The Last Dance

When Sal Magluta goes on trial later this year for bail jumping, it's too bad he won't be able to plead temporary insanity. He'd get off for sure. After all, what jury wouldn't believe that Magluta was just a few ounces short of a kilo when he walked away from a federal courtroom in February where he was on trial for possession and use of phony passports? He had to have known that if he was found guilty in the passport case -- which he was, in absentia -- he was facing a prison sentence of between three and four years.

He had already served more than four years in jail while awaiting trial on charges that he and his long-time running mate Willy Falcon had imported in excess of 75 tons of cocaine into the United States. And because his attorneys beat the government on the coke-smuggling charges last year, all the time he spent behind bars would be used to offset any sentence he might get for possessing fraudulent passports.

But because he fled, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard is likely to sentence Magluta to at least five to six years in prison in the passport case, instead of the standard three to four years. In addition, he faces two new charges: bail jumping and contempt of court. The charge of fleeing carries a maximum penalty of five years, which under the law can begin only after he finishes his term on the passport case. And there is no limit on the length of time Lenard can incarcerate Magluta for contempt of court.

Prosecutors are also now free to seek a new indictment for Magluta's possession of a phony passport because, when he was captured earlier this month in Palm Beach County, he possessed yet another set of fraudulent documents -- this time in the name Juan Manuel Alfonso. A conviction on that could carry five more years in prison.

Even more unbelievable: Having once again become a fugitive, and knowing there would be a whole slew of new criminal charges against him if he was caught, the 42-year-old Magluta made the decision to remain in the United States. When I first heard that Magluta had taken off, I thought he would eventually turn up in a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States, living comfortably off the millions of dollars he has undoubtedly secreted away in various offshore bank accounts. Instead he was picked up less than 100 miles from Miami wearing a cheap wig and driving a Lincoln Town Car.

Since miraculously beating the feds a year ago on drug charges, Magluta went from being a man who was given a second chance at life to someone who will likely spend the next fifteen years in a cramped, maximum security prison cell. He will have plenty of time to come up with an answer to the question so many people are asking: Why did he run?

Throughout the 1980s Wilfredo Falcon and Salvador Magluta engaged in an odd and dangerous dance with law enforcement -- seemingly ensnared in the investigators' net one minute, only to slip free the next. It was a tango few others had mastered and one that often left authorities red-faced and empty-handed. Magluta, a champion powerboat racer who regularly risked his life in pursuit of glory, seemed to thrive on his ability to bedevil justice. He was first convicted of conspiracy to sell cocaine in 1979, but the judge delayed sentencing until Magluta had appealed the verdict. Thanks to a crafty attorney, the appeal dragged out for more than seven years.

In the meantime, Magluta, under the name Angelo Maretto, was arrested in Los Angeles in 1985 for drug trafficking. Once released on bail, "Maretto" disappeared. It was years before California cops realized Maretto was really Magluta.

In 1987, when his appeal of the 1979 conviction in Miami was exhausted, Magluta went into hiding rather than turn himself in. Several months later he bumped into an old high school classmate turned Metro-Dade police detective, who recognized him and carted him off to jail. But within 48 hours Magluta was inadvertently released after his court papers were mysteriously altered to say he had completed his jail term -- when in fact he had not even begun it.

Federal authorities spent years on Falcon and Magluta's trail before finally tracking them down in 1991. They charged the pair with being the largest importers of cocaine on the East Coast and claimed they ran an organization with at least $2.1 billion in assets. Magluta was arrested while living in a mansion on Miami Beach's La Gorce Island; Falcon was found a few hours later in Fort Lauderdale. At the time of their capture both men knew that the FBI, the DEA, and the U.S. Marshals Service were intensively searching for them -- but both men decided to stay in South Florida anyway.

Prosecutors and federal agents rejoiced at the arrests. But in February 1996, after a four-month trial, Falcon and Magluta were found not guilty of more than a dozen counts of drug smuggling. It was the biggest drug case ever lost by the federal government. When the verdict was read, Falcon and Magluta broke down in tears and had to be held up by their attorneys.

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