The investigation began soon after a quiet man moved into No. 301 of the Oakwood Apartments.
By the time it ended, Torrance narcotics investigators had seized $1.3 million in $20 and $100 bills, arrested eight people and found themselves involved in Operation Pisces, the massive undercover drug money-laundering investigation disclosed by the Justice Department last week.
The Torrance investigation also resulted in the discovery of meticulously kept ledgers indicating sales of cocaine involving hundreds of kilos at a time. The ledgers are part of continuing investigations that reach into the highest levels of the major Colombian drug cartels, investigators say.
The investigation led Torrance police into Hawthorne and El Segundo in the South Bay as well as Marina del Rey, Van Nuys, North Hollywood and Canoga Park. They bumped into other police departments chasing the same suspected drug traffickers. The long hours--and missed suppers--not only put a strain on marriages, but bureaucratic concern with the amount of overtime almost aborted the investigation before it produced results.
Torrance narcotics investigator Rich Glass, who is being nominated for a departmental commendation for his work, described the inside workings of the investigation in a lengthy interview.
The manager of the Oakwood Apartments on Anza Avenue contacted Torrance police in 1984. Police had warned apartment managers to look out for people fitting a profile of possible drug involvement, and the new tenant of No. 301 appeared to fit the description, Glass said.
The tenant had paid his deposit and rent in cash. He was a Colombian who was relocating from Miami. And he said his business was import and export trade.
The department had received perhaps 100 similar tips in the past five years, Glass said. About half the time, police have been able to satisfy themselves that criminal activity is going on and about half of those cases lead to prosecution, the investigator said.
In this case, the man was listed in national criminal data bases as a possible cocaine trafficker.
The department's six-member drug team had no major cases requiring much time, so a brief surveillance was set up. Most of the time, the man stayed in his apartment. Occasionally he went out to pay phones and made calls. Sometimes he went to local banks. He bought a white Dodge Omni and paid cash for it.
"We thought it was interesting but not exciting," Glass said.
Late one afternoon after a week of this surveillance, Sgt. Guy Fahnestock was proposing that the team knock off for the day. He was concerned about overtime, according to Glass.
The investigator agreed and called his wife to tell her he would home in an hour.
But a person whom investigators had not seen before arrived, and the two men--tailed by six Torrance undercover police cars--went off in rush-hour traffic.
New Arrival Lost
They ended up at the Van Nuys Airport, where the two men drove around and around a hotel parking lot for two hours. Finally, the pair met with a man in another car, drove to a remote area of the lot, talked briefly and then separated. Police lost the new arrival.
Their original subjects went to a nearby hamburger stand, made a call, began driving back to the airport--and gave police their first real clue to criminal activity.
"Their driving habits changed," Glass said. "They started using residential streets, pulling over at the curb and letting traffic pass them, doing U-turns. It was obvious. He was driving like he was being tailed." Finally the car stopped and the two men waited.
Glass positioned his car several blocks away in a field and began watching through binoculars. Suddenly, something obscured his vision. It was Officer Mike McGaff, a narcotics investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department. Glass had met McGaff on previous assignments.
"What are you doing here?" McGaff demanded.
"What are you doing here?" Glass responded.
After a Quick Huddle
McGaff had just spent 72 hours tailing the man who met the pair from Torrance. He was a suspected cocaine trafficker, McGaff said, who was part of the LAPD squad working on the national Operation Pisces. After a quick huddle, the two teams agreed to stay with their original subjects and follow them.
A few minutes later, McGaff's man drove up behind the Dodge Omni and the three men unloaded several heavy packages from his car and put them into the Omni. It headed straight back to Torrance.
Before leaving Van Nuys, Glass called his wife.
"I know. You're working," she answered his greeting.
"Sorry," he said.
"That's OK. The dinner is in the trash. When do you think you will be here?"
"We have been through this time and time again. I don't know when I'll be home."
Glass said that concern replaced anger by the end of his call.
"Be careful," his wife said.
Omni Heads South