TAMPA - Federal and local law authorities raided a Tarpon Springs warehouse Tuesday night and Wednesday and seized what is expected to be a record amount of cocaine, perhaps as much as 8,800 pounds, secreted away inside hollowed-out cedar boards imported from Colombia to St. Petersburg. Agents with X-ray machines, circular saws and power drills were still going through more than 9,000 boards from the shipment late Wednesday. By mid-afternoon, they had recovered more than 7,000 pounds of cocaine believed bound for New York, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The search began Tuesday after the arrest of Tarpon Springs adventurer and businessman Michael Tsalickis, 60, of 655 Bayshore Drive, and two alleged Colombian associates, Freddy Perez and Pedro Narvaez. All three men were being held without bail Wednesday at the Hillsborough County Jail pending a hearing Friday.
The shipment allegedly arrived aboard the Amazon Sky, a freighter owned by Tsalickis. The boat pulled into Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg on April 19 and was unloaded over the next four days.
At a press conference with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and representatives from the U.S. Customs Service, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department and the St. Petersburg Police Department, U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle said the seizure could top a record 8,698.6 pounds of cocaine seized in Port Everglades last November. That shipment, like the load seized in Tarpon Springs, was stuffed in a shipment of hollowed-out lumber.
Both loads allegedly originated with the Cali Cartel, a Colombian-based drug organization similar to the infamous Medellin Cartel, said to be the world's biggest supplier of cocaine. Tsalickis was allegedly linked to the Cali Cartel as early as 1984, Tampa DEA agent Richard Crawford said Wednesday.
"I think this is a world-class competitor of the Medellin Cartel," said Tom Cash, special agent in charge of the DEA in Miami.
Merkle, who last week rested his case in the Jacksonville drug trial of accused Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder, said the seizure in Tarpon Springs signifies the continued dominance of Florida as a national port of entry for drugs.
"If anyone has not awakened to that fact," said Merkle, "I hope they take notice."
Bonnie Tischler, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs office in Tampa, said, "Unfortunately for you, Tampa appears to have reached Miami proportions."
Tsalickis, a native of Tarpon Springs who has been written about in National Geographic, has operated numerous businesses, including a monkey farm and lumber mills in Leticia, Colombia. Law enforcement officials have said Leticia is a manufacturing center and port of departure for cocoa paste that is used to make cocaine found in the United States.
According to a sworn statement by DEA agent Crawford, who has been investigating the Cali Cartel since 1978, Tsalickis has been involved in importing cocaine since 1983. He and his family are suspected of laundering drug proceeds through businesses in Pinellas County, including the Tarpon Financial Center at 855 U.S. 19 S, an office and warehouse complex in Tarpon Springs.
Merkle's office filed a federal civil suit in Tampa on Wednesday seeking forfeiture of the complex, assessed at more than $682,000 by the Pinellas County property appraiser's office.
The Amazon Sky docked at Bayboro Harbor carrying 459 pallets of cedar lumber - more than 9,000 boards. Crawford, testifying Wednesday at a hearing for Tsalickis and the two Colombians, said the DEA was tipped off about the shipment last February, when a letter written in Spanish and postmarked from Cali arrived at the DEA's Miami office.
The letter said the Amazon Sky would arrive in St. Petersburg with 4,000 kilos of cocaine - worth an estimated $1.7-billion. Only some of the lumber was to be hollowed out and packed with cocaine, Crawford said.
Unloading began April 20. A sister ship, the Southern Sky, docked April 16, but was not carrying lumber or cocaine.
The freighter's manifest says the Amazon Sky's lumber was being delivered to the Tampa firm of Gulf Exotic Wood Imports Inc. Narvaez, one of the two Colombians arrested, is president of the company.
While inspecting the cargo on April 20, a customs agent "drilled one board and hit pay dirt," said Dianne Zwicker, district director of the U.S. Customs Center in Tampa.
But customs and drug enforcement agents didn't budge. They watched the ship's crew unload the boards and take them during the next four days to a rented warehouse at 2100 28th St. N in St. Petersburg. A few days later, some of the boards were taken to the Tarpon Financial Center.
Stuffing the hollowed-out boards probably required an "army" of 800 to 1,000 people in Colombia, said Cash of the DEA in Miami.
The workers drilled compartments into the boards and inserted white plastic boxes filled with cocaine. They surrounded the cocaine-filled boards with regular lumber, and loaded them aboard ship in bundles of 24, Cash said.
As the wood was being unloaded from the Amazon Sky, federal agents got a warrant from U.S. magistrate Thomas Wilson to install a video surveillance camera at the St. Petersburg warehouse and to wiretap the telephone.
According to Crawford's sworn statement, federal agents have videotapes of 181 bundles of cocaine-filled lumber being loaded onto trucks for the drive to Tsalickis' warehouse in Tarpon Springs. The loads were delivered over three days late last month, according to Crawford.
Narvaez, according to the federal charges, rented the St. Petersburg warehouse for $1,900 a month. Shipping records list Gulf Exotic, a Tampa-based company formed earlier this month, as the recipient of the load.
Perez, the other Colombian charged, allegedly selected the pallets for delivery from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs and drove a van as a lookout while the loads were being delivered.
Police and federal agents kept both warehouses under 24-hour surveillance. All three men were videotaped smiling as the first shipment of cocaine was delivered to Tsalickis' warehouse behind his company, Amazon Trading, Crawford said.
A search of Tsalickis' home turned up a floor safe that contained $20,000 and precious stones. A cashier's check for $100,000 also was discovered at the home, as well as invoices and financial records linking Tsalickis to Perez and Narvaez, investigators said.
The cocaine seizure, while possibly the largest in the nation's history, isn't likely to affect local supplies, Cash said.
"There will be no panic at the street level," Cash said. "There's too much of this coming in."
Both the Amazon Sky and the Southern Sky resumed operations in St. Petersburg after a history of troubles with city and federal officials. Federal marshals seized the Southern Sky last summer and sold it after its crew was abandoned in St. Petersburg for nine months.
The Amazon Sky was seized later when a crew member was injured, reportedly in South America. It is unclear from records how Tsalickis became the registered agent for both ships. Both were to be used for importing hardwoods and plywood from the Amazon River, and for exporting food, beer, car parts and other items.
On Tuesday, a man who identified himself as the captain of the Amazon Sky denied any knowledge of the cocaine shipment.
"I didn't know there was cocaine on board," he said.
The man was taken to a hotel by police along with 16 other boat workers, mostly Hondurans and Uruguayans, who looked angry and tired as they carried luggage and cardboard boxes tied with string. None of the 17 was charged.
Tsalickis, Perez and Narvaez were charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine. Each faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and $4-million in fines.
- Information from Staff Writers Sue Landry, Paul Heaton, Kathy Subko and Karl Vick was used in this report.