Many have made their fortunes in the booming business of computers and information technology, but no one, authorities say, did it quite like Erick Bozeman.
Authorities allege that Bozeman, operating under many aliases and shell corporations in the Cayman Islands and other exotic locales, has made more than $30 million in the past two years by running a ring that hollowed out computers, filled them with cocaine and shipped them nationwide for sale.
Bozeman, they say, was living the high life, buying a $680,000 house in Leona Valley seven miles west of Palmdale with laundered drug proceeds, and spending $150,000 a month on travel, restaurants, business expenses and perks for his many associates until earlier this month.
On July 6, Bozeman was arrested while staying at a Downtown Los Angeles hotel, trying to hide from the FBI after many of his alleged associates had been caught, prosecutors said.
"It was three blocks from the courthouse, which we found kind of funny," said Janis Gordon, an Atlanta-based assistant U.S. attorney who is leading the multi-state effort to prosecute Bozeman and his alleged associates.
Bozeman and 20 others were indicted July 19 by a federal grand jury in Atlanta, and there are two related cases: a Los Angeles indictment involving alleged money launderers affiliated with the group, and a New York City case that fingers alleged lower-level drug dealers.
According to the indictment, Bozeman--also known as Jason Mitchell, Erick Powell, Buddy Jones and Mr. Harris--masterminded a drug ring that sold more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine, racking up at least $30 million in profits since 1992, then laundering it through more than a dozen offshore bank accounts.
Within weeks, authorities say, Bozeman will be shipped back to Atlanta for prosecution, where he could be sentenced to a mandatory life prison term if convicted under the federal government's so-called "drug kingpin" statute.
His trial, authorities have hinted in interviews and court documents, will shed light on the shadowy world of a jovial criminal genius. Bozeman blurred the line between white-collar crime and drug dealing as effectively as anyone ever caught by federal authorities, said Kent B. Alexander, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
The case started more than a year ago, authorities said, when federal agents in Los Angeles suggested the FBI in Atlanta investigate an alleged co-conspirator, who apparently failed to heed her own advice on a to-do list she wrote.
The note, one of many incriminating documents authorities say they found in the woman's trash, said: "Get paper shredder."
Apparently, she never did. FBI agents testified in an Atlanta federal court that in going through the woman's garbage, they found detailed computer printouts of drugs allegedly bought and sold by the organization, including prices, customer lists and destinations.
From there, they say, they began tracking Bozeman on his trips around the country and overseas, tapping phones and compiling enough evidence to put him away for life.
Authorities allege that Bozeman used Los Angeles and Atlanta as hubs of a criminal enterprise that had all the trappings of a major corporation. They allege that spreadsheets, payrolls, fax machines, computer e-mail networks and other sophisticated means were used to coordinate a drug business that pulled in millions of dollars while employing dozens of associates selling cocaine in Los Angeles, New York and many cities in between.
"It is one of the largest cases we have ever prosecuted and one of the most sophisticated," Alexander said. "They were not operating out of a file cabinet in an apartment room. It was big business."
Cornell Price, a lawyer representing Bozeman, said, "The indictment reflects a significant amount of cocaine trafficking, at least allegations of it. But proving it is another matter.
"The allegations don't sound good. . . . The grand jury has concluded there is some smoke, but I haven't seen what the grand jury has seen," said Price, who added that his client won't enter a plea until he gets to Atlanta.
He described the 31-year-old Bozeman as an articulate, intelligent man, stocky and well-built, with a ready smile and an eye for detail. "He's got a very sharp, very quick mind," Price said. "He falls into the smart person category."
Prosecutors said Bozeman floated from one place to another and spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, although authorities would not say whether the Leona Valley house was a base of operations for the organization. At one place where he was staying, authorities said they found 107 pounds of cocaine.
"He lived wherever he felt like living," one official said.
Although some of his alleged associates went by names such as "Blue" and "Rock," authorities said Bozeman was not involved in gangs. "He's too high-class," said one, adding that Bozeman was frequently heard on wiretaps saying: "I don't do retail."