In an effort to expand, Ross and a boyhood friend stole a car from the faculty lot of their alma mater, Bret Harte Junior High School. They sold the wheel rims, he said, for $250 and invested it in a few grams of crack. By breaking that into small rocks, they reaped $500 in return, then continued to "double up," sinking everything they earned into greater volume.
After several months dealing with McLaurin, Ross has testified that he began buying cocaine from an auto upholstery teacher at the Venice Skills Center whom he knew only as Mr. Fisher.
At the first opportunity, however, Ross slipped his phone number into the hand of Henry Corrales, an alleged Nicaraguan dealer whom he met at Fisher's Los Angeles home. For much of the next year, probably 1982 or 1983, according to court testimony, Ross was supplied by Corrales and his brother-in-law Ivan Arguellas, who shared a house in Downey. By then, Ross had graduated from ounces to pounds.
"Once we got to $20,000, it was, like, over . . . over the hill," Ross said. "The hard work had been done."
Through Corrales and Arguellas, Ross testified that he was introduced to a circle of Nicaraguan dealers, alternately friends and competitors, including Blandon. College-educated, with a master's degree in marketing, Blandon served as director of wholesale markets for a Bank of International Development project in Nicaragua until Sandinista rebels toppled the Somoza regime in 1979. He has told people that he arrived in America with just $100 in his pocket.
In recent court appearances, including the March trial in which Ross was convicted on cocaine conspiracy charges, Blandon testified that he began selling cocaine in 1982 at the behest of Norvin Meneses, a San Francisco Bay Area drug dealer and Contra sympathizer. By the end of 1982, however, Blandon said, he had decided that the Contras were receiving sufficient funds from the Ronald Reagan administration and no longer needed his help. So he began pocketing the drug money.
About a year later, Blandon said, he met Ross, who by then was "a big coke dealer."
In Ross, he found a disciplined hustler who could sell as much as he gave him, often 50 to 100 kilos a week. Blandon told a business associate at the time that he liked his South-Central customers because they were not especially picky about the quality of cocaine, which would be diluted, anyway, once it got cooked into crack. "No one in South-Central worried about pH levels and acidity and iridescence," the source said, adding that dealers like Ross were "buying [stuff] we wouldn't even show to connoisseurs."
Ross, meanwhile, continued to cultivate other sources of cocaine. According to testimony in his San Diego trial, Ross still dealt with Arguellas and another pair of Nicaraguan rivals, Jacinto and Edgar Torres, both of whom would later go to prison for drug trafficking. Ross, in an interview, said he once paid $60,000 just to meet a Colombian supplier. Police records and interviews also show that he maintained a long relationship with David Chow, "a major cocaine distributor in the Los Angeles area during the 1980s," according to court documents that allege that Chow first sold heroin, and then cocaine, in the city's black neighborhoods.
"Rick's an opportunist," said Polak, the former LAPD officer. "You show me the person who put the gun to his head and said, 'Here, deal this, infect your community.' "
Roots of the Trade
Although Ross had become a millionaire by 1984--one of the first to make his fortune solely on crack--the market was so huge by then that even a dealer of his stature could seem dwarfed.
"Even on the best day Ricky Ross had, there was way more crack cocaine out there than he ever could control," said Lt. Ernie Halcon, a San Fernando narcotics detective.
How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross. Before, during and after his reign, a bewildering roster of other dealers and suppliers helped fuel the crisis. They were all responding to market forces that many experts believe would have created the problem whether any one individual sold crack or not.
For nearly 5,000 years, coca leaves have been consumed by South America's indigenous Incans, who chew the plant for its mildly stimulating effect. So long as nobody tried to snort or smoke the stuff, "there was no cocaine problem," according to UCLA's Siegel, who was a consultant to President Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime.
But the history of the illicit drug world is one of experimentation, a restless quest for sharper highs. Cocaine took the nation by storm in the 1970s. "A veritable blizzard . . . is blowing through the American middle class," reported a 1981 Time magazine article. Nasal membranes, though, are an inefficient means of absorbing any drug. Lungs offer a more direct route.