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'Stash Houses': New Twist in Drug Trade

July 20, 1986|DENISE-MARIE SANTIAGO and ROY H. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writers

They were a quiet foursome, not unlike other families in Rowland Heights.

A mother, a father, a teen-age son and a young daughter had lived in the rented house at 1430 Destoya Ave. for four months. Occasionally, the young daughter played in the fenced-in front yard, neighbors said.

Some neighbors recall that the family had several nightly visitors, but no one suspected what police allege was being concealed in the three-bedroom, ranch-style home.

In April, police raided the house and found $2.4 million in cash and 627 pounds of cocaine. The father and son were arrested; the mother and daughter had left the house a few days earlier.

"I have two dogs and they didn't even bark. So they kept it really inside," said one neighbor who requested that her name not be used, like other neighbors who expressed fears for their safety.

The incident illustrates what police say has become a prevalent practice in drug-smuggling operations: setting up "stash houses" in suburbs like Rowland Heights, where large amounts of cocaine are stored, awaiting distribution to dealers.

Although some 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, neighbors or other criminals, investigators say.

"They just want to blend in, not make any waves," said Mark Tedesco, an investigator for the West Covina Police Department who was involved in the raids in which 16 people were arrested at five houses in four San Gabriel Valley cities.

In their quest for suburban anonymity, many of the drug smugglers drive mid-sized sedans and dress in bargain-basement clothes, according to authorities.

The smugglers are so mobile that they could lease a house in Montclair for five months, then pick up and move to another house in South Gate in a matter of hours.

Stash houses recently have been raided in Pasadena, Burbank, Chatsworth, Sunland and upper-income sections of Orange County.

"We're dealing with something that is relatively new to us," said Sgt. Ed Miller of the Pasadena Police Department. "Most of the Colombian narcotic connections are moving operations to the West Coast. This is something we didn't face two or three years ago."

"They are everywhere," said Detective Donald MacNeil of the Glendale Police Department.

Federal officials say that Glendale is a particular favorite among drug smugglers because of its proximity to several freeways and Burbank Airport, which is large enough for clandestine drug shipments yet is not as heavily monitored as larger airports such as Los Angeles International.

Glendale has become so attractive as a drug-smuggling way station that last year 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 duplicated 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 later arrested as drug smugglers said the pair paid five months' rent in advance--about $9,000--in cash.

"They had no credit history, but they had the money, and the lady who owned the house was quite happy to accept it," said the real estate agent, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified.

'We're Not the FBI'

"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.

"The Southern California area has been the cocaine and drug capital for many years. So the smugglers figure, 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 change of hands.

Stash houses are not heavily fortified like rock houses, where "rock cocaine" is sold and where Los Angeles police have used a battering ram to gain entry. Raids on stash houses usually are carried out without resistance.

Choice Location

"They're not vicious. The rock house person is . . . dealing with low-lifes in comparison. These people staying in these stash houses only deal with one or two persons," said a U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

He said that suburbia is the choice for stash locations because it offers relative isolation from street criminals.

"You just don't deal with that amount of cocaine with any old dirt bag off the street," said Capt. Robert Blanchard, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's narcotics division.

The guardians of the houses are usually South American families set up by drug smugglers to act as "dope sitters."

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