Willy & Sal, Episode 4: The Trial of Willy & Sal

Pages 16-17 of the December 14, 1995, issue of Miami New Times
Pages 16-17 of the December 14, 1995, issue of Miami New Times Miami New Times illustration by Robert Andrew Parker
Editor’s note: Below is the fourth of ten in-depth stories Miami New Times published about the federal government's dogged pursuit of Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta — AKA Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, AKA Willy and Sal, AKA "Los Muchachos," AKA "The Boys" — two Cuban-American boyhood friends from Miami who grew up to head what was alleged to be the most lucrative cocaine empire in South Florida for nearly 20 years beginning in the late 1970s.

When the two Miami Senior High School dropouts were finally captured by federal agents in October of 1991, prosecutors alleged that they’d amassed more than $2.1 billion in cash and assets by smuggling at least 75 tons of cocaine into the United States over the years.

But that was only the beginning of the legal proceedings against Willy and Sal, which dragged on for nearly a decade, dogged by law-enforcement snafus, doomed prosecutorial strategies, numerous incidences of jury tampering, escapes, murders, and other mayhem.

This is the third of then-Miami New Times staff writer Jim DeFede’s longform stories about the case, originally published in the paper's December 14, 1995, issue and titled “The Trial of Willy & Sal.” The story, which was accompanied by two sidebars — "The Best Defense Money Can Buy" and "Sal Speaks" — covers the first trial of Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. DeFede sat through months of testimony, distilling it into a too-crazy-to-be-true — but true nonetheless — narrative.

Writes DeFede:

Falcon and Magluta certainly don't look like they did in the pictures the public has seen sporadically in newspapers and on television since their October 1991 arrest. Those were file photos from better days, when the two were world-champion powerboat racers, cocky and self-assured, literally speeding through life at more than 100 mph. Now they are facing two dozen federal charges, for alleged offenses ranging from the importation of cocaine to operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which prosecutors claim was worth more than two billion dollars. A conviction on the majority of the charges would almost certainly result in their spending the rest of their lives in prison.

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If America learned anything from the O.J. Simpson trial, it was the value of the courtroom as theater. But not every blockbuster can emanate from Hollywood, and most will never be televised. And so it is hardly surprising that the last great drug trial of the cocaine-cowboy Eighties is taking place without much notice — from the people at the Nielsen ratings service or anyone else. The drama on the tenth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Miami began unfolding six weeks ago, with Assistant U.S Attorney Christopher Clark introducing to the jury of six men and six women the two expensively dressed men sitting across the room amid their not-quite-as-well-attired phalanx of attorneys.

Clark described the defendants as a pair of high school dropouts who had attained prodigious wealth through a perverse version of the American success story. These two men, he told the jury, embodied the very history of the cocaine explosion, not just in South Florida but across the nation: an influx of white powder that stoked the local economy and altered the political landscape.

"May I present to you," Clark said in his opening statement, "the case of the United States of America versus Augusto Guillermo Falcon and Salvador Magluta. Willy and Sal. Los Muchachos. The Boys."

With a slight flourish of his right hand and a small step to his left to give the jury a clear view of the dapper defendants, Clark raised the curtain on a drama that has taken nearly two decades to produce.

"So well-known in the drug community were these two individuals," he declared, "that among fellow drug dealers the mere mention of the name 'The Boys' or 'Los Muchachos' indicated to those in the drug trade the biggest drug dealers in Miami during the 1980s."

As the federal prosecutor spoke, Falcon and Magluta stared straight ahead. They are no longer boys, having both turned 40 during their four years in custody. And they look even older than that age might suggest. Magluta's hairline is receding, his skin is pale, and an ulcer has robbed him of his once robust frame.

The passage of time, though, is most telling on Falcon, whose wife Alina was mugged and shot to death three years ago. He has become obsessed with exercise in jail, and while physically fit, he remains dour in court. His eyes are dark, his face drawn, giving off an intensity that makes his attorneys fear the jury will gauge him as menacing, which is not an unfair estimation.

