Drug War Ensnares an Army Colonel Who Fought It

Drug War Ensnares an Army Colonel Who Fought It
Posted by FoM on April 16, 2000 at 06:47:17 PT
By Alan Fever
Source: New York Times
When Army investigators arrived at the American Embassy in Bogota last spring to interrogate Laurie Ann Hiett, they were faced with a delicate task. Mrs. Hiett was not only the wife of the military officer who oversaw the Army's entire antidrug campaign in Colombia, but also the major suspect in a heroin-smuggling case in which drugs were being sent via diplomatic mail from Colombia to Manhattan and Queens. 
According to an affidavit from one investigator, Mrs. Hiett grew more and more agitated as the interview, inside a quiet room in the embassy, continued, particularly when her questioners confronted her with evidence that she routinely bought cocaine in La Zona Rosa, Bogota's notorious drug bazaar. And toward the end of the questioning, court documents say, Mrs. Hiett rose without warning and left the room for the one place the investigators dared not follow: a nearby office that belonged to her husband, Col. James C. Hiett. No one can say for sure what happened there, but even before Mrs. Hiett pleaded guilty to drug trafficking earlier this year, civilian authorities were convinced that Colonel Hiett, formerly in charge of all United States military operations in Colombia, was aware of his wife's illegal dealings. Although the Army conducted its own investigation and cleared the colonel, Raymond W. Kelly, commissioner of the United States Customs Service, has said that his own agents have long suspected that Colonel Hiett "had knowledge of his wife's actions and may have even had some complicity." Those suspicions are likely to be proved true -- at least, in part -- tomorrow, when Colonel Hiett stands in the same Brooklyn courtroom where his wife stood in January to plead guilty in the case. After months of Mrs. Hiett's denials that her husband knew anything about the drug-smuggling ring, Colonel Hiett is expected to admit that he knew his wife was laundering money and that he failed to turn her in. The colonel is not expected to go so far as to say he knew the money had come from drug trafficking; nonetheless, his admission that he was aware of his wife's shady illegal financial dealings is sure to prove an embarrassment for the Clinton administration as it pushes for Congressional support of a $1.7 billion plan to help Colombia and other Andean countries combat the narcotics trade. The charge to which Colonel Hiett is to plead -- misprision of a felony, or failing to report a felony that he knew took place -- is a relatively minor offense and carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, although under federal sentencing guidelines, Colonel Hiett is likely to be sentenced to about 18 months in prison or less. Colonel Hiett's lawyer, Abraham Clott, refused to comment on the case. Mrs. Hiett, 36, is scheduled to be sentenced on her own guilty plea on April 28. Colonel Hiett was in charge of about 200 American troops who trained Colombian security forces in counternarcotics operations during the time his wife has admitted to smuggling drugs. The missions invariably led to military engagements with Colombian guerrillas. After she entered her guilty plea on Jan. 27, Mrs. Hiett tearfully told reporters that she had kept her husband in the dark about her crimes. "I never told him what I was doing," she said. Moments later, she added that when her husband asked her why she was traveling between Colombia and New York, "I just told him, 'Don't ask me.' " Federal prosecutors have been wary about revealing the details of Colonel Hiett's involvement before he enters his own plea tomorrow. But privately, law enforcement officials and others close to the case have said that he stored $30,000 to $45,000 given to him by his wife in his office safe and then took the money to the United States, where he deposited some in several banks accounts in small amounts, to avoid currency-reporting regulations. He used the rest of the money, law enforcement officials said, to buy money orders, also to skirt the reporting rules. These same officials said that in several interviews with investigators, Colonel Hiett has emerged as a strait-laced man who was somewhat overwhelmed by his troubled wife, who has acknowledged being a manic depressive and a drug abuser. "I'm not using drugs currently," Mrs. Hiett told the court while entering her plea, "but once you're a drug addict, you're a drug addict for the rest of your life." After his wife's arrest, Colonel Hiett asked to be reassigned and is now serving in Virginia. Colonel Hiett, who joined the Army in 1976, has filed for retirement, said Harvey Perritt, an Army spokesman. Mrs. Hiett has acknowledged that, in April and May 1999, she sent six plain-looking brown paper packages to New York City through the embassy's special mail service. Although the packages were accompanied by Customs forms declaring the contents to be books on Colombia or other innocent items, they contained a little more than a kilogram of heroin each, worth about $700,000 altogether. The packages -- each about 12 by 6 by 4 inches and weighing about three pounds -- were sent through the embassy's mail service, which is not open to the general public or even Colombians who work at the embassy. Four of them were mailed to an apartment rented in Jackson Heights, Queens, by Hernan and Timla Arcila, who are brother and sister. On May 23, 1999, according to the government's complaint, a Customs official in Miami discovered cocaine in one of the packages, which was addressed to a Jacqueline Wellipon at the Arcilas' apartment in Queens. Days later, the Arcilas were arrested, and a search of their apartment found more cocaine, $13,000 in cash and notes that led to suspicions of another man, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, according to a court affidavit. Mr. Ayala, who had been a driver for the embassy in Bogota for 15 years, was arrested in February in Colombia. The United States is seeking his extradition. Mr. Arcila pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy charges in January. Ms. Arcila was never officially charged in the case. Published: April 16, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company Related Articles: US Colonel to Plead Guilty in Colombia Drug Probe Anti-Drug Colonel Knew Nothing of U.S. Army Colonel to Plead Guilty
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