John Fulton Robertson III, a Southern California man described by a government prosecutor as "one of the key players" in what is believed to be the largest known cocaine-smuggling ring yet uncovered, was denied bail Tuesday by a U.S. magistrate.
Robertson, 39, is expected to be held at the Terminal Island medium-security federal prison for the next few weeks and then returned to stand trial in Pennsylvania, where he was indicted last week.
Robertson and 12 other people are accused of operating a sophisticated smuggling operation that airlifted 7 1/2 tons of cocaine from Colombia during the past six years.
U.S. Magistrate Volney V. Brown Jr. said he agreed with the conclusions of Assistant U.S. Atty. Janet L. Goldstein that the 39-year-old Robertson "poses a risk to the safety of the community" and, additionally, is a flight risk since he is a licensed pilot with "access to substantial assets."
Arrested Last Week
Robertson, charged on one count of conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine and 22 other counts stemming from the covert operation, was arrested by Drug Enforcement Agency agents last week at his Long Beach aircraft modification firm. Since then, he has been held at the federal prison at Terminal Island until he can be transported back to Pennsylvania.
Not much information has surfaced about Robertson, who authorities said has a residence in Palos Verdes Estates and a vacation retreat in Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, where federal agents found $4.2 million in cash buried in sewer pipes.
Robertson, a clean-cut, boyish-looking man, said nothing at Tuesday's detention hearing. His lawyer, Paul J. Killion of Harrisburg, Pa., told the court that Robertson's "common-law" wife, who he said is a native of France, also was in the courtroom. She declined to talk to a reporter.
In filling in some of Robertson's personal history and arguing that his client posed no danger to society and should be allowed to make bail, Killion said Robertson has a degree from Cornell University and a master's degree in business administration and a law degree from California schools, which he did not identify.
Duffel Bags Full of Cash
Robertson, he said, was a marketing representative for International Business Machines Corp. for eight years before he was hired by Air America Inc. to run the airline's Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Airport operation. It was there, the government charges, that the cocaine-smuggling flights actually began with duffel bags full of cash being loaded aboard planes.
According to prosecutor Goldstein, Robertson "smuggled $25 million into Colombia and brought back thousands of kilos (a kilo is 2.2 pounds) into the U.S."
Robertson, she said, played a major role in providing planes and pilots for the cocaine operation and used his Southern California home as a communications center to coordinate its activities.
Meanwhile, another person charged with participating in the ring has pleaded guilty before a U.S. district judge in Scranton, Pa., and has agreed to cooperate with authorities.
Christopher Peter Sharsky, 28, of Uvalde, Tex., entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to import and possess with intent to distribute cocaine.