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Lehder’s Defense Attorney Calls Government’s Case a ‘Masquerade’

November 17, 1987

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ The government’s case against accused cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder Rivas is ″nothing but a masquerade of horrors″ choreographed by prosecutors, a defense attorney said today in opening arguments.

″Your government is literally buying Joe Lehder’s conviction,″ said Edward R. Shohat in his opening statement today.

Although the defendant’s given name is Carlos Lehder Rivas, Shohat said he is more commonly known by his friends as Joe Lehder.

Shohat said the prosecution will present witnesses who have made deals with the government, including some who have lied in other courtrooms.

The prosecutor had painted a portrait of Lehder as the mastermind behind a cocaine-smuggling using bribes, violence, his intellect and charm in a scheme to form his own island nation and become the ″king of cocaine transportation.″

In his opening statement Monday, U.S. Attorney Robert W. Merkle detailed the life of Lehder from the early 1970s through his arrest last spring in Colombia.

″Lehder’s plan was to develop sufficient income from the sale of cocaine to literally buy his own island nation, a haven from international drug laws,″ Merkle said in his three-hour summary of the government’s case. ″Carlos Lehder pursued a singular dream, a singular vision, to be the king of cocaine transportation.″

Lehder even dispatched his mother to smuggle cocaine into California, and ″was to cocaine transportation what Henry Ford was to cars,″ Merkle said.

Defense attorneys for Lehder and co-defendant Jack Carlton Reed began their opening statements today.

″The government will not be able to prove Joe Lehder is guilty of these charges despite all the forces the government can muster,″ Shohat said.

Merkle said he would present evidence on Lehder’s alleged use of bribes and violence to help build his cocaine empire.

″You will also hear evidence that Carlos Lehder was making payoffs directly to the prime minister of the Bahamas, still the prime minister now, Lynden Pindling,″ Merkle said.

In the Bahamas, Bill Kalis, a spokesman for the Bahamian government, said an inquiry board concluded in 1984 after months of hearings that it lacked credible evidence to tie Pindling directly to bribes.

″We’re not going to comment during the trial on any allegations that come up,″ Kalis said.

Pindling, the Bahamas’ leader since 1967, was re-elected to another five- year term in June.

Lehder, 38, is accused in a 1981 indictment with smuggling 3.3 tons of cocaine from Colombia to Normans Cay in the Bahamas and on to airports in Georgia and Florida in 1979 and 1980.

″Carlos Lehder turned Normans Cay into an armed camp,″ Merkle said of the honeymoon retreat 40 miles southeast of Nassau.

In a separate federal indictment in Miami, Lehder is accused of being a leader of the violent Medellin Cartel, responsible for 80 percent of U.S. cocaine imports. It is not known when and if that case will go to trial.

Merkle described how Lehder slipped in and out of the United States using aliases and how he used cash to buy a new BMW and a $25,000 airplane.

At one time, Merkle said, Lehder even sent his mother to California with a suitcase full of cocaine, which drew complaints from his contact.

″She wanted to see Disneyland and in this business everybody works,″ Merkle quoted Lehder as saying.

While in a Danbury, Conn., federal prison in 1974 serving a two-year sentence for the sale of marijuana, Lehder met George Jung, who was in prison on marijuana distribution charges, the prosecutor said.

Lehder explained to Jung that he had access to unlimited supplies of cocaine from his Colombian godfather, whom Merkle identified as Gustavo Herrera, but had no distribution network in the United States, Merkle said.

″Lehder saw cocaine as the wave of the future in the United States, ... a product that created and captured its users,″ Merkle said Jung would testify.

Cocaine bought by Lehder in Colombia for $2,000 to $5,000 a kilogram would sell in the United States for $45,000 to $50,000 a kilogram, Merkle said.

When pilots working for Lehder expressed concerns about violence, Merkle quoted Lehder as saying, ″Every once in a while in this business, someone has to die.″

Lehder is charged with conspiracy, cocaine importation, operating a continuing criminal enterprise and eight counts of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Reed, 57, of San Pedro, Calif., who was arrested at his coconut farm in Panama, is charged with conspiracy.

If convicted, Lehder faces life in prison plus 165 years and forfeiture of his assets in the Bahamas.

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