By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Falcon, too, has had his share of luck. Arrested twice and indicted on at least three other occasions for drug and firearms charges, he never spent more than a week in jail. Until now.
If the men are convicted on the two dozen drug charges amassed against them, they will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. To get them out of trouble this time, Falcon and Magluta have assembled a team of some of the nation's best-known defense attorneys, including Frank Rubino - who is in the midst of the Noriega trial here in Miami - and Albert Krieger - who is in New York defending the reputed godfather of organized crime, John Gotti, on trial for murder and racketeering.
"This is not a hopeless case," says prominent Boston attorney Martin Weinberg, another member of the defense team. "We believe we have a substantial chance of prevailing." Because the prosecution's case relies largely on the word of convicted informants who have agreed to testify in exchange for reduced prison terms, if the defense is able to discredit that testimony, they might succeed in winning an acquittal. "This case revolves around whether or not a jury will believe a criminal's accusations against people who are presumed innocent," says Weinberg. "There have been no seizures of substantial amounts of money or drugs from either Mr. Falcon or Mr. Magluta."
The trial, expected to begin in October and last at least three months, is sure to be a far different affair than Falcon and Magluta's first appearance in court on drug charges. Back in 1979 they were a pair of nobodies, two drug smugglers swept up in a massive and ultimately inane sting operation dubbed "Video Canary." Scores of people were arrested in the Miami/Metro-Dade police investigation, yet few served more than token sentences.
Falcon was 24 years old at the time; Magluta was 25. After twice dropping out of Miami High, Magluta had earned a diploma and was studying law enforcement at South Dade Community College. The respectful, well-mannered young men were represented by Melvyn Kessler, a highly regarded local attorney, who pointed out to Dade Circuit Judge James Jorgenson that this was his clients' first offense. Besides, Kessler said, the two men had roots in the community, and both had hard-working parents. Finding them guilty of conspiracy to sell cocaine, Judge Jorgenson sentenced Falcon and Magluta to five years in prison, and suspended all but fourteen months of the term. He also allowed them to remain free while they appealed their conviction.
The judge had no idea that those appeals would drag on for more than seven years, nor that when they were finally exhausted in the summer of 1987, Falcon and Magluta would go into hiding instead of turning themselves in to authorities. Nor did he realize that the two men standing before him were already fully committed to establishing a drug empire and had taken significant steps to see that it would succeed.
In fact, thanks to Falcon and Magluta's Colombian connections, millions of dollars had been pouring in for at least the past two years, so much cash that they had to take pains to conceal it. In 1978, according to federal prosecutors, the aspiring drug lords had found just what they needed: a willing and unscrupulous bank.
Falcon had known Ray Corona since 1972, when Corona was working for his father, Rafael, at the Bank of Miami. When the Coronas assumed control of Sunshine State Bank in 1978 - thanks largely to cash furnished by drug smuggler Jose Fernandez - it was a natural step for Falcon to ask his old friend Ray if he could make some secret drug-money deposits.
Ray Corona had been aware since 1976 that Falcon was in the business of selling cocaine, according to a 1991 sworn affidavit by DEA agent David Borah. Corona and Falcon had lived in the same condominium complex since 1977; Corona claimed he saw cocaine, scales, and other evidence of drug peddling in Falcon's apartment. In 1980, when he went with Falcon to a house to pick up some cocaine for a party, Coronas added, he saw kilos of cocaine in one of the rooms, stacked from floor to ceiling.
At first, Corona said, he had allowed Falcon and Magluta to store cash in safe deposit boxes at Sunshine. Not long afterward, he began making "loans" to the men, loans that were repaid to the bank out of the money hidden in the safe deposit boxes. It was one of the most basic laundering schemes available: Falcon and Magluta were simply swapping "dirty money," whose origins they could never explain to authorities, for "clean cash" that came from a series of seemingly legitimate bank loans. That money could be used to buy property or to invest in businesses. On one trip alone, in the summer of 1979, Corona claimed, Falcon and Magluta arrived at the bank with two suitcases containing $20 million in cash.
In 1984 Ray and Rafael Corona were indicted on money-laundering charges stemming from their association with Jose Fernandez. Ray Corona told Borah that a few days later, after the bank closed for the night, Falcon, Magluta, and several helpers arrived with suitcases that they stuffed with 50- and 100-dollar bills.