpose of secrecy. The two men - one a cop, one a drug smuggler - had come to discuss business.
Anyone who had bothered to observe the pair would have been intrigued by a collection of contrasts. At six-foot-three and 285 pounds, smuggler Rick Swarnes weighed nearly twice as much as Randy Chong, and stood a full head taller than the Homestead detective. Shaggy, blond, sunburned, and possessed of a blinding grin, Swarnes's visage was a direct counterpoint to Chong's poker face, which was topped by a neat thatch of raven-black hair. Chong, at age 33, was only a couple of years younger than Swarnes, but looked at least a decade less mature.
Throughout their professional lives, each man had made the most of the fact that he didn't look the part he played. Chong, the first Oriental cop in Homestead, was in fact a physical-fitness junkie, a firearms instructor, and a survivor of more than 200 heart-pounding SWAT missions. Yet his slim build, his odd, rolling gait, and the presence of a hearing aid at his ear gave him a deceptively feeble appearance. The fact that Chong looked more like a visiting mathematics professor from Boston than a veteran lawman made him ideal for undercover police work.
Nor did Rick Swarnes appear to be what he was - a fact that helped him ply his trade for years, unmolested. If he had combed his hair and lost his beer belly, Swarnes would resemble the blue-eyed quarterback of a Midwestern college football team, ten years after his last touchdown pass. "He doesn't look the part of a doper," Chong says of Swarnes. "He looks like a tourist coming down from somewhere. He's a clean-cut guy, not a stereotypical smuggler, not a dirt-bag." (Rick Swarnes is a pseudonym; federal and local authorities refuse to reveal the identity of the informant because of his ongoing participation in undercover drug cases.)
The burly smuggler was the descendant of white Southerners who migrated to South Florida in the early years of the century; born and reared in deep South Dade, he spoke with a drawl that wouldn't be misunderstood in Georgia or Alabama. Chong, by contrast, spoke with an accent straight out of Kingston, Jamaica, his birthplace. At roughly the same time Swarnes's forebears were moving to Florida, Chong's Chinese grandparents were being seduced into leaving their homeland by the promise of good wages for plantation sugar-cane cutters in Jamaica. The wages did not turn out to be as good as promised, but Chong's grandparents had little choice -they had to remain in the English colony. In 1975, when Chong was seventeen years old, his father moved the family from Jamaica to South Florida in search of a better life.
As Rick Swarnes wolfed down doughnuts and coffee, and Chong, a teetotaler who assiduously watched his diet, abstained from both unhealthful substances, the smuggler told the detective what he had refused to discuss on the telephone: An associate in Miami had given him the telephone number of a cartel broker in Colombia. The broker wanted Swarnes's help transporting a shipment of cocaine to Miami. A lot of cocaine.
In the years before a 1989 promotion to sergeant, Chong had worked in Homestead's narcotics bureau, occasionally using Swarnes as a confidential informant in drug cases involving up to four or five kilos of cocaine and a few thousand dollars in cash. Along the way, the Homestead Police Department had shunted several hundred dollars in seized funds to Swarnes for valuable information. Now Swarnes was talking about something quite different. "They wanted him to take anywhere from 400 to 2000 kilos from Colombia to the United States by way of Jamaica," Chong recalls. "This was the big time."
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.
As they drove toward home, an effervescent Swarnes talked nonstop about his meeting in Panama with five Colombian cocaine producers. It was just the kind of high-flying audacity at which Swarnes excelled, and Chong was more than a little disappointed he hadn't witnessed it. "At first they wanted him to go to Colombia, but he refused," Chong recalls. "We couldn't ask them to come to Miami or Puerto Rico, because it would have looked like we were trying to lure them into U.S. territory. We asked to meet in Jamaica, and the guy said he couldn't meet us there. He wouldn't explain why. So finally [Swarnes] goes to Panama, where all the options are discussed. Options from air drops to flying a plane to Colombia and picking it up, to flying a plane to Jamaica. Plan A seemed to be that a plane from Colombia and a plane from Miami would land simultaneously on a Jamaican airstrip, transfer the stuff, and take off again. They discussed radio frequencies, refueling, lots of things. But mainly they were checking him out. This is the guy who will be transporting their merchandise. They wanted to see if he knew his shit."
