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Former Restaurateur Guilty on Drug Charge : Courts: Reputed mob figure faces up to 40 years in prison. Character reference from actor James Caan fails to sway jury.

October 16, 1992|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Malibu restaurateur Ronald A. Lorenzo, long described by law enforcement officials as an organized crime figure but never previously convicted of a crime, was found guilty Thursday on a federal drug conspiracy charge.

A Los Angeles jury reached the verdict in its third day of deliberation, unswayed by defense testimony from actor James Caan, who called Lorenzo his best friend, and rejecting Lorenzo's claim that he was entrapped into a cocaine deal by an FBI informant.

U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian set a Dec. 28 sentencing date for Lorenzo, who faces from five to 40 years in prison on the single conspiracy count.

"It was a setup from the beginning," said Lorenzo, 46, as he was led from the courtroom.

His attorney vowed to appeal.

The two-week trial began with the testimony of Caan, who said he delayed filming of a movie to appear on Lorenzo's behalf. Caan earlier pledged his Bel-Air home as collateral against Lorenzo's $500,000 federal bail; Lorenzo nonetheless has remained jailed in lieu of an additional $2 million bail imposed in a separate case in Los Angeles Superior Court, where he faces robbery and kidnaping charges.

Caan, whose most celebrated film role was as the hot-tempered Corleone son in "The Godfather," said he never witnessed any criminal conduct during almost daily contact with Lorenzo in recent years.

Law enforcement officials say Lorenzo, a New York native, is a "made member" of the Bonanno Mafia family. He has been under scrutiny since moving to the Los Angeles area in 1982, later opening a chic Malibu restaurant called Splash.

The government's case was based on evidence gathered by Robert (Ralph) Franchi, a Boston mob associate who agreed to serve as an FBI informant in 1987 and secretly recorded numerous meetings and phone calls with Lorenzo and others.

The tapes showed Lorenzo cautioning Franchi to beware of police surveillance before the two men bought one kilogram of cocaine from another Los Angeles-area restaurateur for $19,000 in September, 1989.

"You should always be alert in your (car) mirrors," Lorenzo said on one tape played to the jury. " . . . I like to give myself the edge."

Testifying in his own defense, Lorenzo contended that Franchi exploited a series of financial difficulties--including a tax lien and a government challenge to Splash's liquor license--to force him into the drug deal.

"He was always bringing up drugs with me," Lorenzo said, until "the pressure got more and more" to go along. "He said he would help me out with the problems I was having."

Defense attorney Gerald V. Scotti lambasted Franchi, labeling him "a high-priced mercenary" and "a walking definition of entrapment."

Scotti told the jury: "Mr. Lorenzo may be a lot of things we don't like . . . but he didn't get involved in drug dealing until he met Robert Ralph Franchi."

Assistant U.S. Atty. Brad K. Sonnenberg argued that the prosecution tapes showed Lorenzo as "an enthusiastic participant . . . whose only concern is the concern of any intelligent criminal . . . the concern of being caught."

Sonnenberg said Lorenzo was not entrapped, but rather "was trapped--he was caught."

The prosecutor declined Thursday to comment on the verdict.

Jurors, however, said the tapes provided the key evidence and that they were generally unmoved by the testimony from Caan, who flew to Dallas after his court appearance to start filming the movie "Flesh & Bone."

As he had during earlier testimony at a bond hearing in the state case, Caan said he had loaned Lorenzo thousands of dollars during a 15-year friendship and that he planned to have Lorenzo manage a pizzeria he recently opened in Beverly Hills.

"I certainly don't condone crime, but if this man committed a crime, he would have to be Houdini. I'm with him all the time," Caan said.

Likewise, Lorenzo described Caan as "my best friend," adding, "when I had a really severe emergency, Jimmy would pull me out."

Defense attorney Scotti said that in testifying for Lorenzo, "Mr. Caan put his reputation on the line."

One juror, James Tyler, said Caan was a credible witness, but that it was "a little ironic, this guy in the 'Godfather' movie testifying here."

Jurors speculated that Caan might not have known his friend "completely," Tyler said.

Another member of the panel, Sylvester Wilson, said Caan's appearance made him wonder about Lorenzo's description of himself as merely a struggling restaurateur.

"If you're an average Joe . . . someone like James Caan doesn't get introduced to you," Wilson said. Caan testified that he met Lorenzo on the set of a movie in New York "through a couple of other friends."

Scotti blamed the conviction on the judge's instructions to the jury defining entrapment.

"Given the proper instruction, it would have been a different outcome," Scotti said.

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