D. Law Enforcement Investigations of Ross
1. The Freeway Ricky Task Force
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) began investigating Ross in 1985 but was unable to make any arrests or drug seizures. In January 1987, the LASD and Los Angeles Police Department teamed up and formed a task force to target Ross and others in South Central Los Angeles. The task force became known as the Southwest Crew and consisted of nine members. The task force began to focus so intently on catching the elusive Ross that it became known as the Freeway Ricky Task Force. According to later indictments, the members of the Southwest Crew also stole drug money and possessions from drug traffickers. According to the later federal indictment, in April 1987, the officers chased Ross and shot at him when he fled. According to subsequent trial testimony, they then planted a kilo of cocaine in the path of his flight and claimed that Ross had dropped it. They also claimed that the shot fired by police had been fired after Ross had fired at them. Ross was later arrested on these charges. The charges were later dismissed for police misconduct based on Ross' assertion that the police had disparaged Ross' attorney, Alan Fenster, during their questioning of Ross and therefore interfered with the attorney/client relationship. A tape of the interview was produced by police and found to have a substantial portion of it edited out. The court then dismissed the charges.
State authorities came to Los Angeles Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Walsh and asked if the federal authorities could prosecute Ross for the offense that was dismissed. The local officials showed Walsh the transcripts of the remarks that had been directed to Fenster and that had caused the court to throw the case out. As an accommodation to the state officials, Walsh said that he would try to prosecute Ross and put a LASD deputy sheriff before a grand jury. The deputy testified that he had pursued Ross and that Ross had shot at the deputy and dropped a bag of cocaine as Ross was going over a fence. Sometime after the grand jury appearance, the deputy became implicated in the corruption scandals (known as the "the Big Spender" cases). Once it became clear that the deputy was implicated in corruption, Walsh realized that the case against Ross was not going anywhere and could not be prosecuted. Ross eventually became a witness for the government in a prosecution of this deputy and others. This was discussed in Chapter IV.
2. Ross in Cincinnati
Ross told the OIG that, in 1987, under pressure from the corrupt LASD Task Force, he decided to retire from the drug trade and move to Cincinnati. But he said he shelved these plans when Blandon called him soon after his move in 1987 and asked him to meet him in Detroit. There, Blandon said he needed someone to help him unload 13 kilograms of cocaine, and he offered them to Ross for $10,000 a kilogram. Ross accepted, and he used his connections in Cincinnati to sell them. Ross later explained that he had done this as a favor to Blandon, because he himself had not needed the money.
Ross told the OIG that working in Ohio was very different from Los Angeles, because although Blandon was still supplying cocaine at low prices, retail prices were much higher. Ross therefore made a huge profit on every sale. After Blandon moved to Miami, Ross dealt primarily with Blandon's partner in Los Angeles, "Jose," but Ross said he would involve Blandon in negotiations from time to time, and Ross went to Miami a few times to get drugs from Blandon. According to Ross, Blandon also introduced Ross to a supplier in New York and met with Ross and the supplier there on Ross' first trip to New York to pick up drugs. Ross stated that, on this occasion, he picked up the drugs in New York and either gave the money to the supplier in New York, or sent the money to Blandon in Miami. Ross also stated that Blandon continued to supply Ross' friends in Los Angeles.
Blandon denied to OIG investigators that he continued to deal drugs after he moved to Miami. He stated that he turned his customers over to Roger Sandino and Jose Gonzales, and that Ross had worked with Gonzales. Blandon said that Ross had involved him in negotiations with Gonzales a couple times because of problems they were having, but that he had merely called Gonzales to work things out, and had not made any money for this effort. Blandon denied having dealt with any supplier in New York on Ross' behalf.
3. Other Investigative Files and Cases on Ross
Ross was never prosecuted for the huge drug empire that he presided over in Los Angeles in the early and mid-1980s. As noted above, a 1987 case pursued by the Freeway Ricky Task Force was dismissed by a local court for police misconduct, and the federal case against Ross was closed when deputies involved were accused of corruption.
Between 1986 and 1990, a number of other jurisdictions investigated Ross' activities, but none with any success. In October 1986, Ross was arrested on federal charges in Los Angeles for conspiracy to distribute cocaine in St. Louis, Missouri. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence. The case stemmed from the arrest of Michael Wingo in St. Louis, who possessed cocaine and a significant amount of cash when he was arrested. In post-arrest statements, Wingo told DEA agents that Ross had supplied him with two kilograms of cocaine a week.
In March 1988, an OCDETF investigation was initiated against the "Ricky Ross organization" in Seattle, Washington. Investigators stated at the initiation of the investigation that Ross' organization was the single most important group distributing crack cocaine in the Seattle-Tacoma area. In April 1988, Derrick Hargress had been prosecuted in Oklahoma City for supplying gangs in Seattle with cocaine coming from Los Angeles and through Oklahoma City. Ross was identified as the source of the cocaine. The Seattle OCDETF case was not successful, and Ross was not prosecuted there.
