Government Case Against Lehder Paints Bahamas As Linchpin Of Drug Traffic
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Prosecutors at the trial of alleged drug lord Carlos Lehder Rivas produced more than 100 witnesses over 22 weeks to show that he operated a multimillion- dollar smuggling business centered on the Bahamas.
While the prosecution tried to draw a noose around Lehder, it also presented evidence of the key role of the Bahamas island chain, and a federal grand jury reportedly is looking into the activities of Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling.
Lehder, 38, is accused of conspiring to smuggle 3.3 tons of cocaine into the United States through his private island in the Bahamas, Norman’s Cay, from 1978 to 1980.
The Colombian is charged with conspiracy, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, importation of cocaine and operation of a continuing criminal enterprise. His co-defendant, Jack Carlton Reed, 57, of San Pedro, Calif., is charged only with conspiracy.
The prosecution rested its case against the two Thursday. The defense is expected to begin Monday and to last at least two weeks.
″The issue in this case is not whether Mr. Lehder was a drug smuggler but whether Mr. Lehder as an individual committed the 11 crimes charged,″ Ed Shohat, one of Lehder’s attorneys, said last week.
When the jury selection started in October, attorneys said they expected the trial to last from six weeks to three months. But, counting jury selection and a two-week Christmas recess, the trial has ended its 30th week.
″Carlos Lehder pursued a singular dream, a singular vision: to be the king of cocaine transportation,″ U.S. Attorney Robert Merkle said in his opening statement in mid-November. ″He was to cocaine transportation what Henry Ford was to cars.″
While in federal prison during the 1970s, Lehder began hatching his plans to form a cocaine-smuggling empire, prosecutors said.
The Colombian first began smuggling small amounts of the drug inside the lining of suitcases, using young women as couriers, according to testimony. The smuggling, witnesses testified, became bolder as time progressed.
Key prosecution witness Ed Ward, an admitted smuggler, described Norman’s Cay, about 45 miles southeast of Nassau, as the perfect transshipment point. The island was sparsely populated, had a 3,000-foot airstrip and no police or customs officials.
Ward testified that he flew 10 loads of Colombian cocaine into the United States for Lehder, whom he met in 1979.
The trial also has touched on alleged payoffs to Bahamian officials, including allegations from numerous witnesses that Pindling filled his pockets with bribes from smugglers such as Lehder.
Ward testified that he gave former Bahamian Agriculture Minister George Smith $100,000 that was ″supposed to go directly to the prime minister, Prime Minister Pindling.″
Law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Merkle has been presenting evidence about Pindling to a federal grand jury in Tampa, including reams of material first presented at the Lehder trial.
Other news reports have said that the grand jury investigation was located in Miami or Jacksonville, rather than Tampa.
Merkle, when asked last week about whether a grand jury was investigating Pindling, said, ″I can’t comment on that.″
Pindling’s name has frequently been mentioned in relation to drug investigations, but in 1984, a royal commission of inquiry in the Bahamas found that Pindling had more money than known income, but none of that appeared to be drug-related.
Pindling won re-election a year ago by invoking the fear common to small nations in this hemisphere that the United States is meddling in their affairs.
Bill Kalis, Pindling’s spokesman in Nassau, said Friday he had heard reports of grand jury investigations in Miami or Jacksonville, but that Pindling didn’t expect to be indicted.
″Most of the testimony at the Lehder trial is recycled from the commission of inquiry,″ Kalis said. He added that the grand jury ″might be hearing some of the same plea-bargaining witnesses that are appearing at the Lehder trial.″ Much of the testimony in the trial has come from convicted drug smugglers granted immunity from prosecution or awaiting sentencing.
At one point in Lehder’s trial, defense attorneys reminded prosecutors and jurors that Pindling was not on trial.
But in his opening statement, Merkle had told jurors, ″You also will hear evidence that Carlos Lehder was making payoffs directly the prime minister of the Bahamas, still the prime minister now, Lynden Pindling.″
Lehder is also charged in separate indictments in Los Angeles and Miami.
The Miami indictment accuses him of being one of the leaders of the so- called Medellin Cartel, believed to be responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into United States - a drug operation worth $8 billion each year.