Falcon and Magluta certainly don't look like they did in the pictures the public has seen sporadically in newspapers and on television since their October 1991 arrest. Those were file photos from better days, when the two were world-champion powerboat racers, cocky and self-assured, literally speeding through life at more than 100 mph. Now they are facing two dozen federal charges, for alleged offenses ranging from the importation of cocaine to operating a continuing criminal enterprise, which prosecutors claim was worth more than two billion dollars. A conviction on the majority of the charges would almost certainly result in their spending the rest of their lives in prison.

"Their names were synonymous with an unlimited supply of cocaine of the highest quality," Christopher Clark went on. "At a time when the city of Miami was awash with cocaine, these two defendants, Willy and Sal, Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, stood above all the other drug dealers."

While most smugglers measured success in kilos, Clark argued, Falcon and Magluta measured it by the ton. And while others were happy to count their profits in hundreds of thousands of dollars, these "Kings of Cocaine," as the prosecution dubbed them, tallied their receipts in the hundreds of millions. Clark also explained how the defendants avoided capture for so long through a mix of fortune and influence, dumb luck and dirty cops. (New Times has chronicled the alleged exploits of Falcon and Magluta, beginning with the cover story "Willy & Sal," published in February 1992.)

"Justice in this case had been delayed, in permitting these defendants to continue their criminal enterprise from 1978 through 1991," Clark concluded. "But upon the presentation of the government's evidence in this case, upon your consideration of the multitude of witnesses and exhibits which will be introduced, justice will not be denied."

In a courtroom, of course, everything is open to argument, and concepts such as "justice" are no exception. During their opening statement to the jury, the defense attorneys — a small army of marquee names including Roy Black, Albert Krieger, and Martin Weinberg (for profiles, see sidebar, "The Best Defense Money Can Buy") — also invoked justice's virtue, albeit in a different context.

Inherent in the defense strategy is the unstated concession that their clients may not have been altar boys, and may indeed have led the smuggler's life in their youth, but they certainly weren't the drug barons prosecutors make them out to be. And that by 1986 — as far back as prosecutors can go, owing to the statute of limitations — Falcon and Magluta were out of the cocaine business and were simply living off whatever wealth they'd earned years earlier.
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The million-dollar defense team: Albert Krieger, Martin Weinberg, Roy Black, John May and Frank Rubino, Ed Shohat, and Jeffrey Weiner
Miami New Times photo
In the federal government's zeal to make a case, the defense argues, frustrated officials have either knowingly suborned perjury or turned a blind eye to it in a vengeful quest for a conviction at any cost. They challenge a system that, in their opinion, builds cases almost entirely on the word of other drug traffickers A admitted liars who are trading their tainted testimony for reduced sentences.

"The core of the case, what it all boils down to, is whether you trust their witnesses," Weinberg told jurors in his opening statement. "And to decide whether you trust their witnesses requires you to navigate through these lies which the witnesses have mastered, because they are in jail for twenty-four hours a day and their lives are on the line, and they don't want to do twenty years in a federal jail, they don't want to do thirty years in a federal jail.

"And they have learned — as cunning criminals, as experienced criminals, as very intelligent people — how to avoid the consequences of their career of crime. And the way that the government witnesses in this case have chosen to avoid the consequences of being drug traffickers and drug importers and kingpins in the drug trade is to point false fingers of accusation at Sal Magluta and Willy Falcon."

As proof of the government's purported perversion of the system, Weinberg offered the example of Jorge Valdes, one of the prosecution's star witnesses, the man who allegedly introduced the defendants to the world of big-time smugglers. After Valdes was first arrested in 1979, he was convicted of having smuggled 200 kilos of cocaine and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He served less than five years. While on parole, he began smuggling cocaine again and was indicted in 1990, this time for smuggling 3000 kilos into the country, and, in another case, for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine.