DEA records from 1988 also show informant information suggesting that Ross traveled to New York City in August and September of 1988 to pick up 20 kilograms of cocaine. Another DEA informant reported that Ross had sold 7.3 kilograms of cocaine in Dayton, Ohio, on April 26 and 27, 1989, and had asked whether the informant would be interested in running a crack house for him. In May 1989, Ross was reported to have received five kilograms of cocaine and 20 guns in Fairfield, Ohio, in December 1988. Ross was also reported to have attended a meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, about the transportation of cocaine from Miami, Florida, on an unknown date.
According to DEA records, an Officer "Pulak" -- a police officer in a joint DEA task force -- opened a DEA file on September 3, 1989, with the objective of trying to seize assets owned by Ross that were believed to be the proceeds of drug sales. The case was closed in May 1990, following Ross' arrest on the Ohio charges (see below). Task Force Officer "Pulak" is believed to be former LAPD officer Stephen Polak, who Ross eventually testified against in the "Big Spender" cases.
The FBI had two files on Ricky Ross in addition to the Cincinnati file discussed below. One indicated he was a suspect in a 1988 bank robbery in Indianapolis, Indiana. A bank teller identified Ross from a photographic spread as the bank robber. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Indiana declined prosecution in this case. The other file involved an investigation of Ross and others for the theft of $337,673 in jewelry from the Shane Company in Indianapolis on June 16, 1988. According to the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Indianapolis referred prosecution of this matter to local authorities.
4. Ross' Arrest on Federal Charges in Cincinnati
a. Background of Investigation
On September 28, 1988, after police in Carlsbad, New Mexico, had recovered nine kilograms of cocaine from luggage on a bus traveling from Los Angeles, they forwarded it to its addressees in Cincinnati for a "controlled" delivery. On September 30, 1988, Alfonso Jeffries was arrested when he attempted to pick it up. This seizure led the FBI and DEA field offices in Cincinnati to investigate allegations that the "Crips," a Los Angeles based gang, were flooding the Cincinnati market with inexpensive, high quality cocaine. Early investigative reports found that, beginning in 1987, Ricky Ross had recruited young blacks from Los Angeles to travel to Cincinnati to sell cocaine and crack on the streets. Most of these people were members of gangs, most notably the Crips. The recruits were given apartments, beepers, cocaine, and instructions on how to conduct street sales by using phone booths, pagers, and mopeds. The drugs were stored in the trunks of parked cars placed around the neighborhoods. Ross was known on the street as the "Six Million Dollar Man" in Cincinnati because of the perception that he was making a fortune there.
On June 8, 1989, ten individuals, including Ross and Jeffries, were indicted on drug charges in Cincinnati. The indictment charged that from about January 1, 1987 through the date of the indictment, Ross and the nine others conspired to distribute cocaine in Cincinnati. Ross was also charged with giving a false social security number to a law enforcement officer on two occasions. Cincinnati Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hunt, who handled the prosecution, told the OIG that witnesses were prepared to testify that, "on a good day," Ross' operation grossed over $30,000. After Ross was arrested on state charges in Los Angeles in November 1989 for assault on a police officer, he was transported back to Cincinnati, and held without bail, pending trial on this indictment.(62)
b. Ross' Guilty Plea in Cincinnati
Ross was soon able to obtain a favorable resolution on these Cincinnati charges, at least in part because of his cooperation in the corruption case in Los Angeles against the members of the Freeway Ricky Task Force. On September 5, 1990, Ross pled guilty to the drug conspiracy count in federal court in Cincinnati. In his plea, Ross stipulated that the appropriate offense level, given the amount of cocaine he handled and his acceptance of responsibility, was 32 (121-151 months). The Cincinnati U.S. Attorney's Office agreed that, "upon substantial assistance by [Ross] to the United States Government in an investigation conducted by the United States Attorney for the Central District of California," it would file a motion for a downward departure in Ross' sentence under Section 5K1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines "if [Ross] continues to provide satisfactory cooperation." The plea agreement also stated that, if Ross did provide substantial assistance in the investigation in the Central District of California, the government would recommend to the court that the court depart downward to a sentence set forth under level 24 (51-63 months) of the Sentencing Guidelines.
Ross was sentenced in Cincinnati on February 8, 1991, but no motion for a downward departure was filed, because Ross' cooperation was not yet complete. Ross was therefore sentenced to 121 months in prison and three years supervised release -- a sentence within the guideline range.
c. Ross' Cooperation in Los Angeles Corruption Trials
According to Los Angeles Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Emmick, who handled some of the "Big Spender" cases against the Los Angeles deputies, these cases began with an undercover operation by the FBI to determine if deputies were skimming money from cash seized from drug dealers. Between 1989 and 1991, 35 deputy sheriffs and 6 related persons were prosecuted by the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office, in 11 trials. One of these cases targeted the group of deputies known as the Freeway Ricky Task Force. The cases against the corrupt deputies gained steam when a member of that group, LASD Detective Sobel, agreed to cooperate. Ultimately, based on testimony from Sobel and a number of drug dealers, corroborated by evidence found in the houses of the deputies or their girlfriends, several deputies were charged with theft, civil rights violations, perjury, and tax counts.
