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U.S. officer's wife accused in cocaine case

While U.S. Army Col. James Hiett oversaw counternarcotics operations as the highest-ranking U.S. military officer posted in Colombia, his wife allegedly was sending packages full of cocaine through the U.S. government's overseas mail system, prosecutors say.

At least six times in April and May, Laurie Anne Hiett sent small boxes of cocaine to addresses in New York City, court documents charge. Aghast Army investigators launched a criminal inquiry after one of the packages was intercepted by U.S. Customs in Miami on May 23.

Investigators found a smuggling plot that allegedly entangles Laurie Hiett with the U.S. Embassy chauffeur who used to drive her husband.

At one point during an interrogation, Laurie Hiett, who is in her mid-30s, grew "extremely agitated" and blurted out, "I'm afraid they'll kill me," court documents say.

Officially, Col. Hiett is off the hook. He has asked for _ and received _ a transfer from his post in this cocaine-producing country.

"The investigation did not reveal any evidence that Col. Hiett had any prior knowledge of the alleged criminal actions of his spouse, nor any involvement," said Raul Duany, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America.

As head of the U.S. military group in Colombia, Col. Hiett oversaw U.S. Marines protecting the Embassy, U.S. Special Forces rotating through Colombia for training and other U.S. troops carrying out counternarcotics missions. At any given time, about 200 U.S. troops are in Colombia.

Laurie Hiett was charged Thursday in Brooklyn with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, Lee Dunst, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a telephone interview. She was freed on $150,000 bail, he said.

If convicted, she could face 10 years to life in prison.

Neither Hiett nor the Miami lawyer who Dunst said represents her, Paul Lazarus, could be reached for comment.

The Hietts arrived in Colombia in early 1998. Laurie Hiett grew fond of northern Bogota's Zona Rosa, a fashionable district of discos, boutiques and restaurants, and was often there in the company of Jorge Alfonso Ayala, a Colombian who had worked for 15 years at the embassy and was assigned to be her husband's driver, the documents say.

In the court documents, Hiett told Army investigators that she never knew what was in the packages she mailed and that she did so only as a favor to Ayala.

The chauffeur rejected Laurie Hiett's assertion and told Army investigators June 2 that "Hiett abused cocaine."

"Further, Ayala stated that Hiett had asked him on prior occasions to assist her in obtaining cocaine," a court affidavit says.

Laurie Hiett mailed the first package April 13, the affidavit says. It describes all six packages as measuring about 12 inches by four inches by six inches, each containing a box wrapped in brown paper and filled with cocaine, with no apparent effort to conceal it within some other substance or packaging.

Laurie Hiett signed U.S. Customs declarations for all six packages. She declared that the first package contained a T-shirt, picture, candy and coffee. Later packages contained books, Colombian artifacts, a birthday present and a candle, she wrote on the forms, the affidavit asserts.

Laurie Hiett relied on postal facilities within the bunker-like U.S. Embassy, sidestepping the Colombian postal system. Known as the APO, for Air Force Postal Service, the system allows U.S. diplomats and their families to send and receive mail from abroad.

Each of the six packages allegedly sent by Laurie Hiett contained 2.6 pounds of cocaine, worth about $30,000 at wholesale prices, the court affidavit says.

All the packages were sent to addresses in New York. Police arrested the recipient of several of the boxes, Hernan Arcila, at his Queens home May 25, the papers say.

The court papers note that Laurie Hiett traveled between Colombia and the United States three times during the period she was mailing the packages. At one point, Laurie Hiett spent several days in Manhattan's Marriott Hotel with a witness in the case whose identity has been kept secret.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, Robert Schmidt, said the chauffeur no longer works at the mission. He declined to say whether any review had been made of embassy postal procedures.