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Up Close and Undercover

The story of the DEA agent who helped put some of the world's top drug lords behind bars is a tale Hollywood would love to tell--and the scramble to tell it is on.

March 09, 1997|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Anne-Marie O'Connor is a Times staff writer who covers the U.S.-Mexican border

SAN DIEGO — For nearly two years, Heidi Herrera was the unrivaled ice princess of Southern California money laundering. The striking blond daughter of a retired Mexican drug smuggler, Herrera held court with traffickers at her lavish La Jolla suites and jetted around the world to meet with Sicilian Mafia envoys and Colombian cartel connections.

One kingpin murmured that if she cheated him, he could have her killed like that. He needn't have worried. Heidi's business acumen was as impeccable as her steely blue eyes. Soon she was listed as one of the most successful Hispanic executives in the United States.

Her clients were dangerous men. And Heidi, as they were soon to discover, was a dangerous woman.

Because Heidi was really Heidi Landgraf, an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent, the glamorous operative behind an unorthodox top-secret sting--code-named Green Ice, a metaphor for frozen assets--that was the single biggest anti-narcotics operation of all time.

More than 200 people around the world were sent to jail and $50 million in allegedly ill-gotten gain was seized at the climax of the operation in September 1992. And the elusive Heidi Herrera had vanished.

*

Sound like something out of a movie? Hollywood thinks so. Today, Heidi Landgraf's dangerous masquerade is being recounted in a book, courted for a television drama and developed as a movie that would star Michelle Pfeiffer.

John Davis, one of the producers developing the film for Columbia Pictures, hopes movie audiences are clamoring for a character he sees as America's first female James Bond. After the box-office success of movies like "Thelma & Louise," "Waiting to Exhale" and "The First Wives Club," Hollywood has come to see the wisdom of making movies with strong, believable female characters. An action movie with a woman hero, producers believe, remains a lucrative, untapped genre.

And the Green Ice story would seem like the perfect tale to tap into that genre. Producers plan to reinvent the movie's Heidi as a single woman--in real life, she is a married stepmother. And there may be an homme fatale, a hunky criminal strategically strewn throughout the story line in a gender reversal on the dishy Bond temptresses.

"This is going to be the DEA's 'Top Gun,' " said Tony Lord of Lord/Weaver Productions, which is also involved with the project.

Still, it remains to be seen whether the DEA movie, tentatively titled "Ice Queen," can top the elaborate Green Ice charade. Or the under-the-gun acting of Landgraf, who often had to make things up as she went along.

Like all good lies, the sting rested on a few threads of truth. Women are common in the ranks of Latin American money laundering but rare on the front lines of U.S. anti-drug enforcement, so traffickers would be more predisposed to trust Landgraf than a blond white man. Moreover, Landgraf spoke Spanish and knew her way around Latin society.

So DEA supervisors recast her as a woman born into the business, the exotic bicultural daughter of a retired Mexican drug lord and his beautiful Austrian trophy wife.

In reality, Landgraf is the daughter of a Los Angeles fireman and a pioneer policewoman. She did not immediately settle on a law enforcement career. First she bummed around Europe, studied medicine in Mexico, got an undergraduate degree in psychology at San Diego State University and worked in marketing and drug rehabilitation. At 33, she joined the DEA.

Assigned to the San Diego division, she performed typical rookie tasks for a few months, pitching in on investigations. On the personal front, she quietly began a romance with a DEA colleague, Ken Davis. Working at close quarters, they kept it a secret.

Then a supervisor, Tom Clifford, approached her. He had been toying with a novel proposal ever since the arrest of a beautiful, Sorbonne-educated Colombian woman on suspicion of money laundering. Would Landgraf be willing to pose as a money launderer?

Three months before the DEA began to build the Heidi Herrera empire in October 1989, Landgraf and Davis were married.

The preparations for Green Ice were far more elaborate--and expensive--than their wedding. The cost: $2 million.

The set was a La Jolla office suite with panoramic Pacific views, adorned with plush leather sofas, high-concept lighting, fine art--and electronic bugs. A cliff-top residence--where Landgraf rarely stayed--was furnished down to photographs of her real-life husband. Her office assistant and domestic "help" were all DEA agents.

Heidi, whose tastes lean more toward pantsuits reminiscent of vintage Katharine Hepburn movies, bought leather skirts and gold jewelry. She got boats, planes, a Mercedes--supplied by DEA seizures of traffickers' property. But her most important new accessory was the hidden wire surveillance microphone she would wear to all her meetings.

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