BELL — After an early morning raid in 1985 that resulted in three arrests and the seizure of a small amount of cocaine, Sgt. Jerry Guzzetta suspected that there might be more to it.
Guzzetta--who was the sole full-time narcotics investigator for the Bell-Cudahy Police Department--embarked on a three-month investigation that law enforcement officials say crippled a Colombian-based drug trafficking and money-laundering ring.
The investigation, aided by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, U.S. Customs and other local agencies, netted 17 kilograms of cocaine, numerous firearms, jewelry, two vehicles, two money counters and close to a quarter of a million dollars in cash.
Check for $224,000
Now, more than a year and several successful prosecutions later, the Police Department is getting something a little more tangible than recognition of a job well done: a $224,00 check from the U.S. Customs Service.
"The investigation took a pretty sizable organization out of circulation," Quint Villanueva, the agency's regional commissioner, said of the Tomas Vento organization, which was operating in several Los Angeles and Orange county cities, including Bell and Anaheim Hills.
Vento, a Colombian national who allegedly headed the narcotics-smuggling and money-laundering ring, is a fugitive, said Mike Fleming, a Customs Service spokesman. Out of 17 persons arrested on narcotic charges, six were indicted on federal narcotic distribution and conspiracy charges. Four have been sentenced; two more are awaiting sentencing.
Law Provides Incentive
The hefty check from U.S. Customs was given to the Bell-Cudahy department under provisions of a 1984 law that allows seized assets from drug operations to be shared among local, state and federal agencies that work on a case together.
Noting that "narcotics investigations sometimes cross paths," Villanueva said the law provides an incentive for law enforcement agencies to share information and work together. He said there are no restrictions on how the money can be used.
Guzzetta's initial investigation began after he served an arrest warrant at a Bell motel. Ten pounds of cocaine was seized; because it was exceptionally pure, Guzzetta kept following leads and made additional arrests, culminating in the prosecution of people who had direct Colombian connections.
City officials said they expect to receive $1.2 million from seized assets of other narcotics investigations that came after the one in 1985.
Police Chief Frank Fording said he will ask the Bell City Council to use the money to buy a computer system to automate all police operations. The system will cost about $250,000, he said.
"What this enables you to do is recoup overtime costs and other costs (incurred) to conduct this kind of an investigation," said Bell Mayor George Cole.
After the computer system is in place, both Cole and Fording said they would like to start a drug awareness program in area elementary schools with the money they get in the future.
Although other investigations in the region--which includes California, Hawaii and Oregon--have netted larger seizures of cocaine and assets, Villanueva said the bust "was big for Bell."
Involved Many Officers
With a case this size, the department--with 42 sworn and 17 civilian officers--was forced to "start looking around for help real quick" said Villanueva. "A whole bunch of us got involved in it."
Fleming said the agency expects to turn over from $3 million to $4 million to local and state agencies nationwide by the end of this year.
Villanueva said the growing number of drug-related cases in smaller cities may indicate that drug traffickers are moving to "small towns that don't have large police departments."
Cole agreed that Bell may be a target for traffickers, with its easy freeway access and a string of motels that allow people to "stay pretty anonymous."
"People think these smaller towns are not as sophisticated in combatting drugs. I think we're showing them that's not the case in Bell," Cole said.