If convicted, he faced a minimum mandatory sentence of twenty years for the cocaine case and another twenty-five for the crack charges. In addition, because the recent crimes occurred while he was on parole, he would have to finish serving the original fifteen-year sentence — another ten years in prison.

Where is Valdes today? He is a free man, Weinberg told the jury. In exchange for his cooperation, Valdes served less than five additional years and was released from prison several months ago. "He is out of jail today, in four and a half years, because [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent] David Borah and Chris Clark went to bat for him," Weinberg said. "They rewarded him for his cooperation. And every other prisoner, every other drug trafficker who will take the stand, knows what happened to Jorge Valdes. He is their ideal. His sentence, his cut, his breaks, his ability to avoid the consequences of what he did, is what motivates ten and twenty and thirty of the government witnesses. And again, they are the foundation of this prosecution."

Prison slang for this kind of cooperation is called "jumping on the bus," in reference to the act of boarding the corrections department's bus that runs from the jail to the courthouse, the bus an inmate would take if he were going to testify against someone in court. (Prosecutors have countered by coining their own transportation metaphor, "jumping on the limousine," which refers to inmates allegedly being secretly paid to testify on behalf of Falcon and Magluta.)

The issue of whether to accept or reject the testimony of any of these witnesses is solely the province of the jury, Weinberg reminded them. "You will be alone to deliberate, because this society provides to you, a jury, its most awesome task, and its most awesome power," he said, "and that is the power to decide on the fate of your fellow citizens."

The verdict will be decided by the jury, but the jury was selected by the attorneys. One might think that in a trial expected to last four months, the jury would contain a preponderance of retirees. One might also anticipate mostly Anglos and Hispanics, since those groups represent more than 70 percent of Dade's registered voters, the pool from which juries are selected. In essence, then, the odds would seem to favor a jury comprising white senior citizens.

But this case is being heard by a predominantly black panel. There are five black males, two black females, two Hispanic females, one Hispanic male, and two Anglo females. The majority are in their late twenties or thirties. (All six alternates are women, four of whom are black.)

This would seem to be just what the defense wanted. Jury selection began on October 16, the day of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. A cause for concern for defense attorney Roy Black. "I would like to know," Black asked Judge Federico Moreno before the pool of potential jurors was brought in, "if there are people who are absent because of that, because obviously we are concerned about the cross-section of the community on the panel, and this is one of those events that many people, obviously African Americans, would like to go to. And if there are people who are on our panel who are not here because of that, I think that might skew the racial makeup of the panel."

As Simpson trial analysts never tired of pointing out, defense attorneys often attempt to empanel blacks on the theory that they are more skeptical of authority and more likely to believe claims of police and government misconduct than are whites, owing to their own experiences. Given the strategy of the defense team in the Falcon-Magluta case, that skepticism is essential.

"Defense lawyers for years have always felt that African Americans would give defendants a better shake," says Robert Hirschhorn, an attorney and jury consultant from Texas who has helped select juries in some of the nation's biggest cases, including the Yahweh Ben Yahweh murder trial in Miami, the prosecution of the survivors of the Branch Davidian Church siege in Waco, and the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach.

In this case, the defense team has employed jury consultant Sandy Marks, who was present during the questioning of each prospective juror. Marks, or a member of his staff, continues to attend the trial every day. Keeping a jury consultant in the courtroom, even after jury selection is complete, is not uncommon, according to Hirschhorn. "You're there to watch the jurors' body language," he explains. "To watch when they are taking notes and to correlate that to the testimony, to see what they are interested in and what they are bored by." The consultant would also watch the defendants, to see whether they are reacting to the testimony in such a way that might offend the jury.

Hirschhorn says that long before the trial began, Marks and the other members of the defense team probably staged mock trials, with "jurors" gathered through telemarketing firms or classified ads, to gauge which arguments and strategies prove most effective. Hirschhorn has no idea what Marks is charging for his services, but says the typical fee for a trial such as this would range from $100,000 to $150,000. (Marks would not comment for this article because the trial is still under way.)

