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
It was a day for redemption, a chance to win back a little respect after years of embarrassment. Everyone wanted to be in on the arrest of Willy and Sal, to be able to say they'd been there when the legend died. So on a rainy afternoon last October, as darkness fell over Sal Magluta's palatial La Gorce Island home in Miami Beach, dozens of federal, state, and local agents stood by as a specially trained, 25-man assault team from the U.S. Marshals Service stormed the house and captured the elusive Magluta. Five hours later, with the rain still pouring down, the same team of agents raided the Fort Lauderdale mansion of Willy Falcon.
Inside the houses, they found nearly one million dollars in cash and jewelry, a small amount of cocaine, and a kilo of gold. Chump change. Because in the age of the cocaine cowboy, Falcon and Magluta weren't just hired hands. They owned the ranch. From 1978 right up until the day the two were finally arrested, federal prosecutors say the Miami Senior High School dropouts acquired more than $2.1 billion in cash and assets by smuggling at least 75 tons of cocaine into the United States.
In their heyday, according to prosecutors, Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta controlled the largest cocaine smuggling organization on the East Coast and one of the top five in the world, a massive assemblage of planes and boats that funneled coke from the Colombian cartels in Medellin and Cali to the streets of Miami, New York, Washington, D.C., Charleston, South Carolina, and dozens of other cities across the United States.
Investigators say the partners laundered their profits through offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations established in the Bahamas, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Republic of Panama. The Panamanian corporations were set up in the early Eighties, with help from attorney Guillermo Endara. By the end of the decade Endara would be installed as the president of that nation after Manuel Noriega's regime was overthrown by invading U.S. troops because of Noriega's alleged involvement with drug traffickers.
The recent discovery of Endara's ties to Falcon and Magluta created a scandal in Panama and continues to be a source of humiliation for the United States government. Despite the fact that he acted as treasurer for some of them, Endara says he didn't know the companies he helped incorporate were in any way connected to money laundering and drug trafficking. He also claims he never met Falcon or Magluta, and says he didn't know the companies were established for their benefit. "I never knew them," Endara told U.S. News & World Report, which this past December offered the first detailed account of the Panamanian president's link to the two smugglers. "They never called our office."
At home in South Florida, prosecutors say, Falcon and Magluta hid millions of dollars in local banks they secretly controlled. Loans from those banks financed construction companies and management firms that built or bought millions of dollars worth of property across Dade County. Federal agents have seized houses in Coral Gables, Flagler Waterway Estates, and Doral Woods, penthouses on Brickell Key Drive, and a ranch in South Dade, as well as apartment complexes in Hialeah and Miami. Falcon and Magluta also owned a condominium in Vail; a farm, complete with airstrip, south of Lake Okeechobee; and real estate in the Florida Keys. (See accompanying sidebar, page 22.)
Falcon and Magluta constructed their empire, not while maintaining a low profile, but while basking in the public spotlight. Throughout the early and mid-Eighties, both men, and many others within their organization, were stars on the powerboat racing circuit - the preferred sport of drug smugglers. Falcon won the 1986 Offshore Challenge off the Florida Keys; Magluta won three national championships and was a member of the commission that oversees the American Power Boat Association.
Their ability to operate in plain view of local police and federal agents gave them the aura of modern-day Untouchables. "They were like gods in the doper community," says Sean Convoy, a supervisor for the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami. "All the other smugglers talked about how invincible they were. All you'd hear was, `Willy and Sal this' and `Willy and Sal that.' I don't think there was a police agency here that didn't have something going at some time to try and catch them."
Agents who took part in the October raids say that when the two men were finally arrested, they offered no resistance and seemed to be in a state of shock. Magluta was found, cold and shivering, hiding in the bushes in his yard. And standing in the rain outside his house, handcuffed, dripping wet in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, the five-foot-nine-inch Falcon no longer seemed so mythical, either. "You were number one," special agent Humberto Rapado, of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, whispered in Spanish as he led Falcon away, "but I got you now."
Time will tell whether the government will get to keep Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. Holding on to them has never been easy. In 1988, while he was a fugitive from a nine-year-old Miami drug conviction, Magluta bumped into a couple of detectives at a local office-supply store. Recognizing him, the cops carted him off to jail. Days later, however, he was inadvertently released after court records were mysteriously altered to say he had already served his full, fourteen-month sentence. Magluta remained free for another three years.
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.
