F. The 1996 Case against Ross in San Diego

Ross did not bask in this favorable publicity for long. He soon became involved in drug trafficking, under circumstances explored when he stood trial in San Diego in 1996. The prosecution's principal witness in this case was Danilo Blandon.

1. Background

a. Indictment and Information

On March 4, 1995, Ross, Leroy Brown, Curtis James, and Michael McLaurin -- the person Ross credited with first introducing him to crack -- were indicted in federal court in San Diego, on cocaine conspiracy and distribution charges. The government also filed an information against Ross, notifying him of its intent to seek a mandatory life sentence based on his two prior drug convictions.

In response to the information concerning prior convictions, Ross contended that he really had only one prior drug offense because the drug transaction for which he was convicted in Texas was encompassed by the Ohio conspiracy. On November 21, 1996, the district court ruled that the Texas and Ohio convictions were two separate prior convictions and that, if Ross were convicted, the court consequently would be "required to impose a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment."

b. Government Disclosures to Defense Counsel

On February 15, 1996, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney O'Neale, informed Ross' defense counsel, Alan Fenster, that the confidential informant in the case was Oscar Danilo Blandon. In a letter to defense counsel, O'Neale provided Blandon's criminal history and noted that the government would also be eliciting testimony that "before his arrest in May, 1992, Mr. Blandon was for many years a large-scale cocaine broker." O'Neale's letter outlined the benefits that Blandon had received from the government, noting that most of these benefits were not related to the Ross case. It listed Blandon's downward departure from a recommendation of a life sentence and $4 million fine to 48 months and no fine, and a later further reduction to 28 months incarceration. The letter stated that the government had not gone forward with deportation proceedings against Blandon, and that he therefore retained the permanent resident status that he had prior to his May 1992 arrest.(63) It also stated that Blandon had received payments for his cooperation in the Ross case: $500 for information and expenses on February 24, 1995; $2,000 for information and expenses on March 16, 1995; $1,000 for information and expenses on March 15, 1995; $2,000 for information and expenses on April 4, 1995, and $40,000 as a reward on May 22, 1995.

2. The Government Case

Trial in Ross' case was held from March 5 through March 19, 1996. On the first day of trial, defendant Leroy Brown entered a plea of guilty without a plea agreement with the government.

In the government's case, Blandon took the stand and testified as follows. Blandon said that he first began dealing drugs in 1982 with Norwin Meneses and that most of their profits went to support the Contras, with Blandon keeping only enough to cover his expenses. In late 1983, he began to use the Colombian sources he had met through Meneses to deal on his own and for his own profit. In approximately 1983, Blandon began selling cocaine to Ross. Blandon said he had long wanted to meet Ross after hearing from friends how much cocaine Ross was buying from them, and when one friend fled the country, Blandon took over as a source for Ross. Between 1983 and 1986, Blandon, according to his testimony, obtained Colombian cocaine on credit, and then provided Ross and four or five other customers with a total of about 100 kilograms a week. Blandon related how Ross tended to bargain with him, claiming that other suppliers could beat Blandon's prices. Blandon testified that, at his peak, he was delivering to Ross about 100 kilograms a week, and Blandon believed Ross' other suppliers were delivering at least 50 additional kilograms.

On the issue of his INS status, Blandon testified that he had come to the United States with a tourist visa and then applied for political asylum. He said that he had also applied for a green card and had been issued one, but had been arrested when he went to pick it.

Blandon testified that after his arrest, he had agreed to cooperate with the government and had pled guilty, fully expecting to serve the ten-year mandatory minimum specified in his plea agreement. No promises of a lower sentence had been made. After his sentence was reduced and he was released from prison, he had learned that he would not be deported and that he would not have to serve any period of supervised release. Blandon also testified to the monetary payments that he received from the United States and that he was required to pay income tax on this money.