Though he is not closely following the trial, Hirschhorn predicts that Falcon and Magluta will be acquitted on the more serious counts they face, a forecast that has less to do with any analysis of the evidence than it does with his confidence in the abilities of the defense attorneys.

"Snitches are going to be to this trial what Mark Fuhrman was to the O.J. Simpson case," he says. "The defense attorneys are going to put the snitches on trial. Clearly these witnesses are despicable individuals. And once the jury perceives them as a bunch of thieving liars, they will not want to convict these men. As Johnnie Cochran said in the O.J. trial, 'If you can't trust the messenger, then you can't trust the message.'"

One element missing from this trial is a victim. Prosecutors are unable to show a cause-and-effect relationship between the thousands of pounds of cocaine they claim Falcon and Magluta smuggled into the U.S. and the havoc that cocaine wrought in people's lives. Clark can't hold up a snapshot of a newborn baby, for instance, and assert that it was born an addict at Jackson Memorial Hospital because the mother abused cocaine imported by Falcon and Magluta.

Instead he totes into court a poster-size photo of Falcon and Magluta wearing tuxedos, celebrating New Year's Eve at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He attempts to shape the case around the money; his team rarely passes up an opportunity to elicit testimony about the sums Falcon and Magluta spent on prostitutes and Rolex watches and diamond pinkie rings.

In the process, the trial becomes more a spectacle than a search for truth. For prosecutors it's about storytelling, and the need to win jurors' favor by regaling them with a narrative reconstruction of the crazed Eighties coke trade in Miami. They work in otherwise extraneous tales — how Falcon's mother was kidnapped and held by rival dopers for a $500,000 ransom, how the music group the Bee Gees played at Falcon's brother's wedding — that have no direct bearing on the charges against Falcon and Magluta but that manage to keep the jury awake.

At times it is hard to tell which the jury enjoys more, hearing a smuggler describe his exploits or watching the defense attorneys proceed to impeach the credibility of that witness. In all likelihood, the answer won't be known until the verdict is read.

Falcon and Magluta began importing cocaine during the late Seventies, when the word "cartel" was synonymous with oil-hoarding Arab sheiks and not South American drug lords. Few people in this country had even heard of the Colombian cities of Cali and Medellín, which these days are to cocaine what Hershey, Pennsylvania, is to chocolate.

But until the trial commenced, it was never clear how two underachievers from Miami High could establish major-league South American cocaine connections by the time they were 23. The key, it turned out, was Jorge Valdes.

Valdes — who Martin Weinberg castigated during his opening statement — grew up with Magluta in Cuba. "His family is like my family," Valdes testified when he took the stand. "We were friends in Cuba. We came to the United States and we lived pretty much in the same area [in Miami] and we were friends again."

Magluta dropped out of high school; Valdes went on to the University of Miami and majored in accounting. He didn't graduate, but went to work for one of his instructors, Jack Snay, in an accounting firm Snay ran on the side. While working for Snay in the mid-Seventies, Valdes handled the accounts of several South American businesses in Miami. He also helped them form foreign corporations and open offshore bank accounts. "It became obvious pretty soon a lot of these people couldn't read and write," Valdes said.

And yet they were making a great deal of money, he noticed, more money than their businesses reasonably should.

When Valdes discovered the firms were fronts for Colombian drug smugglers, he testified, he wanted no part of it. But he came around. He explained his motivation in one word: "Greed." On his first deal, he said, he sold seventeen kilos of cocaine and made a profit of $70,000. "Well, from that first transaction, things just took off," he went on. "There was a lot of [cocaine] coming into Miami at that time that I was responsible for. And I started making a lot of money."

Valdes became part of a Medellín group that imported 600 to 700 kilos a month into Miami. "I was making anywhere between $750,000 and a million dollars a month," he said.

He was 21 years old.

