LOS ANGELES — A Cypress man who masterminded one of the world's biggest marijuana-trafficking rings was convicted in federal court Thursday of arranging to smuggle at least 34 tons of the drug by boat from Southeast Asia.
William E. Uhler, 40, was convicted of federal charges stemming from the drug smuggling business that he operated from bases in Hawaii and Orange County between 1984 and 1988. Some of the marijuana he imported was seized by authorities before it came into the country, but authorities believe most of the drugs he smuggled entered the United States.
Prosecutors estimated that the marijuana he imported during that four-year period was worth more than $100 million.
They said Uhler ran a sophisticated smuggling operation that included a flotilla of vessels, including an 80-foot oil supply ship that secretly offloaded its illegal cargo to smaller boats in mid-ocean to avoid detection.
John Zienter, who heads the Los Angeles office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said he has a "gut feeling" that Uhler was actually in business for a decade and imported about $500 million worth of marijuana. It was "one of the most significant marijuana rings active in the world," he said.
Zienter said the battle against marijuana has taken a back seat to the widely publicized war on cocaine in recent years. But he said that the DEA is cracking down again on marijuana trafficking and that Uhler's conviction is a major step in that campaign.
He also cited several major marijuana rings indicted in Reno, Seattle and San Francisco in the last six to eight months.
"Unfortunately, we have such limited resources we have allowed (marijuana enforcement) to slip," Zienter said. "Because of that, in recent years the problem has gotten worse. All enforcement has been forced to concentrate on cocaine to the neglect of drugs that are serious problems, too. But we are readjusting our procedures and we're back on track."
After a six-week trial and 3 1/2 days of deliberations, jurors in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles convicted Uhler on Thursday on 16 counts of drug-trafficking, conspiracy, and tax fraud, as well as a charge that carries a maximum term of life in prison without parole: conducting a continuing criminal enterprise. U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall scheduled sentencing for March 5.
Uhler, who moved to Orange County in 1987 from Maui, Hawaii, was acquitted of one count of interstate travel in aid of drug trafficking.
Defense attorney A. Brent Carruth admitted that Uhler arranged to import a boatload of marijuana in 1985. But Carruth said Uhler had second thoughts and tried to back out of the deal. Carruth was unavailable Thursday to discuss the verdict.
Twelve other defendants were indicted with Uhler last April. Six are facing trial in February. They allegedly helped Uhler import the marijuana or enabled him to conceal the millions he made from the deals by creating false tax returns and letting him list property--including an ocean-view home in Maui--in their names.
The others are Eugene LaForce, 54, of Cave Junction, Ore., who is considered Uhler's partner; Uhler's mother-in-law, Dovie Marie Briggs, 57, of Cypress; Tustin attorney Neil C. Pearson, 50; Terry P. Dee, 47, and his wife, Jeanne Dee, 35, both of Seal Beach, and Martin E. Levine, 40, of San Francisco and New York.
Michael Tzouanakis, 36, of Costa Mesa and Dennis Tobin, 33, of Morro Bay pleaded guilty. Walter M. Hillinger, 57, of Hawaii was dismissed from the case, and Walter M. Ulrich, 39, of Sunset Beach is serving a 15-year prison term in Thailand. Two other Orange County men connected with the case are fugitives.
Court documents describe how the huge boatloads of marijuana came to the United States: Seven tons of marijuana sailed from Thailand in June, 1985, on the Lady Fame, an 80-foot oil supply vessel, which transferred the shipment to two smaller boats off Hawaii, the documents said. Prosecutors said Uhler and his cohorts went to great lengths to conceal the Lady Fame's ownership, registering it under a fictitious partnership that included names from the obituary columns of an Orange County newspaper.
The Lady Fame was supposed to have carried yet another multi-ton shipment of marijuana from Thailand, but Uhler began to suspect that law enforcement was watching the boat, the court records said. He had the vessel and the unwitting crew remain in Southeast Asia as a decoy and had the drugs loaded onto another boat for shipment, court documents said. After the marijuana was transferred onto two smaller boats off Hawaii, records said, the crew sank the larger vessel.
In May, 1987, Uhler and his co-workers smuggled 11 tons of marijuana from Thailand to a point between Hawaii and Tahiti, where it was loaded onto another vessel, the Natalie Rose, and carried to the West Coast, court documents said. A second 11-ton shipment being smuggled by Uhler was seized by Thai officials in the Gulf of Thailand, the records said.
Another five tons of marijuana was on its way to the West Coast in November, 1988, but a Coast Guard cutter intercepted the boat off Hawaii. To avoid seizure, authorities said, the boat's captain set the marijuana on fire and abandoned ship. He and his crew were rescued and arrested.