Source: Associated Press
Pubdate: Wed, 18 Mar 1998
Author: Richard Cole, Associated Press


SAN FRANCISCO -- When Jorge Roca Suarez, the king of Bolivian cocaine
paste, closed his deals with the Colombian drug cartels, little did he know
that one day he would sit in a U.S. prison because someone stole a young
girl's blue bicycle in White Bear Lake, Minn.

Fourth-grader Michele Leonhart owned that bike, with its white basket and
pink streamers.

She refused to shrug it off. She asked questions. Checked around. And a few
weeks later, tracked it down in an alley a few blocks from her house.

``I started thinking I was a bit of an investigator trying to locate my
blue Huffy,'' she says three decades later.

That fourth grader set her eyes on a career in law enforcement -- and a
``bit of an investigator'' is what she turned out to be.

Leonhart is the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration and, as chief of 130 agents in Northern California, the only
woman to head a regional DEA office.

She's no token. First in her class at the Baltimore police academy in 1978.
First again in the DEA academy in 1980. Intelligence and enforcement group
supervisor in San Diego, No. 2 agent in Los Angeles. A string of
high-profile cases stretching from Canada to Bolivia.

But she almost had no law enforcement career. When Leonhart graduated from
college in 1978, police department after police department turned her down.
Los Angeles said she was too short. Chicago and Miami had residency
requirements. Every department seemed to have an excuse.

``One by one, I was being slapped with, `No, you don't qualify,''' she says.

But Baltimore -- a city she had to look up on a map because she had never
before left the Twin Cities area -- invited her to take their test. She
worked out to meet the strength requirements. And then aced the academy.

Woman officers were rare in Baltimore. The male officers turned Michele
into ``Mikey'' her first day on the job.

As a rookie, she found herself patrolling alone at night on the streets of
Baltimore's worst neighborhoods. She earned the grudging admiration of
street kids, who called the fearless 5-foot-4-inch officer ``Mighty Mike,''
and tipped her to who committed neighborhood burglaries.

She began to see the damage done by drugs. She battled with a PCP-loaded
suspect who had just thrown a traffic barrier through a store window. She
helped DEA agents serve warrants on drug suspects. She caught the bug.

``It would take me years to become a detective and get to the point where I
could investigate cases, and these DEA agents were doing it every day,''
she recalls thinking.

So she signed up with the DEA. As the top student in the academy, she had
her pick of cities, and decided to return to her native Minnesota. Other
agents criticized her for not picking a higher profile city like Miami or
New York. But Leonhart had an idea that she could be a bigger fish in a
smaller school.

She was right.

The day she walked in the door as the first female agent to work in
Minneapolis, she was handed what turned out to be one of her biggest cases.

A mysterious Puerto Rican millionaire was wowing the people of Princeton
near the Canadian border. He bought football uniforms for the high school.
He took seniors to lunch. And he put a lot of money into the local airport.
The newspapers called him ``Princeton's mysterious benefactor.''

The DEA had its suspicions. In went their newest agent, and within a day
the rookie ingratiated herself with the mystery man. He conveniently
pointed out the planes and property he owned, allowing the DEA to track his
cross-border flights. Their suspicions were right. Off he went to prison.

Leonhart had landed running and never stopped. She bought LSD from an
American Indian Movement leader in his home, trading supposedly stolen

She worked a Marielito Cuban bar in Minneapolis so tough the owner had
installed a metal detector that seemed to beep every time a customer walked

``I was buying dope in the men's room and they were putting shotguns on the
pool table,'' she recalls.

Sitting in a conference room of the office she now heads, her eyes sparkle
when she talks about her undercover work.

``One day I would go in as the head of my own organization -- I'm in
charge, I want to buy drugs,'' she says. ``The next day I could be some
flunky, dumb girlfriend who would just sit there and make phone calls. It
was fun.''

The DEA had plans for the bright young agent that didn't include undercover
work. She found herself being kicked upstairs to higher posts.

The DEA, she acknowledges, has always had more of a cowboy reputation than
the more sedate FBI. It was made up, especially initially, of upwardly
mobile street cops who were facing heavily armed and equally macho drug
dealers. A woman moving up through the ranks was suspect, she found.

``There is always that doubt. `A woman on the job? I'm not quite sure,'''
she says. ``Each time I moved to a new post I would have to re-prove

But her fellow agents, she discovered, cared more about making cases than
gender politics. Some of her early critics are now her biggest fans, she

She also found the DEA more egalitarian when it came to assignments. During
one San Diego raid with another agency known for having women agents, she
and a fellow female DEA investigator stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their
colleagues as they entered the property.

``The other agency's women agents handed out sodas to the men -- that was
their job!'' she marvels. ``We have female agents who have died on the job
doing the same thing that men do. We jump out of helicopters. We were down
in Bolivia and Peru doing everything that the men do.''

It was the Bolivian connection that led to one of the DEA's biggest cases
and put a feather in Leonhart's cap. The San Diego group she supervised
patiently made a case against Jorge Roca Suarez, head of powerful drug
family in Bolivia. He supplied the cocaine paste, the base for all powdered
cocaine, to the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia.

Her agents nabbed Roca Suarez in Los Angeles, and he is now serving 40
years in prison. The DEA confiscated $14 million in property.

When she took over the San Francisco office in June of last year, she found
trends she had first spotted in Southern California had accelerated. The
enemy has become methamphetamine, responsible for 60-70 percent of DEA
cases in the region. Organized Mexican traffickers are taking over from the
bikers who once dominated the meth trade. And the San Francisco office also
has to watch Asian heroin -- and fret over pot clubs.

It keeps her too busy to spend much time thinking about breaking barriers.

``I don't see anything strange about it,'' she says. ``But when we look at
it, especially for law enforcement, it is a landmark. I do have to realize
that this is a good way to be a role model for women going into law