The sudden change in lifestyle did not pass unnoticed. His boyhood friend Sal Magluta, who had been selling marijuana and cocaine by the ounce, began asking whether there was a place for him in Valdes's new world. One day in 1978, Valdes testified, he found himself stuck with 30 kilos from a deal that went sour. To make matters worse, he was booked to leave for a European vacation and couldn't depart until he'd unloaded the coke. He offered it to Magluta.

"At the beginning he didn't want to take 30 kilos," Valdes recalled. "I don't know — maybe it was too much. It was a lot of responsibility at this time." But Valdes left the cocaine on consignment with Magluta and Falcon for one month anyway. When he returned from Europe, the pair handed him $1.3 million for the 30 kilos they'd sold and placed a standing order for more. After that, he added, there was never any talk about a deal being too large for Falcon and Magluta. "It was a very nice relationship," Valdes testified.

That relationship blossomed, and Valdes, Falcon, and Magluta tried to find a wholesale market cheaper than Colombia. Their search led them to Bolivia. Until that time, the Colombians had been responsible for actually getting the cocaine into the United States. But by buying the kilos in Bolivia and then making their own arrangements for flying the drugs into South Florida, the trio stood to make even more money.

In April 1979, Valdes told the jury, he was in Bolivia with Magluta, overseeing plans for their new operation. They had lined up the pilots and were going to make a maiden run: 200 kilos of cocaine. Normally he never would have traveled with the "product," Valdes said, but he had a meeting in Nicaragua and figured he could just hop a ride with the crew, who would drop him off in Nicaragua on a refueling stop. Magluta was to stay behind and continue to work on developing connections.

The plane developed engine trouble en route to Nicaragua and crash-landed in Panama. "We went down in a city called Puerto Armuelles [near the Costa Rican border]," Valdes told jurors. Amazingly no one was injured. Just as Valdes was thinking how lucky they were, the Panamanian military showed up and found the six suitcases filled with cocaine. He and the three others onboard were taken into custody, whereupon Valdes began trying to negotiate his way out.

"The attorney general came to see me," he testified. "I asked him how much it would cost me to get out of Panama, and how much [to] sell me the drugs back. He said the drugs had [already] been sold." The cost for getting Valdes and his crew out of Panama, though, would be $250,000. While arrangements were under way to get the money to Panama, Panamanian officials told Valdes they were going to "rough up" the group a little bit to "impress" the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which by that time had heard about the crash and sent its own agents to investigate.

"[The Panamanians] brought this guy over, trying to impress us," Valdes told the jury. "They stripped him naked on the floor and they proceeded to insert a broom in him, and blood splattered all over the place." It was at that point, Valdes said, that the pilots broke down, unaware their release was imminent and believing they were next in line for torture. "They told [the interrogators] that they didn't want to die, that they would cooperate, and that I had bribed the attorney general of Panama," Valdes said.

That admission, of course, had not been part of the script.

"They took us to the jail and they proceeded to put us in the worst dungeon I had ever seen, and I knew it was all over then," said Valdes. "We were tortured day and night. We were stripped naked, beat up, [I] had cattle prods applied to my body, and [was] doused with gasoline. I thought I was going to die. I was convinced I was going to die."

At one point, he claimed, then-Panamanian general (and now U.S. convict) Manuel Antonio Noriega visited his cell and told him he had no one to blame but himself for the harsh treatment: If his pilots had kept quiet, they'd all be home by now. Their screaming about bribes had embarrassed the government. As further punishment, Noriega wanted an additional $100,000 on top of the $250,000 he had already agreed to pay.

Despite the upping of the ante, Valdes said, for the first time in days he began to believe he would actually be freed. According to prosecutors, the bribe money was delivered; three days later Valdes was released from jail and taken to the airport for what he figured was a flight to Costa Rica. From there he and the others could slip quietly back into the U.S.

Instead, he soon discovered, he was to be put on a flight to Miami and delivered into the waiting hands of the DEA. When he realized he had been double-crossed, Valdes said, they had to drag him onto the plane.

