A Colombian national who last year moved with his family to a quiet Catonsville subdivision has been arrested on charges that he used a phony tile business there as a front in an attempt to make one of the five largest known cocaine shipments to the United States.
The 6-ton shipment, with an estimated street value of $200 million, is believed to have been the largest ever intended for transport to Baltimore. Authorities in Panama burned the cache yesterday, the Associated Press reported.
In Baltimore, U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul M. Rosenberg denied bail to Luis Alfredo Ferrin, 40, of the first block of Brucester Bridge Court. A preliminary hearing was scheduled for July 29.
Magistrate Judge Rosenberg said he denied bail because he was concerned that Mr. Ferrin would flee to Colombia if released. If that happened, he said, the government would have trouble getting him back to Baltimore.
"He was about to leave Baltimore," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jack F. Purcell. "He was waiting for the load to come in, move it to New York, and he would then go back to Colombia."
Federal investigators and Panama police on July 22 seized the 5,294 kilograms of cocaine on a ship in Panama. The cocaine was buried in 75 pallets of tiles, and the shipment was supposed to arrive this week at the port of Baltimore.
The bill of lading for the shipment listed as the recipient Mr. Ferrin's business, Madison Tile Inc., at 79 Mellor Ave., Catonsville.
Investigators for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs Service said the shipment was the third or fourth largest shipment of cocaine ever seized by U.S. authorities.
Donald Turnbaugh, special agent in charge of the custom service's Baltimore office, said the cocaine was being sent from a Panama-based export company, Celeste International.
"For us, this would have been like the mother of all cocaine shipments to this area," Mr. Turnbaugh said. "It would have been for distribution along the entire East Coast."
The cache was Panama's biggest drug bust. Panamanian and U.S. drug enforcement agents seized the cocaine at the duty-free port of Colon, National Police said.
Authorities have kept Mr. Ferrin under surveillance for more than year after they noticed that the Madison firm was stockpiling tile, but shipping little of it.
According to an affidavit, Mr. Ferrin had been receiving shipments of tile for about a year, and transport
ing some of the material to a Brooklyn warehouse, also called Madison Tile Inc.
Mr. Ferrin moved to his two-story, brown brick town house in Catonsville last spring and fit in nicely with other people, said Zygmund Huscio, a resident of the neighborhood for eight years.
"When he moved in, he came over and said, 'Hi, I'm your new neighbor,' " Mr. Huscio said. "He seemed like a typical suburban businessman, always dressed very well. He drove a red Ford Taurus."
Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Ferrin's 14-year-old son sat eating a Popsicle on the front steps of the home,
dressed in a Chicago Bulls shirt.
"My dad is innocent," he said, adding that family members had grown fond of their new home. "I have a lot of good friends here and I'm worried," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen."
U.S. Customs records show that Madison Tile in Catonsville received 18 shipments of ceramic tile between Jan. 23, 1991, and April 20, 1992. Fourteen of those shipments were sent from Panama, four from Spain. Each of those shipments was inspected by customs officers, but no drugs were found.
Another search was conducted of a shipment that arrived at the Dun
dalk Marine Terminal on May 30 and bound for Madison Tile. This time, all of the containers were secured by padlocks, which investigators said were used to alert the importers that customs officers had inspected them.
Mr. Purcell said during the detention hearing yesterday that Mr. Ferrin had taken Polaroid snapshots of the containers and mailed them to Colombia so that the drug exporters could determine whether the shipments had been breached by customs. He said Mr. Ferrin used a pay telephone to call his contacts in Colombia to prevent authorities from tracing conversations to him.
The containers in the May 30 shipment were searched by customs officials, the affidavit said, and were found to be carrying ceramic tile in cardboard boxes. Customs laboratory technicians discovered cocaine residue on some of the tiles.
Then on July 15, officials received information about the shipment from Celeste International. The Panamanian police raided that company's warehouse and saw workers loading a 20-foot container. They searched the container, and found that tiles at the perimeter of the boxes were solid ceramic, but those in the middle of the boxes had been hollowed out and filled with about one kilogram of cocaine each.
Eight people were arrested on drug charges in Panama by authorities there.
4( Investigators also found the bill of
lading with the address to Mr. Ferrin's business, the affidavit said.
Mr. Ferrin was arrested in his home last Thursday. He told authorities that he started Madison Tile in November 1990 at the request of another Colombian, who offered to pay him $1,000 a week, the affidavit said.
He told investigators that he did not order tile, but was always told a few days before delivery that it would be shipped. He said he would forward the tile to New York after it arrived in Catonsville.
Mr. Ferrin's home was almost empty of furnishings yesterday, and he said he was in the process of moving back to Colombia.
Officials said the July 15 seizure resulted after a search that was more intensive than others. In previous searches, investigators searched only the tiles at the top of each box and did not look at those in the middle.
Magistrate Judge Rosenberg questioned whether the July 15 shipment was the first carrying the narcotic.
"My feeling is that the government didn't search well enough or good enough and that other shipments did contain cocaine," the magistrate judge said. "There's probably been dozens of other shipments of cocaine that were never discovered."