A Santa Monica attorney has forfeited his $3.2-million Malibu home to federal drug agents in return for a guarantee that he will not be prosecuted for his suspected involvement in an international marijuana-smuggling ring, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced Friday.
The announcement came as one of the alleged kingpins of the ring, William Weitz Shaffer of Los Angeles, was arraigned in Seattle on charges that he conspired with others to import 65 tons of marijuana worth $300 million from Thailand during 1986 and 1987. The DEA said it may have been the biggest marijuana operation on the West Coast.
In all, 41 people have been indicted in the purported conspiracy, including Shaffer's brother, Christopher Shaffer of Los Angeles; Michael Edward Carter of Los Angeles, said the alleged financier of the operation; and a West Los Angeles couple, Edwin and Summer Brown, who were arrested in Paris on Sept. 9.
Terry Fields, the lawyer who owned the beach-front property in Malibu, was not arrested or indicted. Under the consent agreement signed last month with the DEA, he and his wife, Peggy, agreed to forfeit the property at 24334 Malibu Road in return for an exemption from prosecution.
When the house was seized March 31, federal agents said in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court that Fields had laundered drug money and performed other services for drug smugglers.
"It's the accountants and the attorneys who are the lifeblood of this business," John M. Marcello, a special agent with the DEA, said at the time. "These other guys (traffickers) are risk takers, but they don't have the education or the sophistication to pull off these financial transactions."
The day after his house was seized, Fields described the accusations against him as "totally ridiculous and ludicrous."
He could not be reached Friday to explain why he agreed to forfeit the house. The DEA said Fields' home already has been sold for $3.2 million, generating $709,000 for the government after the mortgage was paid.
Under the consent decree, Fields declares that he has no other forfeitable property and the government reserves the right to seize any assets that may be discovered.
In its complaint, the DEA described Fields as a "close associate and trusted friend" of the Shaffers, who were said to have headed the international drug ring. The complaint said Fields collected money from drug distributors in Los Angeles and laundered money for the Shaffers and other smugglers.
According to the complaint, Fields purchased the First World Bank in the Cayman Islands for the laundering operations and established three dummy corporations with Swiss bank accounts for William Shaffer. The government said the corporations were used to funnel payments to Vietnamese officials who assisted the smuggling operation by giving it access to Ho Chi Minh Harbor.
The DEA said the Shaffers used a ship to haul the marijuana, grown in Thailand, to rendezvous points off the West Coast of the United States, where the drug was loaded onto fishing trawlers. The agents said one 23-ton load was taken to a dock in Anacortes, Wash., where trucks picked it up and hauled it to a ranch near Bakersfield that served as a distribution center.
"Most of the millions of dollars in profit acquired by William Weitz Shaffer and Christopher Shaffer in the late 1970s and early 1980s was laundered by Terry Fields," the complaint said. "Although the Shaffer organization laundered the majority of its own money by 1986, Terry Fields continued to manage certain investments for the Shaffers and other major drug traffickers."
The Malibu property was seized under a federal law authorizing agents to claim property that a judge believes was purchased with the proceeds from a drug sale. Had Fields and his wife not agreed to the forfeiture, the government would have had to prove its case in a civil trial.
The DEA said Friday that while 39 of those indicted have been arrested, two others--Christopher Shaffer and Irwin (Sonny) Kletter--are at large.