Both Homestead Police Chief Curtis Ivy and Chong's immediate boss, Maj. Chuck Habermehl, had vetoed Chong's plan to accompany Swarnes into Panama. "I was supposed to be on the trip, but my higher-ups thought it was kind of risky. There's no back-up down there. I would have been acting as a civilian, like a tourist. Customs wouldn't be there."
One reason U.S. Customs agents didn't attend the Panama meeting is that the agency never knew about the encounter until a year later, when it was described to them in an interview. While Chong claims Swarnes's plane ticket to Panama was paid for by "the government," Customs says it definitely did not reimburse the informant. Sources suggest that Chong, eager for the operation to move forward, probably paid the tab out of his own pocket. Customs agents also didn't learn, until weeks after the Panama trip, that Chong and Swarnes had moved in together. When asked about the unorthodox approach, one veteran federal undercover agent noted, "We don't move in with informants. It's not a good thing to get in the habit of doing. Did Chong get in too deep? Probably. And sometimes that's what it takes."
It also required some hardware. In early September, Chong convinced his superiors that the Homestead Police Department should purchase an aviation fuel pump and ship it to Jamaica for use in the drug operation. The request arose out of yet another overseas trip by Swarnes, this time to Chong's native land. In Jamaica, Swarnes met with Carl Brandon, a prominent businessman and suspected drug dealer from Ocho Rios, to discuss further details regarding how the shipment from Colombia would be handled. An old military airstrip near the city had been chosen for landing the planes from Colombia and Miami, but refueling threatened to become troublesome. "It was a seven-hour flight from Colombia, and they needed to refuel to go back," Chong explains. "So we had to have fuel for them once they got there, and fuel for us in Jamaica. And we had to get a pump to pump the fuel, which you can't buy in Jamaica. So we bought a pump up here with a long hose, and shipped it down there to take care of this problem."
But when Chong and Swarnes finally went to Jamaica together to pick up the cocaine, they traveled not by airplane but by commercial fishing boat - with undercover Customs agents acting as crew and skipper. Shortly after the police-purchased fuel pump arrived on the island, Carl Brandon called Chong and Swarnes to say Plan A had fallen through.
Previously, Brandon had felt sure he could bribe the necessary officials in the Jamaican military to guarantee the security of the airstrip. Now something had happened to make him doubt his abilities. So Brandon and the Colombian broker proposed flying the cocaine into another, undisclosed airfield, where it would be unloaded and hidden. Chong and Swarnes would then pick up the cocaine and transport it to Miami by boat, where they would use it as bait. After the broker's stateside associates had paid Chong for his smuggling services, Homestead police and Customs agents would arrest the broker's Miami connections and arrange for the seizure of Brandon in Jamaica.
By the time Chong and Swarnes set sail for Jamaica in a weather-beaten trawler, the Homestead Police Department had more than covered its debt for the fuel pump. Following a series of increasingly strident demands by Chong and Swarnes, the Colombian broker telephoned to say he was dispatching an emissary from New York to bring them $35,000 in front money to pay the crew of the fishing boat and help defray other expenses. On a bright afternoon in mid-September of last year, Faustino Contreras-Ordonez walked into La Carreta Restaurant on SW Eighth Street with two shopping bags filled with 50s and 100s. After a ride down the turnpike in Swarnes's car - with Chong frantically following close behind - Contreras-Ordonez turned over the money to Swarnes in a Howard Johnson motel room in Homestead and flew back to New York. The cash was only a taste of what was to come.
"We had a bunch of boxes, fish boxes, and long lines thrown around on the deck," Chong recalls of the first sea voyage to Jamaica. "It looked like a working boat. Customs had notified DEA in Jamaica that we were coming, just to make sure it wasn't a double rip - us trying to get the dope and DEA involved in trying to sell it; both good guys doing the same thing. Which has happened before." Once Chong and Rick Swarnes arrived at the municipal dock in Ocho Rios, however, things started to go wrong. A fierce storm that had battered the trawler on the way over threatened to become all the more dangerous on the return trip. And on the day the cop and the smuggler arrived in Jamaica, the island's telephone operators went on strike. It became almost impossible to place an overseas call.
"We call [Carl Brandon], but he hasn't heard anything," Chong remembers. "We try to call the Colombian, but it's hard to get out. We finally get through to Colombia, and they say they're having a little bit of a problem there. We said `Hey, look, we can't stay very long. We got a seven-day pass, that's it.' They say, `All right, all right, all right, just hang in there.'"
