Intrepid Optimist

Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age

The Sting

On the surface, the trio behaved just like the usual American tourists. They were staying at the Hotel Colon and each evening, after drinks in the hotel, would walk the two short blocks to our place for dinner. They told Franz, our barman, that the food was much better than in the hotel. I had twice caught sight of them out and about in the city, visiting Quito’s tourist attractions. Despite the congenial atmosphere in the Lord Byron, they kept to themselves, only speaking to order from Franz or to chat with me, when I was not occupied with to friend or customers. They clearly avoided getting into conversation with other English speakers present.

The dominant one of the three, I learned was Todd Benning; a well built all American six-footer. He paid their bar bills and did most of the talking. Benning’s rather obsequious approach to me was not natural and I quickly sensed he was attempting to cultivate a closer friendship. On their fourth visit and obviously feeling more confident with me, he questioned me in detail about the cocaine business in Ecuador.

This in itself did not surprise me, as many visiting tourists and businessmen were curious about Ecuador’s attitude to drugs. What he had no reason to know and I was not going to enlighten him, was my long and special relationship with the DEA, which dated back to 1970, when I first arrived in Ecuador.

I knew enough to give him a brief overview of the drug business and he showed interest in all aspects of the industry, from the cultivation to the processing. He was keen to learn – too keen, I thought at the time. He queried me on to know just how corrupt Ecuadorian police were, was cocaine being openly sold in Quito, who were the major players in the game and did I personally know any? It was becoming evident to me he had more than just a casual interest in the business.

Later the same evening, seeing me free, he returned to the topic and in a poor attempt to be only curious, he asked if I happened to know any of the big players in the drug trade?  I did and I was on nodding terms with a couple of the big names in the business, as their names were common knowledge in Quito.

Over the years and particularly in bars, I would be asked this same question but usually those enquiring were looking for a few grams of coke for personal use. I always warned them not to be stupid. If caught with even a small amount of any drug, a foreigner could be looking at a long and uncomfortable time in a South American jail. However, I sensed Benning and his friends had bigger plans in mind and my ears pricked up. I decided to find out just how far they wanted to proceed.

His two companions were always attentive to our conversation but rarely joined in. Evelyn Brayley, Benning’s attractive girlfriend, with perfect teeth and the long legs of a cheerleader was very reserved and hung on his every word. The third player, Mark Sepio, was a short, tough-looking, bristly Latino type who acted the hard man and though friendly enough, treated me with some suspicion.

It was in the Byron, two nights later and their final night in Quito that Benning asked to speak to me in confidence. As a good judge of character, he believed he could confide in me. He explained their reason for being in Quito was not for tourism – surprise, surprise – but to establish a regular connection to buy cocaine; not a couple of recreational snorts, but regular kilos of the stuff.

He wanted to make contact with a narco and, in the short time he had known me, it occurred to him I might have the right connections. If not, would it be possible for me to arrange or point them in the direction of a trafficker? I played cautiously and promised to ask around. He gave me his telephone number and if I could broker a meeting with a supplier, they would be prepared to return immediately. The initial amount would be five kilos and quantities could increase considerably if negotiations were successful.

I remained ambiguous and agreed I would call him when and if I found a supplier. The three flew to Miami the following morning and I met with Jim Bedoya, the DEA Agent-in-Charge, in his office on the ave 10 de Agosto and filled in him on Benning and his partners. Before going there, I obtained the names and addresses of my new customers, from a friendly Hotel Colon receptionist and passed these to Jim.

After weighing up the situation, the three being US citizens, Jim decided the best way of handling it would be through a Sting operation. Now the only knowledge I had of a sting, I learned from the recent film of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Jim filled me in on the concept. As he explained, the problem with a sting operation was it might be seen by some as entrapment and could also be dangerous – even life-threatening for the agent working the case. In theory, an officer would have to become a partner in the very same crime.

However, Jim went on to explain, as entrapment did not prohibit covert police officers or agents from posing as criminals, there was nothing to worry about. As to Benning and his partners, he thought, it would not even be necessary to involve the Ecuadorian national police. An undercover DEA agent would play the part of a big-time drug dealer. His main concern was how to protect me but I convinced him that the sting would be made easier if I became fully implicated.

Already I could feel the adrenaline pumping. A bit of excitement was just what I needed. My wife was running the everyday Lord Byron business and I was just the PR man, with too much time on his hands. Despite Jim’s warning the set-up could go wrong and become dangerous, I was not to be put off.