"Welcome to the big leagues," a DEA agent told Valdes when the flight landed in Miami. Valdes was booked into the Dade County Jail. Bail was set at five million dollars. Eventually he was indicted in Macon, Georgia, and, as Weinberg noted in his opening, ended up serving five years of a fifteen-year sentence before being paroled in 1985.

Valdes's conviction marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of Falcon and Magluta, prosecutor Christopher Clark told the jury. It was the passing of the mantle from him to The Boys. According to Valdes's testimony, Falcon and Magluta took over the operation in May 1979, and became bosses themselves.

When it was their turn to cross-examine Jorge Valdes, defense attorneys picked him apart for two days. They dissected every drug transaction he made between his 1985 parole and his arrest in 1990. Then they went through the plea bargain — outlined by Weinberg in his opening — he struck with prosecutors, and suggested that today Valdes has millions of dollars stashed in offshore bank accounts.

And they went line by line through the transcript of Valdes's 1979 bail hearing, during which, under oath, he lied in response to more than a dozen questions in the hope that the judge would lower his bail. Confronted with each false answer he gave sixteen years ago, Valdes now admitted he had lied.

"All of it was a lie," he explained.

"It was under oath?" pressed Roy Black.

"Under oath."

When Albert Krieger began his cross-examination, he too took up the point of Valdes's untrustworthiness.

"When you walked in here two days ago, I believe it was Judge Moreno who said to you, 'Do you swear to tell the truth?'" Krieger inquired.

"Yes, sir."

"And you said, 'Yes I do,'" the defense attorney went on.

"Yes I do," Valdes reaffirmed.

"Now that is, is it not, the same oath that was administered to you at the time you testified in your bail hearing?"

Valdes said yes, and attempted to explain he really meant it this time. "It matters today," he insisted. "It didn't make no difference when I was a drug dealer."

"When you were a drug dealer, you could lie?" Krieger asked, his words dripping with condescension.

"I don't know if I could lie or not," Valdes responded, growing contentious. "But I did lie."

"The point that I am trying to make, if you would permit me, sir —"

"I permit you," Valdes interrupted.

"— is that you raised your hand to God, swore to a federal judge to tell the truth, and you lied?"

"I couldn't care less about God or a federal judge back then," Valdes hissed. "I do today."

The questioning continued for several minutes, with Krieger building to several peaks, including this one:

"It would be appropriate, would it not, for you to be referred to today as a perjurer?"

"In 1979? Very, very appropriate," Valdes answered. "Today? No."

"As a perjurer, sir!" Krieger pounced, the tone of his voice jolting the entire courtroom.

There were times, however, when the defense team was more than eager to accept Valdes's testimony as truthful, particularly when his answers might prove embarrassing to the government.

"Have you ever heard the concept called 'jumping on the bus?'" Black wondered at one point.

"I heard it just about every place I was at," Valdes responded.

"Isn't it true, sir, that you knew that there were people who approached you who said they wanted to testify who were lying?" Black asked.

"I had a gentleman approach me and wanted to get involved that I knew did not know [Falcon and Magluta], or I felt he didn't know them, and I left it at that," Valdes replied.

"There were also people in these institutions who acted as what are called 'recruiters,'" Black posited.

"There were people who acted as recruiters," Valdes said. "There are people that have asked other people to get involved in the case and, as a result, got a reduction [in their sentences], yes sir. There are all kinds of ways to cooperate with the government."

"All kinds of ways to get a sentence reduction," Black repeated. "Isn't that right?"

"If your cooperation is substantial, yes sir," Valdes said.

"Sometimes it is only limited by the imagination of the inmates in the prison," Black added sarcastically.

To reinforce their contention that Falcon and Magluta were not involved in drug smuggling in the mid- and late Eighties, defense attorneys pointed out that after Valdes got out of jail in 1985 and went back to distributing cocaine, he had almost no contact with either Falcon or Magluta, even though he renewed his relationships with almost every other doper he had dealt with previously.

