Source: Associated Press Pubdate: Wed, 18 Mar 1998 Author: Richard Cole, Associated Press SF DEA CHIEF -- FROM TOUGH STREETS TO TOP AGENT 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 VCRs. 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 through. ``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 myself.'' 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 says. 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 enforcement.''