LOS ANGELES — Hidden in tanker trucks, tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana from Mexico passed through the international border into the United States to supply Daniel J. Fowlie's Orange County-based drug empire, his accountant testified Thursday in federal court.
The government's opening witness, Joseph Cooper, whom prosecutors described as Fowlie's "ledger man," gave jurors the first glimpse of a meticulous and highly profitable operation that made the preparation of marijuana for shipment a family affair involving Fowlie's two sons.
Cooper told jurors how his boss directed him to hire a telephone answering company and use phony business cards to set up a bogus container company in Tucson.
The idea, he testified, was to have a receiving warehouse where tons of marijuana could be stored while awaiting transfer to Fowlie's Rancho del Rio, a 213-acre enclave straddling Orange and Riverside counties.
Two tanker trucks, each capable of carrying 10,000 pounds of marijuana, and a third large truck crossed the border, arriving late one night at a Tucson warehouse that had been rented by the smugglers, Cooper testified.
Cooper said he was told by Fowlie to rent a warehouse with doors 16 feet high to allow the trucks to drive inside and avoid detection.
But Cooper said the whole operation could have been discovered the first night. When the first tanker arrived, the door was not high enough, he testified, so the "tanker got stuck," creating pandemonium among the smugglers, including the Mexican driver, who climbed out of the cab and fled.
"Danny (Fowlie) got in the cab and drove it out," Cooper testified.
Fowlie, 58, who was extradited from Mexico to Orange County in July, is being tried on 26 felony counts before U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler at the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse.
According to a 32-page indictment, Fowlie is accused of income tax evasion, distribution of 53,000 pounds of marijuana, failing to report shipments of hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas and operating a continuing criminal enterprise. If found guilty, he faces a possible life sentence.
Cooper, as part of a deal with federal prosecutors, has already pleaded guilty to two felonies for his participation in the alleged operation. As part of his agreement, he must cooperate with the government in the Fowlie prosecution and other separate cases, Special Assistant U.S. Atty. James Dutton said.
In court Thursday, Dutton made a point of letting jurors know about Cooper's arrangement with the government, including $25,836 he received for relocation, rent and moving expenses. Cooper is scheduled to be sentenced June 4.
Fowlie's defense attorneys are expected during cross-examination--which is to begin today--to challenge Cooper's credibility as it relates to his arrangement with the government.
In his testimony Thursday, Cooper described Fowlie as a meticulous man interested in the last detail of his operation.
Not only were warehouse doors to be measured, but Cooper was told to buy 55-gallon drums to put around the Tucson warehouse, "to make it look like" a container company, Cooper said.
Cash, which was later shipped to Fowlie when he spent time in Europe, was hidden in special luggage that could carry up to $100,000 and still avoid detection by customs officials, Cooper said.
From the Tucson warehouse, the marijuana was transported in 2,000-pound shipments inside a recreational trailer to Fowlie's ranch, Cooper said.
At Rancho del Rio, Cooper testified, preparing marijuana for distribution was a family matter, which often included Fowlie's sons, Gus and Dan Jr., who were then in their early 20s.
"The marijuana came in TV boxes, and the kids would take it out of the boxes and put it on the scales, and then Danny would vacuum-pack the marijuana," Cooper testified, adding that Fowlie "was good at that."
Profit margins from selling the marijuana varied, but Cooper said they grossed $75 to $150 per pound, depending on quality.
Cooper testified that they made profits on 30 to 35 tons of marijuana during the smuggling.
In one case, Cooper testified, the profit margin was high, "about $150" per pound when they bought high-grade marijuana, dubbed "Ralph's quality"--referring to the exporter, Rafael Caro Quintero, one of Mexico's biggest drug dealers.
They earned so much, Cooper said, just counting money became a chore--especially when a drug dealer who distributed marijuana in Canada would exchange Canadian dollars into fresh, $100 U.S. bills.
"We couldn't use the money-counting machine because the bills would stick together. . . . They were crisp and so clean," Cooper said.
He added that on those occasions he and Fowlie--with help from Fowlie's two sons and his wife, Penny--would have to hand-count the currency.