He finally had to admit the sting would be simpler with me being directly involved. Not for a moment did I think my involvement would be in any way precarious. My wife took a more down to earth attitude when I told her – at the same time minimizing the risk. She suggested I should grow up and stop playing cowboys and Indians.

As the person to play the role of a Narco-Traficante could not be known in Quito, an agent from the DEA office in Guayaquil volunteered. Guayaquil is 300 Kms from Quito so it was unlikely anyone would know him in Quito.  I was to go ahead and inform Benning that I had a dealer willing to meet him. Pepé Alonso, an American Puerto Rican and experienced agent, who joined the DEA after leaving college would be Pepé the narco-traficante. I would make the introductions and was to insist on being cut in on the deal.

Pepé, a good looking Latino and Spanish-English bilingual would prove to be a very able actor, at times behaving and appearing more like a drug baron than the real thing. I briefed him on as much personal background and their behavioural patterns as I had been able to lean on the three heavies. Over a few drinks, he and I spent a couple of amusing hours, rehearsing our respective parts.

The trio arrived in Quito, just three days after I called Benning in St Louis.  I kept them in high suspense for two days, causing them to change their return flight plan to the States before I confirmed a dealer was willing to talk to them. I then arranged for the first meeting to introduce Pepé would be held in Benning’s room, in the Hotel Colon. I went to Benning’s room and Pepé, playing the game, kept them waiting for an hour before telephoning from the hotel desk to ask for their room number.  Brayley, the girlfriend, was re-introduced to me as a partner and would-be financial courier in the business. Sepio was to be in charge of all their future cocaine distribution in Saint Louis and New Orleans.

Opening the door for Pepe, when he finally arrived, I had to fight hard not to laugh. He sauntered in, attired in a pair of expensive fawn slacks, black patent leather shoes with no socks, a Panamanian guayabera shirt open to the waist, sporting a gold, Rolex watch, a heavy gold wrist bracelet and a thick gold chain draped around his neck, he looked more than convincing.

He took time before coming to the point, paying a lot more attention to the attractive Brayley than to Benning. He did not take the chair offered but wandered around the room in a self-assured manner, opening the sliding doors of the wardrobes and peering into the bathroom, arrogantly checking the place out without apparent interest but to the obvious annoyance of Benning. He addressed sarcastic comments to me in Spanish, watching for any reaction from them.

He appeared disinclined to talk business, constantly flirting with Brayley, with the sole object of provoking Benning, who, I could see was getting mad but had no choice other than to accept the situation. Pepé spoke to them in fractured Spanglish, now and again shooting questions at me. “How you say this in English amigo?” or in Spanish “You trust these pendejos (fools)?” He made sure they noticed the pistol jammed into the back waistband of his slacks and only half concealed under his guayabera.

They wanted to leave for Miami as soon as possible where, Benning claimed, his yacht was waiting. He insisted on their returning for a next meeting, within three weeks, they would need to test the cocaine and also be confident Pepé would be able to supply the quantity ordered. Without committing himself Pepé agreed to meet with them when they returned but stated he was uninterested in selling them less than 5 kilos. Sepio got involved for the first time, demanding immediate samples. Pepé turning to face him; stared him down as though he was not there and turning back to Benning he continued talking, brutally putting Sepio in his place.

For my part in the deal, it was agreed I would receive the US $5000 on each successful delivery. The meeting took a couple of hours and in the end, apart from Pepé’s over-attention to Brayley,  a mutual understanding had been reached. Pepé left and I spent time building up Pepé’s background as one of Ecuador’s biggest drug suppliers. I told them how I had befriended him in a previous bar I owned. From the beginning Benning disliked Pepé and his macho behaviour but Brayley was obviously flattered by his attention. When I mentioned this at the later DEA debriefing, Pepé laughed, having behaved like that with the sole purpose of annoying Brenning,

As arranged, three weeks later, the three would be dope dealers returned to the Hotel Colon for further meetings In the meantime the DEA had been checking out the records and backgrounds of the trio. Todd Benning, age 34, divorced, owned two private nursing homes in Saint Louis and did own a yacht in Miami. He had a triple-A credit rating and was to all appearances, a successful independent businessman. Evelyn Brayley, age 26, was a college drop-out, unemployed barmaid and sometime dancer. Mark Sepio, age 38, of Sicilian extraction with no known employment, was known to have connections with criminal elements in Saint Louis and New Orleans. None of the three had criminal records.

