A 213-acre ranch in Riverside County that was seized by federal authorities during a drug investigation has been offered to Orange County because of the Sheriff's Department's central role in cracking the case.
Authorities say Rancho del Rio in a remote canyon near the juncture of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties was headquarters for a massive drug-smuggling operation moving thousands of pounds of marijuana and hundreds of pounds of cocaine each month.
Orange County deputies and federal drug agents raided the ranch March 1, 1985, and discovered $23,000 in cash, 50 rifles, three automatic weapons and an electric money-counting machine.
The owner of the ranch, Daniel J. Fowlie, 52, was out of the country at the time of the raid. But he was arrested recently in La Paz, Mexico, in connection with the torture-murder of U.S. drug agent Enrique Camarena. He is in jail in the Baja California town.
The property was made available to Orange County under a 1984 federal law that allows local police agencies to use property and cash seized from suspected drug traffickers to pay for their drug units.
Local law enforcement agencies have gained millions of dollars under the law from seizures of cars, boats, planes and cash. But Orange County Sheriff's Capt. Douglas D. Storm said it was unique for an agency to receive such a large piece of property.
The Board of Supervisors is expected to accept the property at its meeting today. The Sheriff's Department has proposed that the supervisors establish the property as a training center for special weapons and tactics teams.
Storm said the department's current SWAT facilities in Orange and Garden Grove are too close to residential neighborhoods for certain types of training. He said that the ranch already includes about 16 buildings and that it would not have to be developed to be used as a training facility.
But, Storm said, the county can also sell the property and use the money to pay for its drug-fighting operations. He said the exact value of the land is not known.
Acquiring the property will cost the county about $385,000 to cover securities and maintenance fees that have been paid by the U.S. Marshal's office since the ranch was seized. The Sheriff's Department has proposed to pay the charge with money seized from other drug investigations.
Working Out Details
County officials said they are still working out the legal details raised by Orange County's owning property in Riverside County. The county counsel responsible for the negotiation was not available Monday.
Orange County investigators were led to the ranch in February, 1985, after they arrested a man in South Laguna for firing a gun in his home. Sheriff's deputies found Wade Truman Westmoreland, then 42, with a gun tucked under his shirt, $73,000 in cash hidden in a safe and 50 pounds of fresh marijuana packaged for sale, according to court records.
Detectives also found drug ledgers in the safe and papers showing that Westmoreland was the foreman of Rancho del Rio and that he and Fowlie were building homes on the ranch, court records say.
Armed with this evidence and information gathered from earlier drug investigations into Fowlie, authorities got a search warrant for the ranch.
Sheriff's investigators already knew Fowlie as a major drug dealer from an investigation in April, 1980, when he was "suspected as being the source of supply for cocaine in a large organization and capable of 200 kilograms per month," according to an affidavit attached to the search warrant for Rancho del Rio.
Named as Suspect
In October, 1980, agents for the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement named Westmoreland as a suspected cocaine distributor and associate of Fowlie who lived at Rancho del Rio, "which is a residence where controlled substances and money is stored," the affidavit said.
In January, 1984, state narcotics agents believed that Fowlie was still operating a 200-kilogram-a-month cocaine business but that he was believed to be in Holland, court records show.
Armed with search warrants, two teams of agents stormed the ranch shortly after 9 a.m. on March 1, 1985.
Two Dutch citizens, apparently hired by Fowlie in Holland and brought to Orange County to watch over the ranch and help with the drug operation, surrendered peacefully, court records show. The only resistance came from a pit bullterrier in the guest house the couple shared. The pet, sitting on a bed, growled at police, who threw a concussion grenade and shot at it with an automatic rifle. The dog escaped out the front door unhurt.
Investigators said that while combing Fowlie's sprawling ranch--with its three houses built of imported logs and roofs of red Spanish tile, as well as the stable, barn, storage sheds, workshop and vineyard-- they found considerable evidence.
A trap door hidden under the workbench in the wine room led to a living room-size, underground, fiberglass storage area where marijuana bundles were believed to have been kept before being packaged for sale, court records show.
Officers also found marijuana packaging materials, cocaine-processing chemicals, scales for weighing drugs, bulletproof vests, a counterfeit bill detector and an anti-bugging device.
But they didn't find Fowlie.
U.S. prosecutors are now attempting to have him returned to the United States from La Paz to face the murder charges.