That evening an unidentified Jamaican called the hotel where Chong and Swarnes were staying, naming a time and place for a rendezvous. The informant and the Homestead cop were carrying neither guns nor cash - their role would be to simply transport the cocaine to Miami, then receive a fee of $1000 to $2000 per kilo for the smuggling job. "Me and [Swarnes] walk out to where they told us to be. This guy comes up in a pickup truck, we jump in, and he hauls ass. Now, [U.S. Customs agents] can't follow us, 'cause they're all on foot. And I don't know where he's taking us. I don't know if he's taking us out in the woods to shoot us or what he's going to do. Anyway, he rides around for a little and he parks. And he talks, asking about the boat. We say, `Yeah, we're all ready. This is the best time to do it because U.S. Coast Guard won't be out in that storm, and we'll head right through it, they're not going to stop us in this weather.' Then he dropped the bombshell. He told us he could not secure the airstrip, and would be forced to cancel the shipment." Frustrated, Swarnes and Chong headed home. But not before a boatload of Jamaican Customs officials approached the scruffy-looking pair and offered to load their trawler with bales of cheap marijuana. Chong politely declined.
Back in Miami, after a lull of a month or so during which it seemed the deal had fallen apart, the Colombian broker wired $15,000 to Chong and Swarnes to hire a crew for a return trip to Jamaica. "Before we got any front money, Customs had pretty much decided the Colombians were playing around on us," Chong recalls. "They were surprised when we got the $35,000 to start with. And when we got the additional $15,000 they were real happy again. It's gotta go now, they were thinking. Finally Brandon and the Colombian started saying, `Come on down.' I said, `Are you sure?' They would say, `Yes, come on down.' I would say, `Are you sure?' Finally I think they're ready. They're going to do it."
This time, however, Chong stayed in Miami to help coordinate by telephone the drug transfer in Jamaica with the Colombian, who by now seemed to trust Chong completely. "He's getting real personal with me now," Chong recalls. "He's inviting me down to Panama and South America for parties." Instead of Chong, Homestead sent Sgt. Scott Kennedy, another of the city's veteran SWAT team members with ample experience in undercover operations. Kennedy, feeling strangely naked without a gun - Jamaican law prohibits foreign law enforcement officials from carrying them on the island - stepped off the trawler in Ocho Rios the third week of October. The first sight to greet his eyes was a bloody knife fight between two men arguing over a coconut.
At their hotel near the docks, Brandon introduced Kennedy and Swarnes to the nervous Colombian pilot who had flown 400 kilos of cocaine into a Jamaican airstrip. All four men were eager for the cargo to start its journey to Miami. Brandon escorted the party to a roadhouse he owned a few miles down the coast from Ocho Rios. He pointed out a cliff jutting from a mountainside, and instructed Kennedy to bring the fishing boat there a half mile offshore that same night. Brandon and Kennedy agreed on a radio frequency they would use for any communications. "The last thing the pilot told us was that the Jamaicans had stolen 100 keys," Kennedy recalls. "But what are we going to do, report them? We had to take what we got, and we wound up with 300 keys."
An hour after sundown, with the running lights of the trawler turned off, Kennedy, Swarnes, and three undercover U.S. Customs agents cut their diesel engines a few hundred yards off the Jamaican coast. Within minutes they heard the sound of a small outboard motor. Then the prow of a long dugout canoe poked through the moonless gloom. Kennedy jumped down into the dugout and helped hoist the first of sixteen duffel bags onto the trawler. When the last one was on board, Kennedy shook hands with the two men before they sped away. Hours later, the cops and the duffel bags were sitting in the belly of a military cargo plane, taking off from the U.S. Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The operation was right on schedule.
In Miami the haggling began. "After a few days, the same guy who came down from New York with the front money calls me," Chong remembers. "He says, `Is everything okay?' We say, `Don't worry about it. Have you got the money?' They say, `We ain't got no money to pay you, but give us the dope and in three days you'll get paid.' We go, `No, no, no, it don't work like this. We're not giving it up.' They said, `Look, you need to give it to us.' We said, `Look, we're not giving it to you.' Finally the guy from Colombia called and said, `Look, please just give it to them.' I said, `No, I've got a bunch of pissed-off people here from the last trip that didn't get paid. I told 'em they're going to get paid good money, and aside from that little bit of front money you gave me, they ain't got shit. I need the money, man.'