Ray and Rafael Corona were convicted in 1987, and both are still in federal custody. Ray Corona is currently serving a sixteen-year sentence at a federal prison in Atlanta. He is expected to be a pivotal witness against Falcon and Magluta in their upcoming trial.
THE EASY WAY OUT
Augusto Jay, however, will not appear as a witness. Described by federal prosecutors as a top lieutenant in the Falcon-Magluta organization, Jay was indicted and convicted for drug smuggling in 1988. Jay, 35 years old, is serving a life sentence at the Marianna Federal Correction Institute west of Tallahassee. Asked several times to cooperate with authorities in the Falcon-Magluta prosecution, he refused.
"The thing that was surprising and disappointing to me," says Ken Bell, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Jay in North Carolina, "was at the time of his sentence, Jay was 32 years old, he had a wife and two young kids, and he chose to serve a life sentence without parole rather than cooperate. It was misplaced loyalty and a perverted sense of honor."
In refusing to trade what he knew about his bosses for a lighter sentence, Jay merely highlighted a problem that federal agents had been encountering throughout their pursuit. From the outset, Falcon and Magluta surrounded themselves with people they could trust - mostly family members and childhood friends. Many, like Augusto Jay, shared the common bond of having fled Cuba as young children in the late 1950s and having grown up in Little Havana.
"We got caught up in the middle of the Cuban revolution," Jay says by phone from Marianna. "We were kind of transplanted here and left up in the air. We didn't have a real foundation in this country. We were being taught one thing in the house and we were watching another thing on TV. If you want to have a pretty girl, you have to have a nice car," he continues. "We didn't know what the meaning of all this was. The only way to get equality was through money, I thought." Drug smuggling, he says, was "the easy way out. You fall for it and you get trapped in this lifestyle, and then it snowballs."
Investigators believe Falcon and Magluta started off as small-time dope peddlers in high school. Of the two, Falcon was the charmer, the ambassador of the fledgling organization, the one who typically would establish important contacts. Once Falcon had set up a meeting, it would be Magluta who negotiated the fine points of the deal, weighing the risks against the benefits.
On his own, it's unlikely either man would have accomplished much. But together they were almost unstoppable. They worked their organization like any business, developing the equivalent of a corporate philosophy and a vision. They treated people fairly, recognizing the fact that violence is counterproductive. If you don't steal and you don't rob and you don't kill anybody or threaten anybody, Augusto Jay explains, you reduce the risk of having those things happen to you. "If you're a nasty person," says Jay, "you're going to have to deal with nasty people."
Not that the pair was immune to the nastiness inherent in their line of work, especially as business burgeoned. In 1985 Falcon's mother was kidnapped by a rival drug faction. The abduction was never reported to police, but according to law enforcement sources, Falcon paid a $500,000 ransom for his mother's safe return. Sources also say there were unsuccessful attempts to snatch Falcon himself.
Jay says that since his conviction, he has tried to enrich his life through prayer and Bible study, and he now counsels younger convicts about the evil excesses of the drug lifestyle. But religion has drawn another line for Jay to walk. God, he says, would not want him to testify against Falcon and Magluta. And if he violated that belief, the penalty would be far greater than anything mortal man could level against him.
Jay also believes that the U.S. government steamrolls drug defendants, violates their rights, and lies about them. By way of example, he cites prosecutors' claims that Falcon and Magluta accumulated $2.1 billion from their drug enterprise. "They're crazy," Jay responds. "$2.1 billion! That's just mad. That's just completely mad. The bigger the case, the bigger the glory for whoever is behind it. I'm not saying that no wrongs have been committed, I'm just saying they've been exaggerated."
When he died in 1980, Earl Dyess, Sr., sheriff of Hendry County for the previous twenty years, was hailed as a great lawman and a tireless fighter in the war against drugs. At Dyess's funeral, an aide to then-Gov. Bob Graham lamented, "Florida lost a friend and one of its top law enforcement officers."
In 1984 Jack Devoe, who owned his own aviation company at Opa-locka Airport, began cooperating with federal agents. During the late Seventies and early Eighties, Devoe told authorities, he and his men worked for Falcon, Magluta, and Augusto Jay, smuggling cocaine into South Florida. While they used several sites, their principal "off-load" point, Devoe said, was Falcon and Magluta's ranch near Clewiston, just south of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County.