Black and Krieger also used Valdes to attack the image of the DEA as a pack of goons willing to allow Panamanian officials to torture American citizens suspected of drug trafficking.

"You mentioned that you were tortured," Black began.

"Yes, I was," Valdes replied.

"They used cattle prods," Black recalled. "This is an electrical device that can be painful, particularly depending upon where they put it on your body?"

"Where they put it was extremely painful," Valdes agreed.

"And that because of the tortures that were inflicted upon you, you suffered for many years thereafter," Black pressed.

"For about five years, every time I went to the bathroom, I bled," Valdes answered.

"And is it not true that it is your belief that the Drug Enforcement Administration was working with the Panamanian authorities and authorizing this torture?" Black asked.

Prosecutor Christopher Clark objected, arguing that the subject of torture was irrelevant to the case at hand. Black countered by saying, "I think it certainly does explain to the jury just how far they are willing to go to make a case."

Moreno sustained Clark's objection. Later, though, Krieger weighed in with the same question: "Your appraisal was that the Americans — that is, the DEA — was participating in the torture?"

"My appraisal was that they had ordered the tortures, yes, sir," Valdes said. "I believe that today."

After Valdes, the next major witness to testify was Earl Sermon Dyess, Jr., former sheriff of Hendry County. Dyess, whose nickname was "The Preacher," is serving an eighteen-year sentence for drug smuggling.

He had been introduced to Falcon and Magluta by Jorge Valdes in 1979, before Valdes went off to prison. It was Valdes's idea to use a secluded ranch near Clewiston, just south of Lake Okeechobee, as a landing strip for their cocaine imports.

Dyess's involvement was vital. When the plan first took shape, he was a captain (later to become sheriff) in the sheriff's department, in charge of the narcotics unit. His father, Earl Dyess, Sr., was the sheriff, and had been for more than twenty years. Through a mutual friend named Butch Reddish, Valdes and the younger Dyess met. "It didn't take me but a minute to figure out that he had to be in the drug business," Dyess testified. "He had a lot of gold on him and he drove a somewhat flashy car. He was somewhat of a flashy fellow himself."

Neither Dyess nor Reddish was earning much at the time, and they jumped at the chance to earn easy money. "I wasn't given an amount that I would receive," Dyess told jurors. "Just that I would make more money than I had ever seen in my life."

By the time the first load of cocaine was flown into the ranch in 1980, Valdes had been packed off to prison. He now took his orders from Falcon and Magluta, Dyess said.

Throughout his testimony, Dyess was something of a comical character, a caricature of a redneck sheriff. For a time, every incident he described to the jury seemed to have been memorable not because he was engaged in a massive conspiracy to import cocaine but rather because of the food he was eating at the time.

On a trip to Dallas with Falcon and Magluta: "The reason I remember it so good is we got there that night and I ate one of them sandwiches out of one of them vending machines and it didn't sit well with me."

On a trip to Houston: "I was eating some smoked pork loin. I had never had it before, and I remember it because it was very good."

On the first time Falcon and Magluta flew a load of cocaine into Hendry County: "I remember it well. . . . We went to Butch's 7-Eleven, got some beer and Cokes and crackers."

Despite the snacks, that first load caused a bit of a scare. Butch Reddish and Dyess were waiting near the ranch when they heard a report on the sheriff's radio that a plane had gone down and deputies were responding to the scene. Both men panicked, believing the drug shipment had been discovered. When it turned out to be a false alarm (the plane that had been spotted had nothing to do with Falcon and Magluta), Dyess reported, he found the coincidence kind of amusing. "But Butch was going ballistic," he recalled. "He was looking at me, and his face was — he was mad. I said, 'What in the world is wrong with you, boy?' I mean, Butch and I were like brothers all our lives. And he said, 'Well, if that had been [our] plane, I'm supposed to kill you.' I said, 'You crazy?!' He said, 'No. I'm supposed to kill you, because if they get caught and I don't kill you, then they are going to kill me and my family.'"

