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Warehouse Manager Given Life Sentence in Record Cocaine Bust : Sylmar: He was arrested in September, 1989, after the discovery of 21.4 tons of the drug worth an estimated $6.9 billion.

October 29, 1991|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man who managed the Sylmar warehouse where authorities made the largest cocaine bust in history two years ago was sentenced Monday to life without parole.

U. S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. told James Romero McTague that he was guilty of "one of the most horrendous crimes that has ever been committed against the American people."

McTague, 43, was one of seven people arrested in September, 1989, after the discovery of 21.4 tons of cocaine stacked in boxes in the warehouse.

McTague and two other men were convicted in November. But a federal jury deadlocked on verdicts for three other defendants, prompting Hatter to declare a mistrial for the three.

The government plans to retry those three and another defendant who was not part of the original trial.

Federal authorities said the cocaine seized in the 1989 bust was enough for 1.38 billion doses, about five doses for every person in the United States.

Special Assistant U. S. Atty. Susan Bryant-Deason said the cocaine had an estimated street value of $6.9 billion.

Moreover, evidence introduced at a 1990 trial showed that 77 tons of cocaine moved through the warehouse in the four months before the seizure. During that period, the cocaine ring collected $81 million in transportation fees--$1,000 a kilogram, prosecutors said.

Authorities found ledgers and notebooks in the Sylmar warehouse and in El Paso indicating that the Colombian-produced cocaine was transported from Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso and then to Los Angeles in big trucks.

McTague was convicted of conspiracy and two counts of possessing cocaine with intent to distribute.

Earlier this year, Hatter sentenced McTague's father-in-law, Carlos Tapia Ponce, to a life term. Ponce, of Chihuahua, Mexico, was the overseer of the operation. Hatter gave Jose Ignacio Monroy a 35-year term.

At a previous hearing, Hatter indicated to McTague's attorney, Michael Pancer, that he would render a harsher sentence than federal guidelines recommend because of what Hatter considered the gravity of the crime.

On Monday, Pancer urged Hatter not to impose a life term. He said federal sentencing guidelines called for a term ranging from 17 1/2 years to almost 22 years.

Pancer said those sentences would be sufficiently severe to send a message of deterrence. "The message is: 'Don't do it' . . . no matter which sentence the court chooses," he said.

Pancer contended that Hatter should be precluded from increasing McTague's sentence, solely because of the amount of drugs involved, by a recent federal appeals court decision in a case involving 1,200 pounds of cocaine. Under the guidelines, McTague fell into the highest quantity category for cocaine traffickers--110 pounds or more.

But Hatter said that decision was not applicable to this situation. He said he was not enhancing the sentence solely because of the massive quantity of drugs, but also because of McTague's role as manager of the operation.

McTague told the judge that he was "very, very sorry" for everything he had done.

Hatter said he believed McTague, but added: "There's no way I could be true to my oath without providing for the safety of society as best I can. This is the kind of atypical situation that calls for the maximum sentence."

The judge said it would be unreasonable to give McTague a less severe sentence than those he had imposed on other defendants, who probably had acquired their drugs from the Sylmar operation.

Hatter also said that if an appellate court wants to reverse him and reduce the sentence, "they ought to bear the burden. They can sentence you themselves."

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