Typically, when one of his pilots flew a load of cocaine from Colombia or Bolivia - usually with a stopover in the Bahamas - Devoe would fly cover, or countersurveillance, during the south Florida leg of the trip. By watching for DEA or Coast Guard planes, he could warn a pilot away from the ranch so that its landing strip wouldn't be discovered. Once the plane was on the ground, Devoe claimed, there was no reason to worry. "They told me that the sheriff was on the payroll to guard the road or to assist them in the smuggling at the ranch," Devoe stated in a 1989 sworn deposition. For a brief time, he added, the operation was halted when the sheriff died. "[Falcon and Magluta] said it will be some time before the new sheriff is on the payroll," Devoe stated. "I believe it was a month or so before we did another trip."
Devoe is currently in the federal witness protection program, after having testified at numerous trials across the United States, including that of Carlos Lehder, one of the founding members of the Medellin cartel and one of Falcon and Magluta's principal suppliers.
Although he never named the "sheriffs," investigators say Devoe was referring to Earl Dyess, Sr., and his son, Earl Jr. (After the elder Dyess was stabbed to death outside his house in 1980, his son replaced him and has been re-elected ever since.) In 1984 the Florida Department of Law Enforcement quietly began investigating Devoe's claims of corruption in Hendry County, but Russell Clark, a former FDLE agent who led the investigation, says that because Devoe was quoting his bosses and never actually saw either of the Dyesses, it was impossible to corroborate the allegation that Falcon and Magluta controlled the sheriffs. "It very well could have been some deputies," Clark says.
The issue became moot a few years later, investigators say, when Falcon and Magluta sold their ranch near Lake Okeechobee and moved their operations closer to home.
THE PANAMANIAN CONNECTION
With their illicit importation business booming, Sunshine State Bank couldn't possibly launder and conceal all the proceeds. Ray Corona told federal agents that he had introduced Falcon and Magluta to Miami attorney Juan Acosta, so that Acosta could help them take advantage of offshore bank accounts and corporations.
Acosta was of particular assistance in setting up Panamanian corporations through his friend Guillermo Endara. Enterprise Ramadan Inc., Pilea S.A., and Hassid Enterprise Inc. were three of the Panamanian corporations incorporated by Acosta through Endara's law firm. Each company was involved in buying property in and around Miami, the ownership of which was later transferred to members of Falcon's and Magluta's families.
The 62-year-old Acosta was gunned down in his northwest Miami office in 1989, in front of his secretary. "He was very distinguished. He was very nice. I don't know why anybody would want to kill him," his housekeeper said at the time. The case is still open. Miami homicide detective Ron Illhardt believes the murder was the work of a Colombian hit squad - Acosta had reportedly set up a deal to smuggle a load of cocaine through the Bahamas but the shipment was intercepted by U.S. officials and the Colombians blamed him.
Defense attorney Frank Rubino, who will begin preparing for the Falcon-
Magluta trial after he completes his work on the Noriega case, says he will attempt to subpoena Guillermo Endara as a witness. In spite of Endara's claims to the contrary, Rubino says Endara met with Falcon and Magluta on several occasions and was aware he was dealing with drug traffickers. "We can't force him to come up here," Rubino says, "but I'd like to ask him a few questions as to his relationship with Willy and Sal and whether he's willing to vouch for the things he's done for them, and for their character."
The Panamanian president's endorsement of his clients would carry some weight with an American jury, Rubino speculates; it was, after all, the United States government that put him in power. But Rubino admits seeing Endara on the witness stand is unlikely. "I think the government will do their very best to shield him," he says, "and I'll tell you why: they sure don't want to invade again and replace him with someone else."
Besides the Panamanian connection, Falcon and Magluta availed themselves of dummy corporations in the West Indies and the Caribbean. In 1983 an investigation into a bank robbery and murder in England led Scotland Yard to the door of Shaun Murphy, who had helped the thieves launder cash through offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands. When Murphy, feeling the squeeze, turned informant for British authorities, he also had plenty of information for American lawmen.
Most of Murphy's business had been conducted with Americans, and when he opened his files to DEA inspection in 1986, they read like a Who's Who of the U.S. drug trade. The biggest case that initially spun out of the so-called Isle of Man investigation were the arrest, indictment, and conviction of powerboat racer and pot smuggler Ben Kramer and Miami lawyer Mel Kessler, who had become a money launderer for his wealthy, crooked clients.
