TAMPA - Michael Tsalickis, the Amazon adventurer once featured in National Geographic magazine, was convicted of cocaine trafficking Wednesday in the second-largest cocaine seizure ever made by U.S. officials. After a day and a half of deliberations, a federal jury found Tsalickis guilty Wednesday of four counts alleging that he conspired to smuggle 7,300 pounds of cocaine.
The shipment was hidden painstakingly inside 700 hollowed-out cedar boards by a small army of people in a South American jungle, prosecutors said. The seizure came after the lumber, mingled with thousands of other boards, was shipped to Tsalickis' warehouse in Tarpon Springs.
Tsalickis contended that he arranged the shipment for three acquaintances, unaware it would contain cocaine. But prosecutors used a chain of altered and phony documents to show how Tsalickis, once a Tarpon Springs Eagle Scout, had created an elaborate paper trail to divert suspicion away from himself.
Tsalickis, now 61, faces a maximum of life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 17. Two Colombian men who worked with him will be tried on the same charges beginning next week.
Tsalickis slumped after the verdict was read. But his dark brown eyes flashed during an interview as he was taken away by marshals.
"I'm innocent and I want to ask for a retrial," he said. "It's an injustice."
A friend standing nearby said, "Did you read his eyes? Keep that in your heart." Tsalickis' wife and other family members showed little emotion after the verdict, but hustled away from reporters.
Prosecutor Walter Furr praised the judge, jury and investigators in the complex, monthlong case.
"You're always gratified when you put a case to the people and they reach the decision you expect," Furr said. "This was a super case."
Defense attorney D. Frank Winkles complained about the tactics used by prosecutors, who showed the jury Brazilian newspaper articles concerning Tsalickis and his reputed boss in the cocaine underworld, Vicente Rivera. The 1985 articles, found in the files of Tsalickis' accountant, established that Tsalickis knew about Rivera's alleged position as one of Colombia's drug lords.
Since at least 1984, federal agents have suspected Tsalickis and Rivera of working for one of the world's biggest cocaine gangs, the so-called Cali Cartel of Colombia. The Cali group's trademark has become its huge shipments of cocaine hidden inside hollowed-out lumber from the Amazon forests. The largest seizure in U.S. history, an 8,700-pound load discovered in Port Everglades last year, also was the work of the Cali group, according to federal agents.
Tsalickis testified that he acted as a legitimate business agent for Rivera and his Panamanian trading company, Hanko Trading Corp. The company frequently shipped lumber to the United States and brought back appliances and other goods for sale in Colombia. But prosecutors said Hanko's real businesses are smuggling and money-laundering.
Tsalickis said he met Rivera in the mid-1950s, when Tsalickis moved from his native Tarpon Springs to the Amazon region of Colombia to become an animal trapper and trader. Rivera "used to steal monkeys from me," Tsalickis testified.
After Wednesday's verdict, the jury voted to allow the government to seize most of Tsalickis' commercial assets, including his Amazon Traders business, his Tarpon Springs office complex and two freighters used in the smuggling scheme. Federal and state authorities already have filed to seize many of Tsalickis' other assets.