Blandon testified that the government had never told him to target Ross. But Blandon had been in contact with several members of Ross' organization and had himself targeted those people. On October 16, 1994, Ross had called Blandon collect in Nicaragua, and Blandon had taped the call, as he frequently did since he had begun cooperating with the government. This was the first time the two had spoken since Ross had been released from prison. After Blandon asked if Ross remembered Mauricio -- the driver Blandon had used to deliver cocaine to Ross years before -- Blandon said that Mauricio was in Nicaragua and had "everything," but that they needed some money to be able to "move." When Ross asked "what price?," Blandon responded that it was "11," meaning $11,000 per kilogram of cocaine. Ross stated that the quoted price was good and asked Blandon to let him know as soon as possible. Ross also asked Blandon if he could get him "a little something" right away so Ross could make some money.

On December 4, 1994, calling in response to a message from Blandon, Ross asked if Blandon could sell him six kilograms of cocaine. On December 16, 1994, Ross introduced Blandon to a man identified as "Chris," who asked Blandon to deliver 50 kilogram of cocaine to Atlanta. Ross told Blandon that Chris would be in charge of the business and deal with Blandon, but that Ross would be in charge of the money. Eventually, Blandon informed Ross and Chris that he could not deliver the cocaine.

On February 23, 1995, at Ross' request, Blandon met with Ross, Leroy Brown, and Curtis James in San Diego. Blandon said he had 150 kilograms of cocaine available, but that 50 kilograms had already been promised to another customer. Ross announced that they would buy all the cocaine, and that they had $150,000 in the car. Blandon said he would need $200,000 as a down payment for 100 kilograms, at $10,000 per kilogram. The next day, when Blandon complained to Ross during a telephone call about an unpaid debt, Ross assured Blandon: "It ain't worth it. Let it go. Let it go. . . . We're going to make -- we're going to make a lot of money."

On February 28, 1995, Ross, Brown, and James met with Blandon again. The meeting was tape recorded. After speaking with Ross, Brown, and James, Blandon called over DEA SA Pedro Pena, who was acting in an undercover capacity as a representative of the sellers of the cocaine and pretending that he did not speak English. They negotiated for the purchase of 100 kilograms of cocaine, including the amount of downpayment and the place of delivery. Ross and Brown did most of the negotiating and also asked for a price on heroin.

On March 2, 1995, after several recorded telephone conversations, Blandon told Ross to meet him at the Denny's restaurant in Chula Vista, California, for the delivery of the drugs. When Ross said he did not have the full $200,000, but only had $170,000, Blandon responded that he would have to "check with the people" to see if this amount was acceptable or if they would have to deliver less cocaine. Ross stated "We can do the whole thing, man, no problem."

Later that day, Blandon, accompanied by SA Pena, met Ross, Brown, and James in the parking lot of the Denny's restaurant. After Brown gave a bag of money to Pena, the group followed Blandon and Pena to another parking lot where a white Blazer containing the cocaine was parked. SA Pena gave the keys to one of the men.

The government called a number of DEA agents as witnesses to the arrest. DEA SA Pena told of how Brown had given him a bag of money in the parking lot. Thereafter, Pena had given the keys to the Blazer to James. Other DEA agents testified that Ross then entered the Blazer and examined one of the boxes containing the cocaine. Michael McLaurin, who first appeared at the site of the exchange, got in to drive the Blazer, and appeared to be looking over Ross' shoulder at the cocaine. Ross then prepared to drive away in McLaurin's Ford pickup truck, and McLaurin to drive away in the Blazer. As agents moved in to make the arrests, McLaurin sped up in reverse in the Blazer. The Blazer had been equipped with a "kill switch," which enabled the agents to stop the car's engine. Ross, driving McLaurin's Ford pickup truck, fled the scene at high speed, eventually crashing the truck. He then attempted to flee on foot before being apprehended.

Blandon was cross-examined extensively on the issue of why he had not been deported from the United States and how he got his green card. Defense counsel also quizzed him about his relationship with the Contras, his meeting with Enrique Bermudez, and on the allegations that he had continued to engage in drug trafficking after his release from prison.

