Pubdate: Sat, 07 Aug 1999
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Mercury Center
Author: Robert D. McFadden, New York Times


Scheme Used Embassy Privileges

NEW YORK -- In April and May, Laurie Anne Hiett, the wife of an Army colonel
in charge of all U.S. military operations in Colombia, mailed six packages
to New York City from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. Each was sealed in plain
brown paper and weighed several pounds.

Hiett, 36, sent four of them to an apartment in Queens and the others to
mail drops in Queens and Manhattan. She wrote her name clearly on the return
addresses and filled out customs forms declaring the contents to be books on
Colombia or items like candy, a T-shirt, coffee or candles.

But the names of the recipients were fictitious and the packages turned out
to contain a total of 15.8 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value of up
to $230,000, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal
court in Brooklyn. The complaint charges Hiett and two others in a bizarre
drug-trafficking conspiracy that took advantage of the embassy's special
mailing privileges.

A three-month undercover operation by New York police, U.S. Customs Service
agents and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division found no evidence of
involvement by Col. James Hiett, who was responsible for U.S. military
activity in Colombia from July 1998 until last week, when he stepped aside
voluntarily because of the allegations against his wife.

While the purported drug-smuggling operation was not large, the allegations
brushing the embassy come at a sensitive time in the joint efforts to combat
the drug trade in Colombia, the world's No. 1 source of cocaine and the
primary country of concern for American anti-drug policy. It will receive
$289 million in aid from Washington this year, and most of it will go to
fight the drug war.

Laurie Hiett, who was arraigned before Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak in
federal court in Brooklyn on Thursday and ordered released on $150,000
personal recognizance bond, admitted to investigators that she had mailed
the packages, but insisted that she had not known the contents and that she
had sent them at the behest of her husband's chauffeur, a Colombian national.

Co-conspirator named

The chauffeur, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, who had been a driver for the American
Embassy in Bogota for 15 years, was named as a co-conspirator and was being
sought by the authorities in Colombia. The complaint said he told
investigators at the embassy in June that Laurie Anne Hiett "abused
cocaine," and that he helped her buy it in La Zona Rosa, a notorious
drug-trafficking district in Bogota, and from "an unknown woman in a taxi"
at the back gate of the embassy.

Confronted with these assertions by the investigators, the complaint said,
Hiett became "extremely agitated." The complaint said she insisted that she
had got the packages from Ayala, who "obtained them from individuals in a
taxi outside the embassy." When pressed, the complaint said, she stated:
"I'm afraid they'll kill me."

Hiett's attorney, Paul Lazarus of Miami, said Friday that his client denied
the allegations. He said he was not prepared to make further statements
until he had a chance to study the case, which was first reported Thursday
evening on the Web site of the Village Voice newspaper.

Package recipients

Lee Dunst, the assistant federal prosecutor in the case, declined to comment
beyond the complaint, which accused Timla Arcila, 61, and her brother,
Hernan Arcila, 53, of receiving the packages at their apartment at 31-47
92nd St. in Jackson Heights, Queens; at a rented post office box in
Elmhurst, Queens; and at a commercial mail drop in Manhattan.

Timla Arcila was named as a co-defendant and was arraigned and released on
bail Thursday. No dates for later hearings were set. Conviction on the
federal charge of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute it
is subject to 10 to 12 years in prison.

No federal charges were filed against Hernan Arcila, who was being held at
the Queens House of Detention on an unrelated charge, filed by the Queens
district attorney, of criminal possession of narcotics in the first degree,
which carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

Representatives of Colombia's ministry of defense, which oversees relations
between Colombian and American security forces in the drug wars, and for
President Andres Pastrana, declined to comment on the case.

But a Colombian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said Hiett's contention that she had mailed packages containing cocaine
unknowingly at the request of her family's driver did not seem farfetched.
He noted that mail service in Colombia, as in many Latin American countries,
was unreliable, and that Colombians close to foreign diplomats often asked
them to send mail. "Everybody knows that the embassy mail works extremely
well out of here," the official said.

However, such requests are usually to mail letters, not packages, and to
show that nothing illegal is being mailed the packages are left unsealed
when given to American diplomats or members of their families. "I think she
was being extremely naive," the official said.

But investigators said there was ample evidence that Hiett was aware of what
was in the packages. They said Customs travel records show that she made
several trips to the United States in April and May, and indicated that the
purpose of the trips was to prepare for and help coordinate the conspiracy.

According to the federal complaint, the packages -- each about 12 inches
long, 6 inches high and 4 inches wide and weighing about three pounds --
were mailed from the embassy's postal service, which is not open to the
general public and does not provide services for Colombian citizens who work
at the embassy.

The packages were sent between April 13 and May 26, four of them to the
Arcila apartment in Jackson Heights, and two others to the mail drops in
Queens and Manhattan that were said to have been rented by Timla Arcila. On
May 23, a Customs official in Miami, conducting a routine search, discovered
cocaine in one of the packages, which was addressed to a Jacqueline Wellipon
at the Queens apartment. Hiett's name was on the return address.

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