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Arrests Cut Key L.A. Cocaine Link, Police Say

November 30, 1988|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

An investigation that stretched from South-Central Los Angeles to a small town in Denmark has resulted in the arrest of two men and the severing of a major link between a Colombian drug cartel and cocaine-dealing Los Angeles street gangs, authorities said Tuesday.

Federal and local officials said Brian (Waterhead Bo) Bennett, who recently moved to Tempe, Ariz., from South-Central Los Angeles, and Mario Ernesto Villabona-Alvarado, a Colombian national, had organized a nationwide drug ring headquartered in Los Angeles that distributed 1,000 kilograms--more than a ton--of crack cocaine a week.

Bennett, 24, who apparently linked up with Villabona-Alvarado about two years ago, was arrested Nov. 19 at a luxury home he recently purchased in Tempe. Villabona-Alvarado, 28, allegedly a ranking member of Colombia's Cali drug cartel, was arrested the same day in Malibu.

Arrest Called Significant

Deputy Los Angeles Police Chief Glenn Levant and U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner described Bennett's arrest as one of the most significant in recent years.

"Bennett is the highest-level street thug who's ever connected with the Colombian cartels, and this is the single most important partnership ever established between a major South-Central drug dealer and the Colombians," Levant said.

"He was dealing roughly $10 million worth of cocaine a week in Los Angeles and all over the country," Levant added. "He was supplying thousands of rock houses from Los Angeles to Detroit. You won't see a bigger dope dealer arrested in South-Central for a long, long time."

While Bennett and Villabona-Alvarado were arrested more than a week ago on a criminal complaint alleging cocaine violations, there was no public disclosure of the case because of pending grand jury deliberations.

Details were learned, however, from interviews with law enforcement officials and from court records filed in Los Angeles.

The investigation into Bennett's alleged drug activities was largely a local Los Angeles police case at first, with investigators initially unaware of any link to Villabona-Alvarado. Coincidentally, however, a federal investigation of Villabona-Alvarado had begun producing evidence that he had laundered $500,000 in drug profits through a bank in Copenhagen.

The first direct link between Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett came after Danish authorities had already frozen Villabona-Alvarado's assets. On Dec. 4, 1987, Danish national police told the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that Villabona-Alvarado had showed up in Denmark, accompanied by his Danish wife, Helle Nielsen, and Bennett.

Using wiretaps easily approved under Danish law, Danish officials began listening in on a series of phone calls between Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett--first from their rooms at the Savoy Hotel in Copenhagen and later from a house owned by Villabona-Alvarado's father-in-law in the small town of Aalborg.

After noticing that Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett frequently used a pay phone in the center of town, the Danes quickly added an additional wiretap. Within days, they had recorded conversations involving the shipment of 1,000 kilos of cocaine from Colombia to Los Angeles and the laundering of $1 million in drug profits to Colombia.

Villabona-Alvarado and Bennett continued their travels in Europe, journeying next to Milan where Italian authorities promptly added a wiretap on their room at the Milan Hilton, recording more drug conversations. From there, they flew to Mexico City, returning to Los Angeles in January, 1988.

When Bennett came back, the Los Angeles Police Department, the DEA and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department stepped up their investigative efforts.

At one point, more than 150 officers and agents were involved in tracking Bennett's activities.

Organization Called Sophisticated

What the investigators found, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman, who is in charge of prosecuting the case, was an exceptionally sophisticated organization that had set up a mortgage company, several check-cashing outlets, as well as other companies throughout the Los Angeles area--all allegedly serving as fronts for drug-dealing and money-laundering.

In addition to the business fronts, the Bennett group allegedly rented several houses throughout the Los Angeles area.

While Villabona-Alvarado and a girlfriend were installed at a residence in Malibu, Bennett reportedly moved frequently from apartments in the Wilshire area to houses in Northridge and Tarzana.

According to the criminal complaint filed at the time of Bennett's arrest, he and Villabona-Alvarado are accused of distributing tens of millions of dollars worth of cocaine throughout the United States and laundering drug profit money back to Colombia.

With constant surveillance and additional wiretaps in Los Angeles, federal and local officials said they slowly began to close in on Bennett and Villabona-Alvarado in the early months of 1988.

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