In 1986, when federal and local anti-drug agents raided his Mission Viejo home, cocaine trafficking suspect Ronald J. Lister met officers in his bathrobe and warned that they were making a mistake, that he "worked with the CIA, and . . . his friends in Washington weren't going to like what was going on."
According to a Los Angeles County sheriff's report on the incident, when deputies dismissed Lister's claim, he threatened to report them to his contact at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., an otherwise unidentified "Mr. Weekly."
Since then, Lister has been convicted in state court of selling cocaine in 1988 and pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges in 1989. That plea was later withdrawn, and he spent roughly five years in prison on other federal charges, the record of which has been sealed. But the echoes of his brief exchange with sheriff's deputies a decade ago have continued to reverberate.
Today, Lister's still-uncorroborated claims of CIA affiliation add to the noise and fury surrounding allegations linking the CIA to cocaine traffickers.
Interest in Lister has been particularly intense since U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), at a news conference earlier this month, released copies of the 1986 sheriff's report and made special note of Lister's CIA claims.
But was the man in the robe a decade ago really involved with the CIA?
Lister was recently released from custody, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. But CIA officials issued a rare on-the-record statement in response to an inquiry from The Times: "Mr. Lister was never employed by or affiliated with the CIA in any way."
Friends and former business associates question Lister's claims as well, describing him as an affable but overly ambitious man with a penchant for bluster and prone to exaggeration.
"I think he was all talk and no delivery," said Gary Shapiro, a lawyer who in 1983 incorporated Lister's Mundy Security Group Inc.--one of two firms Lister controlled. "He claimed he had a lot of connections, a lot of grandiose things, kind of what we call in sales 'puff.' "
Mundy Security suspended operations in 1985, according to state records.
In Laguna Beach, where Lister worked as a police officer for 6 1/2 years, Police Capt. Paul Workman described him as "a wheeler-dealer" and "a bag of hot air."
Christopher Moore, who used to house-sit for Lister, also worked as an office assistant at Mundy Security. Although he speaks no Spanish, the inexperienced Moore was sent by Lister on a "bizarre trip" to El Salvador.
Lister never mentioned that he was in the CIA, but once told Moore that he was involved with the Contras and gunrunning, Moore said, adding that he was unimpressed. "All I know is that I didn't believe nine-tenths of what he told me," said Moore, now an Orange County attorney. "All he did was talk."
Another former business associate said it was always clear that Lister did not have good access to intelligence sources. For example, he said, Lister led a sales team on a futile mission to civil war-racked El Salvador in the summer of 1982 to market surplus American arms, military equipment and used school buses to the Salvadoran military.
Apparently, the weapons would have been legally purchased on the open market and then resold, had the plan succeeded.
The trip was financed, the associate said, with an investment of at least $20,000 from Norvin Meneses, then head of a Nicaraguan drug trafficking ring. However, the sales trip and Meneses' investment were "doomed from the start," he said, because Lister was trying to arrange the deals through a leader of the minority party, not the party in power.
"It was a disaster. He didn't sell a cap pistol," said the associate, who agreed to discuss the venture only if he was not identified.
Further undermining Lister's effectiveness in Latin America--both as a businessman and, presumably, as a possible intelligence agent--is the fact that he spoke little or no Spanish.
"He was hopeless. He couldn't order breakfast in Spanish," said the former associate.
Lister, who met Meneses in the early 1980s, returned to Southern California after the abortive Salvador sales mission and tried to approach Meneses about doing some cocaine business. One former trafficking associate of Meneses and his partner, Danilo Blandon, said, however, that Meneses "wanted nothing to do with Lister in the cocaine business. He was afraid of him . . . thought he was a loose cannon."
The source said Meneses was so adamant about keeping Lister away from his drug trade that when Lister showed up at his La Canada home one day to propose a partnership, Meneses retreated to his bedroom and refused to come out until Lister was gone.
Nonetheless, the former associate said that Lister ended up entering the cocaine business through Blandon, who by that time--the end of 1982--was looking for new clients and sources of supply independent of Meneses.
Periodically, Lister's habits seemed to validate some of Meneses' worst fears about him.