"This goes on for a while, and all of a sudden it gets real silent," says Chong. "But we know it can't get cold, 'cause we have the dope. U.S. Customs is storing it for us. At this point, everywhere we went we would make sure we weren't being followed. The department supplied me with rental cars, which would change frequently."
At last Faustino Contreras-Ordonez, the New York connection, called Chong to arrange a face-to-face meeting in front of the movie theater at Cutler Ridge Mall. Sitting on cement benches in front of the theater, Chong and Swarnes demanded $500,000 for transporting the cocaine. A fourth man, never identified, accompanied Contreras-Ordonez to the meeting and spent his time glaring at the informant and the cop. "That guy proved to be the smartest one of all of them," Chong says. "He didn't like the whole idea, and he never showed up again. Later when we made the arrests, we learned he had said, `I don't like these assholes. Something's wrong.'" Contreras-Ordonez agreed to pay $300,000 in return for possession of most of the cocaine, and shortly thereafter pay for the rest. The deal was finally hammered out on the telephone November 13, in oblique and unintentionally humorous style.
Contreras-Ordonez: "No, no, no. The other guy is to see it and he pays when he sees the, the, the...shoes."
Swarnes: "Well, what I'm gonna do is, I'm gonna, I'm gonna give you a couple of those fish and I'm gonna keep one."
By some ironic and invisible rule of capitalist justice, Cutler Ridge Mall - specifically the northwest corner of the parking lot - became the site of the 1:00 p.m. exchange the next day. Chong and Swarnes loaded 188 kilos of cocaine into a green Oldsmobile supplied by Customs. The Homestead SWAT team loaded itself into a rented Winnebago. A selection of federal agents staked out the parking lot. Punctually, Contreras-Ordonez showed up with two carry-on satchels packed with cash, and a young sidekick later identified as Gerardo Martinez-Delgado. After flashing a glimpse of the cash to Swarnes and Kennedy, Contreras-Ordonez demanded a look at the cocaine.
"We take him to the car," Chong recalls. "He looks at the car very carefully. Front seat, back seat, around, under. He looks at the tag. Then he says, `Open the trunk.' I open the trunk, and I have several of the kilos right there in plain sight. I didn't want the defense lawyers to claim later that he hadn't seen the coke. Well, he goes nuts and says, `Close it! Close it!' At this point I know I'm being watched by the SWAT team, and he doesn't know that. But I don't know who else is there from his side doing countersurveillance on us.
"We're using cellular telephones, 'cause I can't see the other guys," Chong explains. "Kennedy calls me and says, `Someone's going to come over there. Give him the keys to the car.' This young-looking Latin guy with long hair comes over, and I give him the keys. He got in, put on his seat belt, started up, and drove away. They wanted to transfer the dope to another car, but we didn't want them to. We had been sure not to put much gas in the car, because who knows where the hell they're going to go with this stuff. At the same moment the guy drives away, one of our guys grabs the two satchels with the cash from Contreras-Ordonez. It's a done deal."
Unmarked cars loaded with Customs agents and Homestead cops pulled onto South Dixie Highway, and then the southbound lanes of Florida's Turnpike. Martinez-Delgado drove all the way to Homestead, darting on and off the turnpike as Contreras-Ordonez had no doubt instructed him to do. But he never caught sight of, or was able to shake, the men trailing him. Turning north from Homestead, Martinez-Delgado was soon heading for North Dade.
But the more Martinez-Delgado maneuvered, the more worried Chong and others became: "We thought he was going to run out of gas," Chong says. "It was running real close." Scott Kennedy began arranging, via radio, a complex plan by which Martinez-Delgado would be supplied with gas by an undercover cop posing as a helpful passerby in the event his tank ran dry. And just then Martinez-Delgado pulled into the driveway of a Miami Lakes tract house. Contreras-Ordonez and a third man, John Bohorquez, were already there, waiting to help haul the cocaine in cardboard boxes from the trunk of the car into the house.
Soon Martinez-Delgado and Contreras-Ordonez left the house, drove to a nearby Winn-Dixie, and beeped Chong from a pay phone. "They said they had counted the keys, and everything's okay, and hopefully they would be getting us some more money for the rest of the cocaine. We kept beeping this guy and beeping him, saying, `Look we need the rest of the money, we want to get rid of the remaining coke, when are you going to give us the rest of our money?'"
