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Computer Age Drug Bust Nets 166 Fugitives

May 14, 1987|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Marshals Service ended a worldwide Computer Age manhunt that resulted in the arrest of 166 fugitives, some who had been on the run from drug smuggling and dealing cases for 11 years, officials announced Wednesday.

A force of 104 deputies arrested 44 other people on a variety of drug-related charges during the 10-week effort.

Sam Cicchino, chief of the U.S. Marshals Service in Los Angeles, said more arrests--18--were made in the Los Angeles area than in any other city.

"After a period of time, they figured they were safe and they figured wrong," Cicchino said.

Mummified Body Found

The operation cleared another 61 cases by finding that some fugitives already were in jail, others were in countries such as Colombia and Italy, and some had been murdered. One body found last month was mummified in a sleeping bag buried in a shallow grave in Oklahoma.

Headquartered on the ninth floor of San Francisco's Federal Building, deputy marshals traveled to the Cayman Islands, France, Belize and elsewhere. They used detailed computer data bases, informants' tips and other techniques to capture their quarry in all regions of the nation.

Most of the fugitives were dealing when they were arrested, authorities here said. Nearly half of the 166 people arrested have been freed on bail, said John L. Pascucci, a senior inspector for the Marshals Service who coordinated the operation.

Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III announced the effort at a conference of the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force in St. Louis. In a statement released in Washington, Meese said: "What we have demonstrated in this effort is that these fugitives can run but they can't hide, not when good criminal investigators are given the task of tracking down these criminals."

$1 Million in Assets Seized

The arrests marked the first nationally coordinated effort to bring drug fugitives into custody, said Stanley E. Morris, director of the U.S. Marshals Service. Agents seized more than $1 million in assets, including cash, drugs, guns and four houses in Houston from which "crack" cocaine was allegedly sold.

In Texas, a motorcycle gang member suspected of shooting a Texas police officer in 1986 was arrested. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a fugitive who was arrested turned out to be an informant for the FBI, which was said to have ignored the warrant because of the information the fugitive provided. In San Francisco, a fugitive was arrested at a doctor's office where his pregnant wife was headed for a checkup, Deputy Marshal Jan Axthelm said.

The operation, code-named Warrant Apprehension Narcotics Team, was a year in the planning. The Marshals Service started by identifying roughly 3,800 fugitives from federal drug charges and asked U.S. attorneys across the nation to select those who were the most wanted.

Using a final list of 700, marshals fed into their computer intricate details about each fugitive, including birth dates, criminal and family backgrounds, friends, business partners and physical descriptions. Such information made it easier for investigators to find patterns in the fugitives' movements.

The service set up shop in Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Houston, Chicago, New York and Baltimore, with the hub in San Francisco, the location of the main computer and its coordinators. New leads were fed into the computer, and deputies were assigned to pursue them.

One computer profile showed, for example, that Iran Michael Kesselman favored leather suits and was in and out of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Kesselman, 41, owned Leo Tiger Fashions, a clothing chain, and was wanted for more than three years on cocaine-smuggling charges in Britain. Deputies finally caught up with him in Hawaii, where he was arrested March 31 and is being held pending extradition.

Expanding Jurisdiction

The program is part of an effort by the U.S. Marshals Service to expand its jurisdiction to include federal drug fugitives. Currently the Drug Enforcement Administration turns fugitive cases over to the FBI. The FBI, like the DEA, is swamped with new cases and has little time to track down fugitives. The Marshals Service estimated that the number of federal drug fugitives increased by more than 600 in the last two years.

One such fugitive was Humberto Calero, 43, who was arrested at a San Francisco hotel where he had allegedly come to recruit pilots to ferry drugs into the country. He had been a fugitive since 1984 when he failed to show up to start serving a five-year prison term for his involvement as a leader in the so-called Frogmen case, in which smugglers would swim drugs into port from a Colombian mother ship in San Francisco Bay. An estimated 343 pounds of cocaine was brought ashore in one such operation.

Calero had been free on $1-million bail, as had three other fugitives who were arrested. The average bond of the 166 fugitives who had jumped bail was about $80,000.

"What's $80,000 to someone who makes $33 million a year? They view it as a cost of doing business," Pascucci said.

Not all the targeted fugitives were caught. One who remains on the run is Jack Curtis Ryan, 37, who disappeared last November, a month before he was indicted in Florida for marijuana smuggling. Ryan moved to Marin County in 1979 and evidently became successful--so successful that he was able to buy a vineyard near Healdsburg. He even bottled wine under the Ryan Vineyards label.

The U.S. Marshals Service seized his sprawling mansion atop a hill overlooking his grapes, along with several crates of wine ready for sale. Deputy Marshal John Stafford, who is trailing Ryan, estimated the wine will sell at auction for $30 a bottle.

"He's got money, he's got power, he's got connections," Stafford said. "But sooner or later, someone will call."

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