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Informant a Thorn in Justice Dept.'s Side

Caribbean: Key federal witness in '89 drug gang case is target of frustrating extradition effort.

December 07, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those transcripts show that when he took the stand in Miami nine years ago, he was clearly one of the U.S. government's most valued witnesses--a prosecutors' dream.

Just three weeks after Assistant U.S. Atty. Andrew Reich confirmed in a court document dated Jan. 5, 1989, that convicted drug trafficker Cecil Connor and his immediate family had been placed in the federal witness protection program, Connor delivered a windfall in return. He was the key to dismantling one of the most vicious Jamaican posses, heavily armed drug gangs that U.S. officials blamed for at least 1,000 murders in U.S. cities at the time.

Convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine in upstate New York in August 1986, Connor testified that he started cooperating with U.S. authorities the following year. From the witness stand on Jan. 26, 1989, he gave daylong testimony that was instrumental in putting two leaders of one of the most notorious posses in federal prison for life.

"He was a smooth, slick individual. He was brilliant," defense attorney Gaer recalled of Connor's 1989 testimony in an interview last week. "He handled every question, everything we threw at him. He blew us out of the water. He devastated us. If the government had a witness like that in every case, they'd never lose."

Connor testified in detail about how the posse shipped drugs into the Florida cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and West Palm Beach, then on to California, New York, Michigan and Washington, D.C.

He said he was present the day posse leaders opened fire with machine guns in a Florida crack house, killing five people--including a pregnant woman found in a praying position--and shooting the sole survivor in the mouth.

But District Court Judge Jose Gonzalez, who presided over the posse jury trial, allowed defense lawyers to probe deeply into Connor's past.

At one point out of earshot of the jury, the judge noted from the bench: "It's not uncommon to find in federal prosecutions that the government's star witness is worse than the people on trial. But that's a fact, and we have to live with that."

Violent Past Readily Admitted

Under cross-examination, Connor readily admitted to his violent past in Jamaica, where, at 17, he was convicted of a jewelry store robbery in which he shot and wounded a clerk in the chest. He stated that he worked for an armed underground faction in the Labor Party of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, a close U.S. ally in the fight against Cuba-inspired communism.

Asked by one defense attorney whether he was "a cold-blooded murderer," Connor stated: "Well, if you want to put it that way, I have done certain things back in Jamaica while I was there. We all did. This was part of the things we do."

Another defense attorney prodded: "You will never know what the electric chair feels like, will you?"

"Obviously not," Connor said.

Soon after, Cecil Connor disappeared from public view.

On July 30, 1991, Connor's name reappeared in an official document, perhaps for the last time. The legal registry in St. Kitts shows that on that date Cecil Emanuel Connor officially changed his name to Charles Emanuel Miller. He then became a budding entrepreneur.

He started distributing Pepsi products on the island and soon built a small business empire that now includes hotels and restaurants.

But three years after the name change, U.S. prosecutors in 1994 accused Miller of crossing to the wrong side of the law.

The federal case filed in Miami in 1995 charges Miller and three other men with conspiring to ship as much as a ton of cocaine into the United States between August and October 1994, using air-cargo companies they controlled in St. Kitts and Miami.

One of the four defendants pleaded guilty and testified last year against a second, Clifford Henry, who was convicted by a federal jury and sentenced to life in prison last February.

But Miller and the fourth man have successfully fought dogged U.S. efforts to extradite them in a case that has become a major political issue and polarized St. Kitts--one of several eastern Caribbean islands that the DEA has targeted as major new transshipment points for Colombian cocaine and heroin.

Throughout Miller's weeklong extradition hearing here in August 1996, one of his four defense lawyers cast the U.S. government as a bully that considers its laws superior to those of St. Kitts.

In his own nation, Miller has been cleared of drug and jury-tampering charges and 1994 charges that he killed the son of a former deputy prime minister. Police say Miller also was implicated but never charged in the subsequent killing of the St. Kitts police superintendent who investigated the earlier murder.

"What do we have here, a crucifixion?" defense lawyer Fenton Ramsohoye asked the local magistrate during the extradition hearing.

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