Although the issue wasn't raised at Kessler's trial, two of his clients were Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta - whom Kessler had continued to represent after the 1979 drug trial. Defense attorneys believe that Kessler, who is serving a 30-year prison term, is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify against his ex-clients at their trial. While federal officials won't confirm this, they eagerly point out that attorney-client privilege does not extend to a criminal conspiracy (such as money laundering) between a lawyer and his client. "It would not surprise me at all that he may be a witness," attorney Frank Rubino comments.
Based on documents Murphy provided, prosecutors claim that the Murphy, along with Kessler and Juan Acosta, assisted Falcon and Magluta in setting up dozens of offshore corporations in the Netherlands Antilles, the Bahamas, and the British Virgin Islands. Once drug money was smuggled to these countries and placed in dummy corporation accounts, it would be transferred from one Falcon-Magluta corporation to another until its trail was impossible to trace.
The drug dealers' assets were so extensive, claims one federal investigator who requested anonymity, that Falcon and Magluta probably aren't aware of just how much they own. "We found 163 corporations, either offshore or domestic, that they had connections to," the investigator says.
During the 1980s, when law enforcement agents wanted to know who was involved in drug smuggling, all they had to do was head down to the Florida Keys and take in a few powerboat races. Among the princes, sheiks, and wealthy businessmen who found the sport an exciting diversion were some of the big-time drug runners of all time.
George Morales set a world record during a 1985 race from Miami to New York, piloting a 46-foot catamaran through 1257 miles of rough water in less than twenty hours. Hailed by Motor Boating and Sailing magazine as the best speedboat driver in the world, Morales pleaded guilty in 1987 to charges of drug trafficking and tax evasion. After years of smuggling marijuana and Quaaludes into the United States from Colombia, he was arrested while working on a deal to bring more than a ton of cocaine into South Florida. Like fellow racer Augusto Jay, Morales, who was sentenced to a sixteen-year prison sentence, claimed honor would prevent him from snitching on any of his business associates. "I'm not willing to testify against no one," he told a federal judge at his sentencing. "I have my principles, you know." (It appears that prison eventually loosened those principles: Morales's sentence was reduced to seven years after he agreed to cooperate with federal agents, and he was released in December.)
Ben Kramer won the 1984 American Power Boat Association's World Cup and a national championship in 1986. Not merely content to pilot boats to victory, Kramer invested millions constructing a marina and factory on Thunderboat Row, the fabled North Miami Beach street that is the heart of the powerboat-racing industry. Those millions, federal prosecutors would argue successfully, were the profits from tons of marijuana Kramer smuggled into the United States.
Brazen and arrogant, Kramer once smuggled 45 tons of pot into New York aboard a barge the size of a football field. He believed - and rightly so, at the time - that police and U.S. Customs agents would never suspect that a barge whose decks were laden with a ton of cement had its ballast tanks filled with Colombian buds. Kramer was convicted in 1990 on racketeering and drug-smuggling charges and is in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. (Kramer's name also surfaces frequently in connection to the murder of racer and boat builder Don Aronow, who was gunned down Feb. 3, 1987 on Thunderboat Row in the midst of designing the Blue Thunder, a powerboat that would be used by federal drug agents to interdict drug traffickers. Kramer allegedly offered to buy the company from Aronow so that he could stop production of the boat. Aronow initially agreed but later reneged, costing Kramer $600,000.)
"At one time, two-thirds of our national champions were convicted drug smugglers," asserts John Crouse, powerboat racing historian and author of Searace: A History of Offshore Powerboat Racing. Often, Crouse says, while smugglers chopped through the waves for fun and bragging rights, lawmen roamed the parking lots, jotting down license-plate numbers, taking notes, and snapping photos.
"The offshore powerboat racing machine was really the catalyst for the major drug movement in the United States," Crouse says. In the 1970s, marijuana was the primary Colombian import, usually hauled to the United States by freighter. Pot-laden ships anchored off the coast in international waters and off-loaded bales of cargo onto smaller boats to sneak ashore. "That meant they had to have fast boats in the middle of the night that could outrun the law, and that's where the offshore racers came in," says Crouse. "The same guy that raced on the weekends would be out running at night. They'd pick up 50 grand a night." When cocaine - and airplanes - began to dominate the market, Crouse adds, powerboat drivers continued to be employed to ferry cargo from landing strips on offshore islands to the mainland.
The way bankers and brokers might socialize at a country club with other bankers and brokers, Falcon, Magluta, and other competitors gathered at marinas, comparing boats, boasting about their business exploits, and betting on each other's races. Falcon raced under the team name Cougar; Magluta's team was Seahawk.
