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Former DEA Agent Convicted

April 17, 1991|RONALD L. SOBLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Garcia, who used to walk a downtown beat for the Los Angeles Police Department, joined the DEA in 1978.

A native of New York City, he is a wiry individual with a trim mustache. One of his passions has been karate, which played a major role in his lifestyle. A black belt who studied under Chuck Norris, Garcia taught the discipline, wrote about it and even appeared in both instructional and entertainment martial arts films, including the Bruce Lee movie "Enter the Dragon."

"He had that air about him of somebody who has a black belt," a former colleague said. "He was quiet, cold. You just knew this is a man who could throw his gun away and rip your head off."

Such mental discipline was displayed during the trial. He revealed little emotion throughout, even during an eight-day grilling on the witness stand. Prosecutors ripped into Garcia, calling him everything from a traitor to his country and the DEA to a remorseless thief who would steal anything.

Prosecutors cited 14 separate thefts of cocaine, heroin and drug cash in which, they alleged, Garcia participated between 1982 and 1986. They alleged that Garcia orchestrated the money laundering, instructing Jackson and Countryman how to hide their illicit fortunes in secret Swiss bank accounts.

"Instead of keeping the public safe from the terrors of drug dealing, Darnell Garcia went over to the other side and became a drug dealer himself," Stein told jurors in his closing argument.

Garcia's defense was novel. He readily admitted that he had committed numerous felonies while a DEA agent, but said he had dealt not in drugs but in gold jewelry chains he smuggled into the United States for an Italian-based firm, Oro Aurora. Garcia testified that commissions paid to him by the company, plus bank interest, accounted for his expensive house in Rancho Palos Verdes and about $3 million he had on deposit in Swiss and other foreign accounts in Luxembourg.

Garcia was a fugitive from November, 1988, when Jackson and Countryman were arrested, until he was captured in Luxembourg in July, 1989. Of the dozens of counts he faced after his indictment, only five were presented to jurors--all related to drug trafficking and money laundering--because those were the counts under which he was extradited.

He was never charged under the extradition agreement with smuggling, a felony.

Garcia's defense attorneys, Overland and Mark Borenstein, also laid out an explanation for Garcia's flight, presenting evidence that he feared for his life. They characterized the case against him as a vendetta prompted by his discrimination claims against the DEA.

"When the government has a vendetta, eventually the government has the resources to carry it out," said Overland.

It was the defense's contention that the DEA was out to harm Garcia because he successfully challenged his transfer to Detroit on the grounds it was racially motivated. Garcia's mother is black; his father was Puerto Rican.

Prosecutors denied that there was any vendetta.

Much of Garcia's defense turned on his personal calendar books, a detailed daily accounting of his activities between 1982 and 1988. Throughout the trial, Garcia used the books to try to prove he was never present at the time of alleged thefts.

Using these date books, Garcia testified that on the November, 1985, night of the alleged theft of 400 pounds of cocaine from a Pasadena stash house--dubbed "The Big Rip"--he was aboard a plane to Germany on a business trip for Oro Aurora.

Overland told jurors in his closing argument that the government had presented only part of the evidence, never the full picture of Garcia's involvement with Oro Aurora's international operations--which would have justified Garcia's multimillion-dollar bank account.

The prosecution maintained that Garcia had doctored his date books and produced a forensics expert to challenge their authenticity.

In the end, prosecutor Karlin told a news conference after the verdict, Garcia's own financial records hurt him the most. Karlin said the defendant never adequately explained how he had gotten so rich on a $45,000-a-year government salary.

"It's hard to explain $3 million," Karlin said.

Friends of Garcia and members of his family were in the courtroom as the verdict was read. They included his mother, son and a woman identified during the trial in a court document as his "paramour" and traveling companion. The woman, Maria Angie Zuniga, and Garcia's wife left the courthouse arm-in-arm, declining to speak to reporters.

Green, the jury foreman, said there was little dissent among jurors as they deliberated.

"Garcia broke the law," she said. "He got caught. It's just that simple."

Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this story.

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