SAN DIEGO — Onetime crack cocaine kingpin "Freeway" Ricky Ross, whose case renewed a national controversy about alleged CIA involvement in drug dealing, was sentenced to life in prison by a judge who said Ross cannot use unproven allegations about the CIA to escape the maximum punishment for being an "eager participant" in the illicit drug trade.
"Mr. Ross does not get a free pass to deal drugs the rest of his life and addict further people because of something that happened in the 1980s," said U.S. District Judge Marilyn Huff.
Huff added that accusations that the Central Intelligence Agency condoned drug dealing in South-Central Los Angeles by sympathizers of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua are based on "innuendoes, speculation and rumors."
In a heavily guarded courtroom packed with friends and relatives of Ross, as well as members of law enforcement agencies that have long sought to send Ross to prison, Huff said that Ross never hesitated to be part of a drug deal put together by Oscar Danilo Blandon, Ross' former partner.
Blandon, a onetime Contra supporter, was serving a life sentence as a drug dealer when he agreed to act as an informant. As a result, he served only 28 months in prison and was put on the payroll of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Carson), one of several African American leaders who have taken an active interest in the Ross case, said later from Washington, D.C. that she was surprised and disappointed by the severity of the sentence.
"For heaven's sake, for heaven's sake," said Millender-McDonald, whose district covers part of South-Central Los Angeles. "I can't condone what he did, but I certainly think we must look at the fairness of the sentencing. If you compare Blandon to Ricky Ross, you have to ask, where is the fairness?"
Under a new federal law aimed at repeat drug criminals, Ross will not be eligible for parole. Ross was given a life sentence because of his two prior drug convictions: one in Ohio, one in Texas.
Ross, 36, dressed in a tan prison jumpsuit and speaking in a subdued voice, asked Huff for leniency on the basis that Blandon, his onetime supplier before both men went to prison, had tricked him into going back into the drug business in late 1994.
"I was broke, I had been in prison for five years," Ross said. "They offered me a chance to make $2 million. They knew my neighborhood was infested by drugs. Everybody I knew dealt drugs. . . . I was minding my own business. I was trying to do what was right."
But Assistant U.S. Atty. L.J. O'Neale said that it was Ross who contacted Blandon about resuming their supplier-retailer relationship that allowed them to become major players in the crack cocaine market in the 1980s.
"This is the man who reveled in his fame as a cocaine dealer and a reformed cocaine dealer, but as it turned out he wasn't all that reformed," O'Neale said.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who sent a representative to the sentencing, doubted the wisdom of Huff's decision to recommend that Blandon be deported to his native Nicaragua if he is no longer helping the government in drug cases.
"This smacks of the kind of mystery that causes distrust in the criminal justice system," said Waters in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "Shouldn't Danilo Blandon be in jail, or at minimum, available to answer questions in the ongoing investigation about the government's role in drug trafficking?"
O'Neale also sought unsuccessfully to have Huff impose an unspecified but hefty fine on Ross in case he succeeds in selling his life story to movie-makers. O'Neale said Ross and San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, whose accounts of the case sparked the CIA controversy, have both tried to sell their stories to Hollywood.
"I do not think we ought to offer opportunities for enrichment for selling a tale of criminality," O'Neale said.
With Webb and another Mercury News reporter in attendance, Huff wondered aloud about "a very close relationship that has been established between Mr. Ross and Mr. Webb" in which Webb helped Ross' attorney, Alan Fenster, during the trial with questions to ask Blandon and may also have provided the defense lawyer with an important document that he lacked.
Huff, who represented media organizations while a private attorney, suggested that the Ross-Webb relationship is a proper topic for journalism magazines to debate. "Sometimes you cross the line between reporting of a story" and becoming a participant, Huff said.
After the sentencing, Ross' mother, Annie, tearfully told reporters that her son is the victim of a government scheme to destroy black communities.
"It is supposed to be a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people,' but it's not," she said, clutching her Bible. "Over and over the government tries to destroy the black race. The CIA let the Contras sell drugs to black people and the government didn't care."