Money, of course, was no problem, despite the fact that boats sell for $500,000, and most teams have more than one boat. (Engines can cost another $300,000. Even a propeller can cost as much as $10,000.) "You're looking at a million dollars just to be competitive," says John Crouse. "And that's not competitive competitive. That's not being the ace of aces. That's just running with the hot dogs."
For a time Falcon and Magluta were among the sport's very best. "They had the best boats, the best equipment," says Marc Mercury, president of the Offshore Power Boat Racing Association. "They were fierce competitors. They were there to win. They would hang it right on the edge, pushing it to the limit. Like my grandmother told me: `If you go to fight to win, you're gonna lose; if you fight to kill, you're gonna win.'"
(The members of Falcon and Magluta's organization all fought hard. Juan Barroso, a navigator aboard Magluta's Seahawk team, was arrested in 1990 after allegedly dumping 548 pounds of cocaine in the waters off Dania Beach in Broward County. Coast Guard agents found the 249 individually wrapped kilo bricks floating in the water. Barroso and another man were found stranded offshore in a disabled $100,000 speedboat. Investigators say that once the boat broke down, Barroso dumped the coke and waited to be rescued. Ten days after being booked into jail and released on bail, Barroso was shot five times when another drug transaction went sour. He survived, only to be arrested once more in May 1991. He is currently in jail, awaiting trial.)
Author John Crouse says it was common knowledge within the powerboat racing industry that Falcon and Magluta were involved in drug smuggling. But racing association president Marc Mercury says he knew nothing about their activities until he heard they were fugitives. "It blew me away. I couldn't believe it," says Mercury, who also worked as a stunt man and water stunt coordinator for Miami Vice. "These were the kind of guys that if you were broke down on a highway with a flat tire, they would stop and help change your tire."
One of Magluta's last races took place at Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, on June 6, 1987. The water was rough, and Magluta, piloting the Seahawk, capsized and sank during the race. After that, says Crouse, "He never came back as a racer."
In 1985 Falcon and Magluta were arrested in a Los Angeles sting, after they had set up a multi-kilo cocaine deal with undercover officers. The partners had been conducting their West Coast business under the aliases Wilfred Fernandez (Falcon) and Angelo Maretto (Magluta); they had a complete set of driver's licenses, credit cards, and other identification. Authorities released "Fernandez" and "Maretto" on bail, whereupon Falcon and Magluta promptly left town. A year later, the California police detective who had arrested them was sitting at home, watching the 1986 Miami Grand Prix auto race on television. There on the screen - Maretto! But the announcer was introducing him as Sal Magluta, the reigning powerboat champion, being thanked by race organizers for helping to sponsor the annual event.
By August 1987, the last of Falcon and Magluta's appeals from their 1979 conviction was denied in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Faced with the prospect of turning themselves in, the pair went into hiding, traveling around the country, investigators say, often winding up in New York and Las Vegas. But their base of operations remained in South Florida.
On March 30, 1988, Magluta's luck seemed to have run out for good, when he bumped into an old classmate from high school. Jorge Plasencia, a Metro-Dade Police detective, had stopped at Dolphin Office Products, at 300 NW 27th Ave., with his partner, Alex Alvarez, to pick up a new note pad and journal. Magluta was there to buy ledgers and other office supplies.
Plasencia, who was a year behind Falcon and Magluta at Miami Senior High, remembers the pair as being very popular in school. "Everyone wanted to be around Sal and Willy," he recalls. Magluta, he says, was outgoing and personable; Falcon was a track star. "Willy was well-known for being a speedster," he says.
"He didn't remember me," recalls Plasencia, who was aware when he saw Magluta that he was wanted in connection with the 1979 drug conviction. Magluta used his "Maretto" alias when confronted by the two cops outside the store, Plasencia recounts, and provided the same false ID he had given California officials three years before. "But we knew him," says Alex Alvarez.
At the police station, Magluta acknowledged his identity and said he was aware that he was wanted. Initially, he was held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center, then transferred to the South Florida Reception Center for prisoners. While he was in custody, DEA agent David Borah even paid a visit to ask Magluta a few questions in connection with his agency's ongoing investigation. Not surprisingly, Magluta had no comment.