At this third and decisive meeting Pepé turned up the pressure, firmly stating he was only doing business with them because I recommended them and should anything go wrong,  he would hold me personally responsible. Benning said exactly the same, he was holding me responsible and demanded that I would be there for the handover, to which I agreed. Again, Sepio insisted on seeing evidence of the cocaine but learned from Pepe they could see and test the drug when it was delivered and the money changed hands and not before. Despite their repeated insistence, no cocaine was ever produced.

Benning wanted to import a smaller amount for starters. Pepe laughed at this and reminded them five kilos was the minimum. He insisted if any future business was to be done between them, the quantity would have to be at least double the first consignment.

When the question of payment came up, Benning refused to pay any up-front cash so, instead, Pepé convinced him to write a cheque on his American bank for US $100,000. Pepe then  neatly tore it in half and gave a half back to Benning, instructing him that whoever came to collect the delivery would have to show the other half, plus an agreed US $25,000 cash for each kilo, to the person delivering the drug. Benning asked for the delivery to be made in Saint Louis, Missouri, apparently, their home turf but Pepé insisted the hand-over, for reasons he would not explain to them, would be made within the next fourteen days and in San Francisco.

None of the three liked this and objected but Pepé firmly stated – San Francisco or nowhere. By this time, his arrogant, laid-back, Latino character had begun to really rile Benning, who in turn insisted I continue to act as the liaison between them including my presence at the handover. He made it clear they would be armed and have protective back-up on the day of delivery. Pepe laughed, told them they could bring a tank if they liked – but no police and surprised them and myself by giving a fixed date when the cocaine would actually be in San Francisco. It was arranged that two days prior to delivery I would meet with Benning in the lobby of the downtown Hilton.

After the de-briefing following this final meeting in Quito, I asked Pepé why he chose San Francisco and not Saint Louis or New Orleans for the delivery point?

“Have you been to San Francisco?” he asked me.

“No. Never,” I Replied-

“Bueno. Good. Neither have I.” He replied. “But Frisco seems like one hell of a better place than Saint Louis to do the business with these assholes.”

I had nothing against this logic and we were both feeling confident and in no pain when we arrived 12 days later in San Francisco. Being also, at that time, British Caledonian Airways PR man in Ecuador, again I managed to arrange an upgrade to 1st Class on the BRANIFF flight from Guayaquil for Pepe and myself. Even better that day, we were the only premium passengers and we had a seven-hour party with the stewardesses.

It was champagne all the way to Los Angeles, where we changed flights and staggered through immigration.  I remember as we exited the plane thinking if this was how covert operations are conducted, I could not wait to get on another assignment. There was a massive crowd waiting to be checked through US immigration and customs, so Pepe hustled me to the front of the queue, showing his DEA pass and claiming I was his prisoner. Temporally sobering up in San Francisco, we booked into separate hotels and well apart from each other. Benning had not been informed when we would arrive.

The following morning I met up with Pepé and we went for a meeting at DEA’s San Francisco offices, where he introduced me to the AIC and some of the agents who would be taking part in our operation. We then piled into Johnnie Foleys, their local downtown Irish Pub, where they and Pepé swapped and exaggerated past case histories over pints of Guinness. With Pepé occupied with his colleagues, I had time to get to know and enjoy San Francisco, in the eighties, it was America’s most liberal city. I had heard how eccentric the people of this city could be and I got my first glimpse of it while taking in the shops the next morning.

A long, tall and thin Afro-American male walked by. He had on an ankle length, yellow leather coat, and a similar coloured, leather Stetson hat. Attached by a studded dog collar to a chain he led a younger, smaller and slimmer Afro-American male, attired in a skin-tight, leather cat-suit in matching the colour. As they minced passed I took a discrete second look and could not help but notice that the seat of his catsuit had been cut to expose the two cheeks of the young man’s backside. Today, in San Francisco, such exhibitionism is the norm but in 1984 it was not something you would see every day in Quito.

The following day, as planned, I met Benning, Brayley and Sepio in the foyer of the downtown Hilton Hotel. While in Ecuador, the three had been on foreign territory and despite their bravado, were understandingly nervous and unsure of themselves. But on their home ground – the USA, they and acted with all the confidence of big-time gangsters. They informed me that they personally would be the ones making the collection.

