The Impossible Victory

The feds spent years building their case against drug kingpins Willy Falc centsn and Sal Maglutaa. Life in prison was assured. Too bad the jury didn't see it that way.

Sal Magluta visibly trembled with fear as he waited to hear the verdict in his drug-conspiracy trial. The jury slowly filed into the tenth-floor courtroom of federal Judge Federico Moreno, and Magluta's breathing increased rapidly. His attorneys, Roy Black and Martin Weinberg, were sitting on either side of him, and as they heard their client beginning to hyperventilate, they worried he would pass out. "His hands were shaking, his eyes were red," Black recalls. "It looked like he hadn't slept in a week. He was so nervous he was holding on to us, grabbing on to us. I thought we were going to have to hold him up to keep him from collapsing."

A few feet away, Willy Falc centsn sat passively, seemingly resigned to the worst. His skin was cold, his complexion pale. "I had never seen that color on anybody who was alive," says Falc centsn's attorney, Albert Krieger. "It was a skin tint I associated with a two- or three-day-old body. It was death."

Willy Falc centsn and Sal Magluta finally had come to the end of their journey, a four-month trial on federal charges of importing more than 75 tons of cocaine, valued at more than two billion dollars, over a thirteen-year period. At the time of their capture in October 1991, the two Miami High School dropouts were allegedly responsible for one of the five largest drug-trafficking operations in the world. Their arrest was heralded by law enforcement officials as a major victory in the war on drugs.

Now it was judgment day. A conviction on any one of the sixteen trafficking or conspiracy counts brought against them would almost certainly mean a sentence of life in prison. The jury members had taken less than three days to deliberate, and only a few hours earlier had told the judge they were hopelessly deadlocked. But they had somehow resolved their differences, reached a consensus, and were ready to issue a verdict.

Count one: Not guilty.
When those words were read aloud, Falc centsn and Magluta's family cheered. As the two men began sobbing, Magluta called out to his mother, his wife, his children.

Count two: Not guilty. Count three: Not guilty.
As the words reverberated through the wood-paneled courtroom, prosecutors and federal agents reeled in disbelief. It was their turn for the blood to drain from their faces and their skin to grow cold.

Count four: Not guilty. Count five: Not guilty. Count six: Not guilty.
Bedlam threatened to overtake the courtroom, and Judge Moreno was forced to demand order. Falc centsn and Magluta were on their feet, hugging their attorneys. All sixteen counts of the indictment were rejected by the jury.

"I love you, Albert!" Falc centsn cried. "Thank you, Albert! Thank you, Albert!"

"Willy, you've been born again," Krieger whispered in his ear. "You have a new life."

More than a week after the verdicts were rendered, the shock and amazement linger. The government made a staggering investment of human and financial resources to develop this case. Agents were drawn from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Marshal's Office, and U.S. Customs, as well as state and local police agencies from Miami to Los Angeles. Information was gathered from informants and sources in at least half a dozen different countries. It was the largest drug-trafficking case ever to be lost by prosecutors in the state of Florida, and it may well be the biggest narcotics case ever lost in the United States. "A dark moment," U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey said of the defeat.

"I have to admit that even I was surprised," says Roy Black. "Anyone charged with a drug offense really has an uphill battle. The worst things to be charged with are child molestation, treason, and drugs. It is far easier to defend a murder case than a drug case, particularly in this community."

Adds Albert Krieger: "When I first got involved in this case, I thought the physical evidence was very strong, and I was very pessimistic. After all, the agents had supposedly seized all these drug ledgers from their homes when they were arrested. The problem was the ledgers were not self-explaining; they were in code and required the testimony of the informants. And that's where the government lost this case."

Several days after the verdict, as Krieger was reflecting on the case A the defense strategies and the prosecution blunders A something caught his eye. Outside his Coconut Grove home, which also doubles as his law office, he spotted his dog, a German shepherd he has owned for several years. "Schutzhund-trained," he says proudly. "Give him the right command and he'll take your head off. The difference between a dog like this and a watch dog is that he doesn't have a vicious bone in his body. He's not a thug, he's a trained fighter."

Krieger's appreciation for the distinction is appropriate. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting pet for the man who skillfully decapitated so many of the government's witnesses during the Falc centsn and Magluta case. Indeed it would seem that Black, Weinberg, and Krieger were all Schutzhund-trained in law school.

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