Apparently court papers sent to the reception center indicated that Magluta had been serving time since April 15, 1980, which was actually the day he had formally been sentenced. So it appeared Magluta had already served nearly eight years on a fourteen-month sentence. Five days after his arrest, prison officials let him go. Days later, when Plasencia and Alvarez checked to see the status of their quarry, they discovered he had walked out the door. "We yelled and screamed," Alvarez remembers. "We wanted somebody's head."
Magluta's release was either the result of incompetence or corruption; an investigation by the Dade State Attorney's Office that year failed to show which. "We never could pin any blame," says Assistant State Attorney Richard Shiffrin. "It just seemed to be an administrative screw-up. Something strange happened. We'll never figure out what."
A LASER OR A LEAR JET
The DEA and federal prosecutors, meanwhile, were amassing evidence for a much bigger case against Falcon and Magluta. And if they weren't ready to mount a full-scale manhunt for the two fugitives, they could go after a stationary target - the smugglers' ill-gotten assets. In 1988 the feds initiated proceedings to seize CMM Ranch, at 12000 SW 49th St., which they claimed was used by Falcon and Magluta as a communications base to coordinate cocaine deliveries by plane and boat. The property had been purchased by Magluta's wife and sister-in-law in 1980.
In April 1989 Isabel Magluta was subpoenaed for a deposition by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeanne Mullenhoff. After stating her address and acknowledging she was Sal's wife, Mrs. Magluta proceeded to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination - 59 times. A federal judge eventually granted Mullenhoff's request, and the CMM Ranch was sold for $300,000. According to court records, after paying off the mortgage, the government pocketed $192,000.
In 1989 the U.S. Attorney in Colorado followed the same path, and successfully seized a $340,000 condominium Falcon and Magluta owned in the resort town of Vail. The next year the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida struck even closer to Falcon and Magluta's heart, seizing KS&W Offshore Engineering. Owned by one of the dummy companies in Panama, the St. Augustine business served as Falcon and Magluta's powerboat base, constructing high-performance engines specially designed for offshore racing. A fellow racer described it as "the ultimate in shops. Everything was state-of-the-art."
In taking KS&W, a federal grand jury in Jacksonville also indicted Falcon and Magluta on charges of money laundering. A grand jury in Miami, meanwhile, had indicted Falcon in 1988 for providing false information while purchasing a handgun.
Those indictments, however, were minor when set against the case DEA agents had built. Because a federal grand jury can only sit for eighteen months at a stretch, it took three grand juries to consider evidence during the DEA's nearly five-year-long investigation. The grand juries, all sitting in Fort Lauderdale, had the power to subpoena financial records and compel witnesses to give testimony, and after all the records were presented and the witnesses called, the third grand jury issued a 24-count indictment against Falcon, Magluta, and eight co-defendants, including the hapless Juan Barroso; Falco n's brother Gustavo; and two of Falcon's brothers-in-law, Antonio Garrudo and Terry Blanco. Also indicted were Benny Lorenzo, Louis Mendez, Victor Alvarez, and Louis Escobedo. The most significant charge against Falcon and Magluta was that since at least 1978 they "[did] knowingly and intentionally engage in a continuing criminal enterprise" of importing cocaine into the United States.
Through a combination of mystery, luck, oversight, and outright bungling by law enforcement agencies, Falcon and Magluta had continued to do business over the years. Federal, state, and local lawmen seemed to exhibit a fickle interest in the two men, often showing an inability to cooperate with one another and, at times, a childish sense of competition. One South Florida law officer says he wasn't at all interested in finding Falcon and Magluta until after the federal indictments were filed here, even though by 1988 they were wanted in California on smuggling charges and in Jacksonville for money laundering.
The South Florida federal indictments were filed in April, but remained sealed until May 17, 1991. But before prosecutors could concern themselves about a trial and convictions, they had to find Falcon and Magluta. Once the indictments were delivered, federal agents finally mounted a concerted effort to locate the men.
The U.S. Marshals Service, along with the DEA and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, coordinated the fourteen-agency search. "We got a lot of bad leads," says Humberto Rapado, an FDLE agent who headed a four-man team that concentrated on Falcon. Informants, he says, reported sightings all over South Florida. Some agents wondered whether the fugitives were putting out false information to throw lawmen off their trail. "The stories we were hearing about these guys were amazing," Rapado says, recounting a rumor that Falcon and Magluta had their faces and fingerprints altered by a laser-wielding surgeon, a procedure that supposedly cost them $500,000 apiece.