Benning told me bluntly, he neither liked or trusted Pepé and repeated that they would be ready for any false move on Pepe’s part. I calmed him down, confirming that in two days I would meet with Pepé, check if the merchandise had arrived and only then learn of the location and when the exchange would be made. I found it amusing their main concern was the possibility of Pepe cheating them. They never appeared worried about my part in this game or that the police might be on to them.

Playing the game, I refused to say where I was staying and I paid extra attention no one was tailing me. Pepé was also cautious not be seen in the city. I contacted him each day by phone at a given number. In preparation for the final act, two adjoining rooms in the Airport Hilton had been reserved. Pepé would be alone in one room, where the hand-over would take place and in the other, the armed DEA agents. Pepé’s room had been pre-wired to record our conversation.

Earlier on the appointed day, I met the back-up team in the Airport Hilton, where we went through the operation drill. Half a dozen agents, with enough weaponry to start WW111 were crowded into the room next to Pepe’s. I was to collect the bad guys from the downtown Hilton and bring them to the airport meeting by taxi. I would knock three times and then one single knock and Pepé would admit us. In theory, they would show each other their torn half of the $100,000 cheque, plus the 100,00 cash.

When, and only when they had completed this, part of the deal Pepé would ask me to leave the room and return with the cocaine. He would keep them talking and I would go next door and alert the back-up squad who would then move in with weapons drawn. This would be the most dangerous part of the operation. Regardless of all the prior planning, things could go wrong and Pepé would be in the room alone and possibly with three armed villains. There was always the worry they would resort to their firearms when confronted.

I took a cab across the city to the downtown Hilton and was surprised to find Benning in the lounge alone. He said only the two of us would be making the pick-up. Brayley and Sepio were nowhere to be seen. It was my turn to be nervous. Could they have been following me? Benning’s now aggressive attitude gave me cause for concern.

Only after about fifteen minutes of his cross-examining was he prepared to leave for the other Hilton. He said we should take a taxi and he let three taxis outside the hotel leave, before he decided on one. It did not help the already tense situation between us when looking out of the back window of the cab, he spotted a suspicious pair in the car behind us. He was convinced that we were being followed. Sure enough, when I turned to look, I recognized two of the DEA agents in the car immediately behind us. Fortunately, they must have realized and had fallen back before turning off at the next intersection. I tried calming a now nervous and stroppy Benning, who was threatening to call the deal off.

A further disaster was averted when we entered the Hotel.  He spotted two suspicious figures by the book store in the foyer. I recognized two more agents and again had to assure him there was no need for panic. I managed to convince him no one had been following us and even if any surveillance was in operation, it would have to be more efficient than that pair of idiots, hiding behind their newspapers. He grudgingly accepted my logic and calmed down as I guided him to Pepe’s room. I admit, by now I was also getting nervous.

I found it hard to believe that those trained agents could be so amateurish; behaving like the detectives in a B grade film. I could only hope the proficiency of the waiting armed men would be better. I did not fancy being in the middle of a gunfight.

The adrenalin was pumping as I walked with Benning down the long corridor, leading to the ground floor room, where I now hoped I would still find Pepe. Benning repeatedly checked if we were being followed but the long corridor was empty. I gave the given knocks and Pepé, took his time in answering the door before he admitted us.

He welcomed and embraced both of us warmly, putting Benning more at ease. He wanted to know why  Brayley and Sepio were not there? Benning, playing the tough guy, said they were on hand nearby and would be there immediately should he need them. The three of us chatted amiably, Pepe lounging in true mafioso style, fully clothed, on the bed, His handgun, I found out later, was under a pillow. I took the only armchair and left the hard desk chair for Benning to perch on. On this occasion and not wishing to spook Benning, Pepe was on his best behaviour, not even referring to Evelyn.

The moment arrived when Benning, unable to hide his impatience with our small talk, demanded to see some evidence of the cocaine. Pepé asked to see the torn half of the cheque and the cash. Benning had both in his jacket pocket. After taking the cheque but without counting the cash, Pepe then nodded to me and I left the room to get the merchandise.

I exited the room, and took an anything but casual stroll back to the hotel foyer, checking if Brayley or Sepio were in the vicinity. I then proceeded to the room where the troops were impatiently waiting for my signal. Six guys, armed to the teeth with pistols, pump action guns and body armour seemed over prepared to me. I did not require any of this weaponry, as my instructions were only to knock the arranged three and one on Pepé’s door and then step aside, trusting bullets would not start flying.

