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.

Falcon and Magluta -- "the boys," as they were known in the drug trade -- appeared likely to once again dance free. Scrambling to save face, prosecutors threw a number of comparatively petty charges against them: Falcon was indicted and later convicted of buying a handgun under a false name years earlier. And Magluta was charged with traveling in and out of the country on a phony passport. This was tantamount to failing to convict a bank robber, then charging him with speeding because the police had clocked his getaway car at 95 mph.

Because it was unlikely that the charges against Magluta would result in additional jail time, a federal judge last year released him on bail. In an interview eighteen months ago, Magluta told me about his discovery of religion in prison and how his life had changed. "All I can do is do the best that I can," he said, "and leave the rest in God's hands." When he was released from prison last year, he began volunteering at a church in his neighborhood. But whether this metamorphosis had always been a lie or was merely a short-lived conversion, Magluta was apparently drawn to that familiar tune playing in the distance.

On February 6, halfway through his passport-fraud trial, Magluta walked out of the federal courthouse, telling a guard that he needed to get something from his car. Because Magluta was not in custody, he was free to come and go from the courthouse. But by midmorning, when he had not returned, Judge Lenard issued a warrant for his arrest.

By nightfall the Magluta manhunt had been given the highest priority from the U.S. Justice Department. James Tassone, chief deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of Florida, said he had teams of marshals working with agents from the FBI and the DEA. "There was information coming in pretty steadily as to where he might be," he explains. Tassone says he believes that Magluta traveled to New York but spent most of his time in Florida, particularly the Orlando and Palm Beach areas. There were also reports that Magluta had gone to Colombia. "We are still checking into the possibility that he left the country for a while and then came back," Tassone adds.

Eventually investigators developed information that Magluta was in Palm Beach. A team of four marshals, working around the clock, set up a surveillance in the area where they thought he might be staying. On Sunday, April 13, at about 11:30 p.m., they spotted a Lincoln Town Car they suspected Magluta was driving.

When the marshals stopped the car, Magluta did not resist. "As we approached him, he immediately started touching his chest and he said he had a little anxiety attack coming on," according to one of the agents who was present but who asked that his name not be released. "He was reeking of cologne, and as we handcuffed him his wig fell off." The marshal adds that as he led Magluta away, he told him, "You can run, but you can't hide." Magluta, he says, didn't respond.

Inside the car marshals found a black canvas bag with $20,000 in fifty- and hundred-dollar bills and a cellular telephone. In addition to the passport under the name Juan Manuel Alfonso, Magluta had a current Florida driver's license under the Alfonso name, as well as a social security card, a Dade County voter registration card, and credit cards from Visa, American Express, MasterCard, Optima, and Macy's.

Magluta's wallet also contained a business card from the general manager of an Orlando-area strip club called Rachel's, which advertises itself as a "world-class men's club." The club's general manager, Jim Mulrenin, said last week he did not recall meeting anyone by the name of either Magluta or Alfonso. "I give my cards out all the time," he explained. "Basically if somebody were to come in here and spend $1000 or $2000 in one of our champagne rooms, I'm going to give him my business card. I can't tell you for sure that he was here, but that's probably what happened."

Other evidence indicated that he did not live like a hunted fugitive while on the run. According to Tassone, wherever Magluta went he stayed in first-class hotels, including an ocean-view suite in the Ritz-Carlton of Palm Beach. "He's a high-class guy," Tassone says. "He likes to stay in those high-class kinds of hotels."

Although it's hard to believe that Magluta would be stupid enough to remain in South Florida, Tassone says his agents always had a feeling he would stay nearby: "We just thought he was still around." The deputy marshal present at his capture says that Magluta seemed to treat the entire affair like a game. "He was trying to stay one step ahead of us, but still remain in the area," the marshal says. "We talked to a lot of people, and the rumor we heard was that Sal had put out the word that he loved the thrill of the chase and that he was going to stay right here in Florida until we caught him. I guess he really does love the excitement.

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