3. The Defense Case

In the defense case, Ross' attorney called Los Angeles Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick, the prosecutor in the "Big Spender" trial, and elicited testimony about the nature of that case and the extent of Ross' cooperation. Ross' defense, however, focused on a claim of entrapment. Dr. Melvin Booque, Ross' former tennis coach, testified that Ross had complained that someone was harassing him to do a drug deal despite Ross' protests that he was no longer involved in the drug trade and had "gone straight." James Galipeau, a Los Angeles probation officer who had worked with Ross on anti-gang projects, testified that Ross was "addicted" to the drug business and very vulnerable after his release from jail. Ross' girlfriend, Marilyn Stubblefield, testified that Blandon and his wife had made frequent calls to Ross.

Ross testified on his own behalf and told of his history in the drug trade. He testified that his business had grown rapidly once Blandon began to supply him cocaine at a low price. Ross said that he and Blandon became friends as Blandon taught him about the drug trade. Ross testified that he tried to get out of the drug business after his run-in with the corrupt officers in Los Angeles, but Blandon kept trying to pull him back in. Ross said that he always did what Blandon wanted him to do because "[H]e was Danilo, you know. He was -- he was -- he was like my God, my number one person. . . . I wanted to be Danilo."

Ross testified that Blandon was still involved in the drug trade after he moved back to Miami, and that both Ross and his partner Ollie Newell negotiated drug deals with Blandon there. Ross testified that even after he moved to Cincinnati to get out of the drug business, Blandon kept pulling him back in. After Ross moved back to Los Angeles from Cincinnati, he tried to stay away from drugs and follow his dream of working on a performance theater for youth in his neighborhood, but instead found himself arrested on the Ohio charges.

Ross said that when he was released from prison in Texas, he was working as a garbage hauler, trying to earn money to pursue his dream of organizing a community theater. But Blandon contacted him and asked him to call Blandon collect in Nicaragua from a pay phone. When Ross called, Blandon told him that "Tony" had stolen money from Blandon and that Blandon needed Ross' help to earn money back. Ross testified that he repeatedly told Blandon that he did not want to be involved in drugs, but that he nevertheless maintained contact with Blandon because he wanted to sell Blandon a car. Ross said that he asked about the price of drugs in the tape recorded conversation because it was just a habit to ask, although he had no desire, or ability, to conduct a drug transaction. Ross testified that he was "in the palm of [Blandon's] hand. I was like his puppet. He could pick me up. You know, he could tell me to do almost anything and I would have done it for him." Ross said that Blandon had asked Ross to kill someone for him before, but that Ross had refused because he had "a strong feeling about killing people."

Ross stated that he had not participated in the negotiations between "Chris" and Blandon, but had merely been present. Finally, Ross testified that he had agreed to do the drug deal with Blandon because Leroy Brown was lending Ross money for his community theater and had promised to forgive the loan if Ross introduced him to Blandon. Ross testified that he had never intended to engage in drug dealing until Blandon started calling him.

4. Conviction and Sentence

On March 19, 1996, the jury returned verdicts of guilty against Ross on both counts. It also convicted Curtis James, but acquitted Michael McLaurin. On November 19, 1996, Judge Marilyn L. Huff sentenced Ross. Had this been Ross' first offense and had he pled guilty, the sentencing guidelines would have required a sentence of approximately 135-168 months. This was based on a sentencing guideline level of 33, which takes into account the 100 kilogram quantity of cocaine and a reduction for acceptance of responsibility.

However, because of Ross' two prior felony convictions, which the government noted in the special information it had filed, Judge Huff was required to, and did, sentence Ross to a term of life imprisonment. Title 21, United States Code, Section 841(b), provides:

If any person commits a violation of this subparagraph . . . of this title after two or more prior convictions for a felony drug offense have become final, such person shall be sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without release . . . .

Curtis James was sentenced to 135 months in prison. Leroy Brown, who pled guilty on the day of trial, was sentenced to 92 months in prison.

63. As we discussed in the chapter on Blandon, this statement about Blandon's immigration status was not correct, although O'Neale did not know that.