It was Benning who opened the door as we hoped he would. If Pepe had done so, the danger would have been Benning would have been somewhere behind him and have time to react at the intrusion.  Benning had no chance. He was thrown back as the agents crashed through the opening as one body, weapons drawn and screaming at him to get his hands in the air. I doubt if I shall ever again see the extraordinary change of expressions which crossed that poor man’s face; astonishment, horror, fear and then sudden realization – and all in a couple of seconds.

That was it; my first covert operation a resounding success – or so I thought. Benning was not armed. Brayley and Sepio – who was – had been under surveillance and were apprehended outside the hotel. After celebration drinks with the agents in Johnnie Foleys, Pepé and I went on to hold our own private party in Henry Africa’s, on Polk and Broadway – which had become my favourite hangout during my short time in San Francisco. But, as is when something seems perfect – there always is a setback.

My belief was that my part in the show ended with the arrest of the baddies. We took it for granted they would plead guilty. They didn’t. No one mentioned  I would have to testify on behalf of the prosecution if they pleaded not guilty – which they did. Over the next days, while being briefed by a female, Afro-American lawyer, I learned a lot about United States law and those of San Francisco. The preliminary hearing was due in four days and although apprehensive about testifying, Pepé and I took advantage of the free time. We sampled the food in China Town, ate abalone in  Fisherman’s Warf and got in more nightlife than was good for our livers. One day we hired a car and drove with a pair of sympathetic, off-duty female cops up to the Napa Valley and visited the vineyards.

Looking back now, years later, I am amazed at my naivety. At no time did I give any regard to the backlash if the hazardous enterprise had gone wrong or if Benning had seen through my deception. It just never occurred to me. What did seriously bother me was the thought of having to appear in court. But the trio had unexpectedly pleaded not guilty and making things more difficult, the bugging device in the hotel room had not functioned properly and some other minor evidence had been misplaced.

I was going to have to testify for the prosecution in front of a judge and in an American law court. The buzz and excitement of the operation had been one long adrenaline high for me. The exhilaration died down and over the next days, being briefed by a flaky, Afro-American female prosecution lawyer, did nothing to counter the nervousness of my upcoming public appearance.

Always reticent when speaking in public, the foreboding courtroom,  a replica of all the American courtrooms seen on television did not make it any easier for me.  For most of the hearing, the judge – a fearsome, mature female, with short-cropped grey hair – showed more concern for the health of her female stenographer, who was not feeling well and complained of being too tired, than to the case in hand.

I realized things were not going my way when the bellyaching stenographer, repeatedly protested she could not understand my English and I was continuously reprimanded for calling the judge Ma’am. I was ordered to speak English and was again rebuked for replying that is exactly what I had been speaking. As if things were not bad enough, the high octane performance of the two defence lawyers convinced me that, if Benning’s, cocaine import venture had been successful, they would both have been good future customers of his.

I suffered a barrage of frenetic questioning about my business and personal life, which I was not able to correctly answer and the defence attorneys leapt on this. The prosecution attorney to whom, in a now regretted moment, I had mentioned my involvement with the CIA, stepped in to rescue me. Requesting a consultation with the judge, a whispered conversation took place between the two. The prosecution claimed my work for the United States Government made it difficult to answer some of the questions being put to me.

This being the liberal San Francisco of the ’80s, the judge showed no sympathy whatsoever for my strange line of employment – and spared me nothing of the lawyers’ inquisition. They clicked-on quickly and openly accused me of being a perilous sort of James Bond.

The judge, unwilling to keep her precious stenographer any longer than necessary, stopped just short of sympathizing with the poor defendants, gave the DEA and me a short but thorough dressing down and the unsurprising outcome was – NOT GUILTY – ENTRAPMENT. No case. Todd Benning, Evelyn Brayley and Mark Sepio walked free. Benning minus the yacht, the reunited two halves of Benning’s US100 thousand cheque and the  US25,000 cash, all legally confiscated by the DEA – which in my book alone, proved the trio guilty.

I sometimes wonder what the outcome of this would have been if I had introduced them – which I could have done – to a genuine Ecuadorian narco-Traficante. I would have been a multi-millionaire by now – or long dead.

About bbryanthomas

Not so young man about town who, having witnessed and enjoyed life, is presently having fun, writing about those by-gone times and life in general.

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2019 by in Non-fiction, Stories and tagged , , , , .
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