Members of the exclusive Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach expressed shock and disappointment Thursday as news spread that one of their own had been indicted as an accused player in an international drug smuggling ring.
Ronald Franklin Newman, 48, a well-known local car dealer who holds the club's coveted honorary title of governor, faces federal charges of being a "peripheral player" in an international plan that landed 9 tons of Thai marijuana on the West Coast in 1995, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
"He's a good guy, so this is a very big surprise and a very big disappointment," said one former longtime club member, who asked that his name not be used. "Everybody is talking about it. Everyone is distancing themselves."
Newman, a resident of the Bayshores area of Newport Beach, was indicted last month on charges of conspiracy to smuggle Thai marijuana into Washington state in 1995, Assistant U.S. Atty. Tim Coughlin said.
Newman, who was released on $200,000 bond, was among 19 men and one woman named in the indictment, which was unsealed this month and ended a two-year investigation. Coughlin described the longtime Orange County resident as "a guy on the periphery" of a major operation that involved six boats, a trio of stash houses and rental trucks.
"He was clearly involved. He took a role in it," Coughlin said, adding that Newman is suspected of having direct ties to the alleged ringleader, Phillip Edward Hastings, a 46-year-old Australian who formerly lived in Solana Beach.
Newman is accused of traveling to Seattle to arrange for a hotel room, rental car and cellular telephone for a meeting of ring members, according to the indictment.
Newman is co-owner of Westport Inc., a classic car dealership in Newport Beach. He could not be reached Thursday for comment.
His attorney, James Riddet of Santa Ana, said the charges are "absolutely, totally false" and his client was merely "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"They say he's a peripheral player," Riddet said. "I'm telling you he's not a player at all. My impression is that Ron was brought into this only because he knows [Hastings]."
News of Newman's arrest has rippled in recent days through the ranks of the historic Balboa Bay Club, a celebrated part of the Newport Beach society scene. The club bestows the honorary title of governor to longtime members and the local elite, including late Hollywood legend John Wayne.
Entertainers and politicos have mingled under the white and blue umbrellas of the club's vast marina complex, especially in the 1940s and '50s during its glittering heyday, when names such as Bogart, Garbo and Gable graced the guest list. The modern roster prides itself on that history and is stung by Newman's arrest, members said.
Club leaders and spokesman David C. Wooten would not accept phone calls to their offices Thursday, and uniformed guards turned reporters away from the club driveway on Pacific Coast Highway.
Newman, relatively young to be a governor of the organization, was granted the title several years ago to provide "new blood" to a graying membership, one member said Thursday, speaking on condition that his name not be used.
Entertainer Joey Bishop, a governor in the club, said news of the charges against Newman stunned his fellow members. "I was shocked to hear," Bishop said. "I mean this is a big deal, millions of dollars."
The smuggling operation detailed in the federal indictment spanned five states and culminated with the landing of marijuana on the shores of Anacortes, Wash. The shipment was loaded aboard the Java, a 65-foot sailboat, off the coast of Cambodia, then transferred to another boat near the Marshall Islands, according to the indictment. On arrival in Washington, the marijuana was transferred to power boats.
The cargo was then ferried across the Pacific Northwest and beyond in rental trucks and hidden in at least three sites, Coughlin said. Three search warrants executed in April 1996 led to the seizure of more than 5,300 pounds of the marijuana, including 150 pounds in an Aliso Viejo storage locker, Coughlin said.
Nine of the 20 defendants named in the indictment remain at large, Coughlin said.
Newman is mentioned on only one page of the 26-page indictment. The document alleges that he and another defendant in September 1995 rented a car and cellular phone at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and checked into a room at a nearby Marriott Residence Inn "to facilitate the Thai marijuana smuggling venture."
Newman and the other man then picked up a third ring member at the airport and drove him to the hotel to "meet and plan the distribution" of the drug shipment, the indictment states.
Times staff writer Bonnie Hayes and correspondent Steve Carney contributed to this report.