One of the drug dealers from whom the U.S. Attorney's Office obtained testimony was Ricky Ross. He was granted "use immunity" on May 2, 1990, meaning that nothing he said at trial could be used against him in any subsequent criminal proceeding. The indictment against the deputies alleged, among other charges, that LAPD officer Stephen Polak had planted a kilogram of cocaine during the April 1987 incident in which Ross had been arrested (described above), and that deputy sheriff John Edner had fired first at Ross during that chase, then falsely claimed to have been returning fire from Ross.
Trial on this case began in August 1991, and ended five months later with a hung jury. Although the case was not retried, several of the defendants pled guilty after being offered favorable deals.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emmick told the OIG that he had not wanted the Cincinnati U.S. Attorney's Office to agree to a downward departure for Ross in Ohio, because there was no need for such consideration. Ross had already provided information and had appeared before the grand jury in Los Angeles under the grant of use immunity. But the Cincinnati U.S. Attorney's Office had decided to give Ross a favorable deal anyway, perhaps, according to Emmick, because of evidence problems or for some other reason.
Cincinnati Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hunt differed in his recollection. Hunt told us that initially he had no intention of giving Ross a break because he believed that he had a good case against Ross and was ready for trial, whether the Los Angeles corruption case was occurring or not. Hunt said that he was not inclined to offer Ross a plea agreement in an attempt to help out the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office. Hunt stated that if it was not for the fact that the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office was quite insistent that Ross be given a break, he would not have given Ross a downward departure.
On February 5, 1992, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emmick advised Cincinnati Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunt, by letter, of the nature and extent of the cooperation of Ricky Ross. Emmick stated that Ross had fully complied with the plea agreement and that his cooperation was "more than 'satisfactory' it was complete, candid, and forthright." Emmick stated:
Ross' trial testimony was quite long. He was on the stand for three to four days. He was cross-examined in excruciating detail about all imaginable subjects, including who his cocaine sources were, who was part of his narcotics organization, and what properties he purchased with narcotics proceeds and may still retain. Ross answered those questions without hesitation, and, in my opinion, did so honestly and candidly.
On February 7, 1992, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hunt filed a motion for a downward departure on Ross' sentence in Cincinnati, attaching the letter from Assistant U.S. Attorney Emmick. On March 25, 1992, the court reduced Ross' sentence to 51 months, to be followed by three years supervised release.
5. The Texas Case
In November 1993, Ross, still in federal prison, was arrested on a warrant issued from Smith County, Texas, arising out of the interception of a call in May 1988 during which Ross had agreed to supply a cousin in Tyler, Texas, with two kilograms of cocaine. Ross pled no contest to Texas state charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine, and was sentenced to ten years, to run concurrently with his federal sentence in Ohio. At the completion of his federal sentence in November 1993, Ross began serving nine months in Texas state prison. He was paroled in September 1994 by the state of Texas.
E. Media Attention After Ross' Release from Prison
Upon his release from prison, Ross became the subject of considerable media attention. An article in September 1994 by Jessie Katz in the Los Angeles Times told of Ross' vow to "help youngsters avoid his mistakes." Katz wrote:
The notorious Los Angeles drug lord known as Freeway Rick, who once boasted that his coast-to-coast cocaine empire grossed more than $1 million a day, walked out of a Texas jail Wednesday and vowed to return home in search of redemption. Ricky Donnell Ross, 34, who in the 1980s probably rose faster and higher than any other drug trafficker from the streets of South Central Los Angeles, said he hoped to head back to his old neighborhood as soon as possible and devote his life to warning youngsters about the mistakes that kept him locked up for most of the last five years.
According to the article, Ross was "broke," having lost his drug profits to "attorney fees, shaky business deals and double-crossing rivals." In the article, Ross stated that he learned to read and write in jail and had plans to turn an old theater he had purchased with drug proceeds into a multicultural performance theater and community educational facility.
The article quoted Los Angeles probation officer Jim Galipeau as saying that Ross was "the biggest-time dope dealer to come up from the streets of South Central" and that Ross' reputation was enhanced by his eschewal of flashy jewelry, cars and clothes. "He was more like a Robin Hood-type guy. You never heard of him getting high or drinking or beating women or dealing dope to kids. The guy really had a reputation for helping people out and giving money back to the community."
62. As discussed in section A above, the assault charge was later dismissed because of Ross' "pending federal cases in other states."