When the first load landed successfully, Dyess and Reddish were each paid $25,000. Dyess became sheriff later that year, after his father was stabbed to death by a fifteen-year-old boy. When he ran for election, however, he lost. And although Falcon and Magluta continued flying cocaine into the ranch for several months after his defeat, the operation was shut down toward the end of 1981.

Altogether, Dyess claimed, he had helped bring a dozen loads of cocaine into the ranch for Falcon and Magluta, and was paid a total of $354,000.

The defense again capitalized on the notion that Dyess was involved in no illegal drug transactions with Falcon and Magluta after 1981. And even though he was elected sheriff in 1984 and held that office until 1993, he testified that he was never approached by the pair about resuming their drug smuggling operation in Hendry County.

Throughout his cross-examination, Martin Weinberg pressed another point. "You were a corrupt sheriff, were you not?"

"I was a crooked sheriff," Dyess responded.

"What is your definition of a bad sheriff?" Weinberg asked.

"I can say a good one is one that doesn't break the law," Dyess answered. "And a bad one is sitting right here."

Weinberg introduced campaign brochures and ads Dyess ran during his re-election campaigns. One ad stated that no one in Hendry County was "so big that they are above the law." That was a lie, Weinberg suggested. Wouldn't Dyess himself have been a "Mr. Big, above the law in Hendry County?"

"I'm not now," Dyess meekly replied. "I am in prison."

Dyess was arrested on January 4, 1993, and was subsequently convicted on charges stemming from his drug-smuggling activities. Under federal guidelines, he'll do at least 85 percent of of his sentence of nearly eighteen years, unless prosecutors request a reduction in return for his cooperation.

"You understand as you sit here today that the only person that can help you get a sentence reduction is the prosecutor," Weinberg stated. "You know as you sit here, testifying in this court of law, that if Mr. Clark sits there in judgment and is not happy with the testimony you give, you will end up serving seventeen years, seven months. Correct?"

"Yes sir."

"So your life, or the next sixteen years of your life, is up to the man at that table," Weinberg went on, pointing toward Clark.

"Yes sir."

"That is a lot of power he has, doesn't he?"

Before Dyess could reply, the prosecutor objected and Judge Moreno instructed Weinberg to move on.

As the trial nears the end of its second month, a pattern has emerged: firsthand accounts of a smuggling organization believed to be one of the largest in its day, followed by relentless cross-examination. More than two dozen witnesses have already testified, filling nearly 5000 pages of court transcripts. Four hundred exhibits have been entered into evidence.

But one exhibit has yet to be admitted. If left unchallenged, it threatens to destroy the defense's suggestion that Falcon and Magluta stopped smuggling after the early Eighties. Christopher Clark told the jury during his opening statement that when Falcon and Magluta were arrested, agents seized ledgers and records of an ongoing criminal enterprise. (Defense attorneys had argued for several years — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — that the ledgers should not be admitted because they had been seized illegally. They lost that fight.)

"These records reflect that from 1988 until their arrest in 1991, these two defendants were responsible for the distribution of 35,000 kilograms of cocaine, that this was from an inventory that they had on hand of 55,000 kilograms of cocaine," Clark said. He claimed that from 1988 to 1991, $435 million in cocaine had been bought and sold by Falcon and Magluta. "Staggering figures," he added.

Although it is not part of the indictment, prosecutors contend Falcon and Magluta continued to operate an enormous drug empire even after their arrest in 1991. And Clark told jurors that in the attic of one of the pair's employees, DEA agents found 3000 kilos of cocaine, worth $50 million.

Big numbers.

The prosecutor also told of a raid on a second stash house that proved unsuccessful. The cocaine, estimated by government informants to have amounted to more than 1000 kilos, had already been smuggled out.

Prosecutors say they have no idea where that cocaine ended up.

Originally published in the December 14, 1995, issue of Miami New Times. Click here to return to "Everything There Is to Know..."
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Jim DeFede
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