The Colombian woman and her husband leased a $250,000 house on Belleau Road in Glendale, furnished it in grand style, and soon blended into the affluent neighborhood like chameleons. They led a quiet life, avoiding most of their neighbors and rarely entertaining.
But, occasionally, a truck pulled up to the house at night and men made brief visits.
Glendale narcotic detectives, suspecting that the pair were using the home as a cocaine warehouse, began watching it. But before the detectives could confirm their suspicions, the couple dealt cocaine to an FBI agent in a Las Vegas casino. The husband managed to elude federal agents, but the wife was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years in prison, authorities said.
Police searched the Belleau Road house, but someone had beaten them to it. The house had been ransacked and the backyard was dug up, leading police to theorize that cocaine had been buried there. Investigators say they did discover records of shipments and transactions that indicated that the house had provided a cover for drug trafficking.
That 1983 incident illustrates what police say has become a prevalent practice in drug smuggling operations: setting up "stash houses" where large amounts of cocaine are warehoused, awaiting distribution to dealers, in suburbs like Glendale.
Although some of the stash houses have been occupied by couples with a flair for opulence, most of them house small families who try to avoid attention from authorities or other criminals, investigators say.
In their quest for suburban anonymity, many of the drug smugglers have taken to driving mid-sized sedans and dressing in bargain-basement clothes. They are so mobile that they could lease a house in Montclair for five months and then pick up and move to another house in South Gate in a matter of hours.
Stash houses have been raided recently in Pasadena, West Covina, Burbank, Chatsworth, Sunland and upper-income sections of Orange County.
"They are everywhere," said Detective Donald MacNeil) of the Glendale Police Department.
Glendale, however, is a particular favorite of drug smugglers because it is along several freeways and near Burbank Airport, which is large enough for clandestine drug shipments, yet not as heavily monitored as larger airports such as Los Angeles International, federal officials say.
Also, the city's population is about 18% Latino, which means that the smugglers--who are usually from South America--can blend in, investigators said.
"The Southern California area has been the cocaine and drug capital for many years. So the smugglers figured, why not set up a direct line of smuggling right to the site," said Los Angeles Police Lt. J. R. Schiller.
Suburban outposts for cocaine distribution are the first resting place for drugs smuggled into the country from Mexico and South America. The cocaine is shipped to the houses and held there until sold to wholesale dealers, beginning the first of several changes of hands.
This shift to suburbia as the shipping terminal for smugglers started around 1980, authorities say. Glendale police say no such activity was noticed before then.
"For the last six years, it has become so much of a problem that instead of just regular narcotics we had to increase our bureau and split it. We now have those who deal just with major smugglers because those cases are more involved," said Glendale Police Lt. Jerry L. Stolze.
Increase in Arrests
In 1980, the department hired four new detectives and started the major smuggling unit. That year there were 95 arrests involving heroin or cocaine in Glendale. In 1985, Glendale police made 214 such arrests. The department does not keep statistics on how many of those may have been linked to stash houses, but investigators say the number has definitely risen.
To fight the increase, the Glendale City Council this month approved the hiring of two additional narcotic officers at a cost of about $86,000 a year.
Glendale has become so attractive as a drug smuggling way station that last winter the Glendale Board of Realtors mailed its 850 members a warning to watch for South Americans with cash who want to move into a house quickly. The mailing was a duplicate of a police-provided profile handed out earlier by the Burbank Board of Realtors, Glendale board officials said. A real estate agent who recently leased a house in northern Glendale to a Colombian couple who were later arrested as drug smugglers said the pair paid five months' rent in advance--about $9,000--in cash.
'We're Not the FBI'
"They had no credit history, but they had the money and the lady who owned the house was quite happy to accept it," the real estate agent said. Fearing for her safety, she spoke on the condition that she not be identified.
"What are we supposed to do? We're not the FBI; we're in the business of selling houses, and these people don't wear T-shirts saying 'we are dope dealers,' " she said.