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Navy Man ‘Risked Life’ to Infiltrate Alleged Drug Ring

May 29, 1996

ROME (AP) _ Posing as a seaman anxious for easy money, a U.S. Navy petty officer befriended sailors allegedly smuggling drugs into Italy and cracked open an elaborate drug-trafficking network.

The undercover operation, detailed by a Navy official on Wednesday, led to 14 arrests this month in the Naples area.

The sailors had been recruited by Nigerian drug dealers to carry heroin from Turkey and smaller amounts of cocaine from South America, the Navy alleges. Some trips netted a sailor up to $30,000, equal to a year’s pay, officials said.

``The guy risked his life going undercover,″ said Lt. Cmdr. Bill Spann, a Navy spokesman.

Recordings and affidavits from the petty officer are expected to make up the core of the case against the seven men and seven women sailors arrested.

Eight other sailors were arrested in the past year. Four have been sentenced and four others await trial, said Spann.

``They targeted the youngest and most vulnerable sailors,″ said Spann. ``They hired kids to act as mules for them.″

Military members were allegedly sought out because of the relative ease with which they can cross borders. ``The key was a clean-cut look and an American passport,″ said Spann.

The first glimpse into the alleged network came in May 1995, when two U.S. sailors were arrested at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. The servicemen were returning from an off-duty trip to Turkey carrying 13.2 pounds of heroin, Spann said.

Through arrests and testimony from suspects, naval investigators closed in on a group of sailors based in Naples. In March, the undercover operation began.

``It was a tight group. They hung out together,″ said Spann. ``The petty officer needed to go slow, gain their confidence.″

They played basketball together. They drank and danced until dawn in Naples area clubs. The alleged smugglers never flashed any wads of cash or expensive purchases, said Spann.

``They were probably coached,″ he said. ``They were too young and too inexperienced to be so careful.″

Except for one lieutenant commander, all those arrested were junior enlisted sailors ranging from 18 to 25 years old.

The break came when the undercover man was asked if he wanted to make a smuggling run to Turkey. He was furnished with a round-trip ticket, a hotel reservation and a phone number, said Spann.

Turkish authorities arrested the contact. Several Nigerians were also picked up by Italian authorities and 10 pounds of heroin and several thousand dollars were seized.

``This is not Navy-unique or Naples-unique,″ said Spann. ``Traffickers are always looking for ways to move their drugs.″

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