Another contention was that they had left the country. There were reports that Falcon and Magluta were commuting back and forth from Spain to Alabama in a Lear jet. Others said they were in Argentina. Or the Bahamas. Possibly even Cuba. One story had Falcon living on a boat anchored off the Florida coast, in international waters. Another had him motoring around the States in an RV.
For a time agents staked out Miami Senior High, having heard that Falcon and Magluta sometimes went there after school to play basketball in the gym. Officers were also dispatched to a Julio Iglesias concert, after someone said Falcon and Magluta had front-row seats. "Chasing fugitives is sort of like chasing ghosts," says Keith Braynon, a deputy U.S. marshal who led the Magluta search team. "You get a lot of leads that just don't exist."
When they finally caught up with Falcon and Magluta, law enforcement officials who searched their houses would find at least fifteen cellular phones, as well as fax machines, scrambling devices, and beepers. They would also confiscate ledgers and other papers that prosecutors say indicate Falcon and Magluta continued to conduct business until the day they were taken into custody.
In the end, it was the fugitives' closeness to their families that made it possible for agents to track them down. "There are times when you really can't separate yourself from family," FDLE's Humberto Rapado says. "And if you dig long and deep enough, you'll find family members he's close to." In Falcon's case, the team zeroed in on his children, particularly his son Willy Jr., who investigators say is about six years old and has spent much of the past two years living with his grandparents.
Both men, it appeared, were living comfortable, virtually stable lives. Falcon had been renting a $9000-per-month Fort Lauderdale mansion for almost three years. Magluta had paid $5800 per month for his La Gorce Island house since 1989. "They were not running from roach motel to roach motel," observes Marshals Service supervisor Sean Convoy. "Both houses had better gym equipment than Scandinavian Health Spas."
Why did Falcon and Magluta remain in South Florida, even though members of their families had been subpoenaed by the grand jury and their indictments were widely reported in the Miami Herald and other news media? Convoy and others attribute the smugglers' staying power to a combination of arrogance and stupidity: Falcon and Magluta must have mistaken their own hype for the truth.
FDLE's Humberto Rapado disagrees. South Florida was their home, he argues. This was where their family and friends lived and this is where they felt comfortable. The men knew they were bound to be caught someday; they just hoped their riches would postpone the inevitable. Augusto Jay concurs with Rapado. He, too, could have run before he was arrested and sent to prison for the rest of his life, he says. Instead, he chose to stay. "They knew there had to be an end to their running. They knew it was going to happen," Jay says. "I think they feel relieved."
RAIN AND REDEMPTION
Sal Magluta's La Gorce Island home, a two-story house on the Intracoastal Waterway, complete with a dock and spacious back yard, was one of several under surveillance after friends and family members had been seen entering and leaving. When Benny Lorenzo, a close friend of Magluta's who was named in the federal indictment, was seen driving up to the house on October 14, agents decided it was time to move in. Within 24 hours, a special assault team, comprising 25 deputy U.S. marshals, was drawing up plans.
Although they hoped Magluta would be inside, they didn't know for sure. A police speedboat would be stationed in the waterway in case the three-time national powerboat champion attempted to escape by sea. A police helicopter would fly cover overhead, and tear gas would be lobbed through the windows.
When the team pulled up to the house at about 7:00 p.m. on the soggy evening of October 15, the occupants scattered. In about fifteen minutes, agents rounded up everyone, except Sal Magluta. Deputy U.S. Marshal Braynon began passing around Magluta's photograph, asking those who had already been captured whether this was the man still hiding somewhere in the house or on the grounds. "Their mouths said no," Braynon recalls, "but their bodies said yes."
Within half an hour, Magluta, who had leaped out of a second-story window when the agents arrived, was dragged out of some bushes by a police dog. "Sal looked like he was going to cry," says an agent who was present at the arrest. "He was shaking like a leaf." After calling paramedics to tend to a dog bite, the agents wrapped a blanket around Magluta and took him away to jail. In Magluta's house, the team found papers that contained Willy Falcon's address in Fort Lauderdale. Until that time, they had been unsure about Falcon's exact whereabouts.
A few hours later, the same marshals headed north and staked out the Fort Lauderdale mansion and waited for Falcon to return home. Unlike his partner, Falcon surrendered immediately. Inside his house, photos of Falcon's children and family adorned the walls. On the night stand in the master bedroom, agents found a bar of solid gold that weighed more than two pounds. Falcon had been using it as a paperweight.