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Nation's biggest cocaine case goes to trial today

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Drug-trafficking tricksters or innocent men on the edge of a nervous breakdown?

That's the puzzle facing jurors in the trial of accused Miami drug lords Augusto "Willy" Falcon and Salvador "Sal" Magluta, which opens today after repeated delays.

Prosecutors say they are two of the most cunning and ruthless drug traffickers ever arrested in South Florida who ran the biggest cocaine-delivery service in United States history. They are charged with importing 75 tons of cocaine between 1978 and 1991, and amassing a fortune of $2.1-billion.

Defense lawyers contend they are innocent men, reduced to nervous wrecks by unfair prison conditions that have left them in no condition to stand trial.

The case against Falcon and Magluta is a tale of life in the fast lane financed by two decades of drug trafficking. Their story is complicated by botched efforts to bring the pair to justice, as well as accusations of witness intimidation, murder and countless prison irregularities.

For their defense the pair have assembled a veritable "dream team," including Albert Krieger, who defended mob boss John Gotti in New York, and Roy Black, whose successful representation of William Kennedy Smith in the Palm Beach rape trial made him one of the most sought-after lawyers in the nation.

The defense contends the case against their clients is based chiefly on the word of witnesses of dubious character _ mostly convicted drug dealers-turned-informants _ who have agreed to testify in exchange for reduced prison terms. The rest, they claim, is the product of government misconduct and unproven circumstantial evidence.

Known to their friends as "The Boys," the Miami Senior High dropouts built their empire in the days of the showy cocaine cowboys who made little effort to hide their ill-gotten gains. Throughout the early and mid-1980s, both men were stars on the powerboat racing circuit. Falcon won the 1986 Offshore Challenge in the Keys, and Magluta won three national championships.

In their heyday, investigators say Falcon and Magluta hid millions of dollars in Florida banks, delivering suitcases of drug money in secret after-hours deposits. Loans from those banks financed construction companies and management firms that built or bought millions of dollars worth of property. Federal agents have seized houses and apartment complexes across the Miami area, as well as a farm, complete with an airstrip, south of Lake Okeechobee, and real estate in the Florida Keys.

They allegedly laundered drug profits through offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations established in the Bahamas, the Dutch Antilles and Panama.

Arrested in October 1991, Falcon and Magluta were supposed to stand trial two years ago. But proceedings were delayed by a legal dispute over evidence seized from Magluta's Miami Beach mansion.

Defense lawyers argued that the evidence was seized during an improper search after Magluta's palatial home was stormed by a 25-man assault team from the U.S. Marshals Service, backed up by drug agents and Miami.

A few hours later, police raided the $9,000-a-month Fort Lauderdale mansion where Falcon lived.

In the houses police found nearly $1-million in cash and jewelry, a small amount of cocaine and a kilo of gold. More importantly they recovered a treasure trove of ledgers and financial records detailing a staggering network of contacts, planes and boats that funneled cocaine from the Colombian cartels in Medellin and Cali to dozens of cities across the United States.

According to court documents, the ledgers revealed the shipment of 55,759 kilos of cocaine _ more than 61 tons _ from October 1988 through September 1991 alone. Falcon and Magluta allegedly sold at least 30,000 of those same kilos for $435-million during the same period.

Defense lawyers fought for months to keep that evidence out of the trial, arguing that the raid was unconstitutional because agents had no evidence Magluta was inside.

They nearly won.

At first, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno suppressed all evidence seized. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals later sided with the government.

In jail, Falcon and Magluta, law enforcement officials say, used money and threats to intimidate witnesses, keep their hands in drug dealing and get special privileges.

Until recently they were detained in separate prisons after two government witnesses were murdered and two others were wounded. Defense attorneys contend their clients had nothing to do with the violence.

As recently as August, defense lawyers sought to further delay the trial, arguing that prison conditions were so bad that months of solitary confinement had made Falcon and Magluta mentally incompetent to stand trial.

"They lack the capacity to concentrate on their defense. Their energy level remains diminished. Their analytical skills remain deteriorated," defense attorneys stated in court papers.

Magluta's attorney, Martin Weinberg, likened the two to "prisoners of war."

A court-ordered report, however, concluded that both men were incorrigible liars, who had corrupted prison guards with their wealth and presented a major escape risk.

The report added that there was good reason to believe they were involved in attacks on witnesses, although the government offered no specific evidence.

According to the report, while detained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in South Miami, they were discovered collecting information, including newspaper articles, about escapes from other prisons.

Falcon also acquired a private cellular phone in jail after paying a $5,000 bribe to a prison employee.

Meanwhile Magluta allegedly seduced a paralegal who was supposedly visiting on legal business. She was caught engaging in "unauthorized physical contact," according to the report.

Thanks to two other paralegals, both men were also entertained in jail by a private movie screening on prison video equipment. The film: Clear and Present Danger, a Harrison Ford tale about drug lords in Colombia and corruption at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The government's psychiatric tests on the defendants did not turn out well for the defense, either.

The doctor who conducted them concluded there was nothing wrong with their nervous state. Instead he found a pattern of response "often obtained by individuals who attempt to exaggerate their difficulties in order to elicit help or to minimize their responsibility for misconduct."

For the trial, Falcon and Magluta have been brought to the newly opened Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. Prison officials tout the new lockup as a state-of-the-art facility, but defense attorneys complain it is a dungeon far worse than the high-security prisons where they were previously held.

In response to the complaints of mental distress, the government has promised to make their conditions reasonably comfortable.

During the trial they'll have access to TV, non-contact visits, telephones, adult education classes, exercise machines, religious services and table games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Risk.

But Judge Moreno seems more concerned with the state of mind of potential jurors.

Just in case the trial turns into a long, drawn-out affair, the judge is taking no chances. In what appears to reflect post-O.J. judicial concern for juror well-being, he penned an unusual letter for prospective jurors guaranteeing them weekends and holidays off, and time off for doctor and dentist appointments.