An hour later police watched as Martinez-Delgado and Contreras-Ordonez again emerged from the house, this time with a large suitcase. Homestead Police Chief Curtis Ivy decided the team could not risk letting their quarry slip away. The chief himself made the arrests, together with Customs's Joe Alaimo. A search of the suitcase revealed eight kilos. The rest remained in the house, where Bohorquez was subsequently arrested. In statements after their arrest, both Contreras-Ordonez and Martinez-Delgado said they had entered into the drug deal after being contacted by a mysterious man named "Coco," a man Chong and Swarnes would soon meet face to face.
Two days after the arrests, Chong called a familiar number in Colombia. He and Swarnes proceeded to utterly hornswoggle the cartel broker. "We said, `What the hell's going on? Your damn people came, took our car, and they never came back!'" Chong recalls. "`Where are they?' The guy's like, `You tell me.' He's like, `You set them up, you should know,' that's what he's insinuating. But we persisted. [Swarnes] was really convincing. This went on and on. Finally this guy goes, `Look, our friends are in the hospital,' meaning jail. We said, `Oh shit!' He wanted to know if we heard anything on the news. And then we started whining: `You got to do something! Those guys know our names, they have our numbers!' So he's trying to calm us down now. Me and Swarnes are passing the phone back and forth, and the informant is really putting on a show.
"He calls back that night and says, `Don't worry, man, they probably messed up on their side. You don't have anything to worry about.' We said, `Look, we've still got this dope left. We got a hundred kilos. We need the rest of our money. We need to go hide out.' The Colombian sort of drops his voice and says, `All right, I'll give you a number. This is my right-hand man, my main Miami connection. You can trust this guy.' And he gives us this beeper number."
The next day Chong and Swarnes met with a very suspicious Fernando "Coco" Estrada in the parking lot of Home Depot in Kendall. At first Estrada would not even talk with the two men. But thanks to Swarnes's gregarious wiles, Estrada was soon arranging a 25-kilogram deal with the pair. Estrada explained that he had a pickup truck with a secret compartment. He described a patch of industrial wasteland on Quail Roost Drive where Chong should leave the truck once it was loaded with coke. And then he took the men out for dinner.
"The plan was to put the dope in the truck and give it back to Coco," Chong says, "and he's going to give us the money - later on, not right away. We didn't like the idea of that much, but we wanted to find out who else he was involved with in Miami."
Chong and Swarnes dropped off the truck on Quail Roost Drive, then turned over the truck keys to Estrada at Captain Jimmy's Sub Station in South Dade. Estrada passed the truck keys to his associate, Carlos Ospina. Estrada and Ospina then disappeared in a car.
For the next two hours, Estrada and Ospina were challenging quarry. Homestead police and Customs agents followed their car to Quail Roost Drive, where Estrada climbed into the truck. After driving to the the Town & Country Center in Kendall, Estrada parked near the Wellesley Inn and walked into Sears, re-emerging an hour later with Ospina. For a moment Estrada and Ospina rendezvoused at the truck with three unidentified men. Then the mysterious trio drove away in the truck with the cocaine.
At some point, Chong believes, the three in the truck realized they were being followed and proceeded to abandon the cocaine - perhaps throwing it in a canal. Police at one point lost sight of the truck; a few minutes later they found it abandoned by the side of the road, its passengers having vanished.
Back at the Town & Country Center, Ospina and Estrada did something that a carload of police did not expect. The pair started walking directly toward the sedan that contained Customs Special Agent Joe Alaimo, Homestead Police Chief Curtis Ivy, and Maj. Chuck Habermehl. The threesome fairly reeked of law enforcement, and there was no good reason for them to be sitting in a car in the middle of a hot parking lot outside the Wellesley Inn with the engine turned off. And yet Estrada and Ospina, staring blankly at the authorities, walked right past them and into the hotel lobby. After checking into a room, they were joined by two young women. "They were partying in there the whole time, while we had the SWAT team outside, ready to go," Chong recalls. "We start beeping them saying, `Look man, we need the money, we need to fly somewhere, the heat's bad.' They said, `Don't worry, we got some money coming down.'"
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.