Federal authorities have established a link between the assassination last year of a crusading anti-drug journalist in New York and the 1991 execution-style murders of a Baltimore waterfront businessman and a hardware store chain vice president.
In a series of interviews, law enforcement officials said the murders of John R. Shotto, a financially troubled entrepreneur in Baltimore, and Raymond Nicholson, vice president of the Hechinger Co., resulted from an order by the Cali cocaine cartel based in Colombia.
Mr. Shotto, who acted as a "straw buyer" in purchasing a ship for Ernesto Forero-Orjuela -- a Baltimore-based Colombian with family ties to the Cali cartel -- was the intended target of the Sept. 4, 1991, shooting outside the Broening Highway office of Baltimore International Warehouse Co., according to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the investigation.
A third official, with a federal law enforcement agency, said that Mr. Shotto was killed because he skimmed funds that the Colombians had intended be used to refurbish the ship, the M/V Liberty.
Mr. Shotto, 52, of Belair and Mr. Nicholson, 38, of Glenn Dale in Prince George's County were fatally wounded Sept. 4, 1991, by bullets fired from a .44-caliber Magnum revolver outside the Broening Highway office of Baltimore International Warehouse Co.
Mr. Nicholson, the father of children now 7, 10 and 12 years old -- was not an intended target of the killer, the officials said. He was there to discuss contracting a legitimate business deal between the Hechinger Co. and Mr. Shotto and happened to be in the line of fire.
Official spokesmen in the New York and Baltimore offices of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration refused to comment yesterday on the investigation. Sam Ringgold, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said he would "neither confirm nor deny the report" of the link between the murders. Andy Manning, FBI spokesman in Maryland, said he could not confirm the report.
Information about the connection between the New York and Baltimore contract murders came this week as two men were indicted Monday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn and charged with killing journalist Manuel de Dios Unanue on March 11, 1992. Mr. de Dios wrote and published acticles about the Colombians who operate the Cali cartel in South America and those in Queens, N.Y., who launder cocaine profits through legitimate business fronts.
According to the Brooklyn indictment, John Mena, 24, ordered the killing of Mr. de Dios on behalf of the Cali cartel -- one of the most powerful drug organizations in the world. Alejandro Wilson Mejia Velez, 18, was the man who shot Mr. de Dios twice in the head inside a Queens restaurant, the indictment said.
One official familiar with the investigation told The Sun that two Baltimore homicide detectives traveled to New York and interrogated one man involved in the Baltimore killings.
That suspect, the official said, had a detailed knowledge of the Baltimore murders and became visibly upset when he learned during the questioning that an innocent bystander, Mr. Nicholson, had been killed.
The officials said that the two detectives and Ilene Nathan, an assistant state's attorney, traveled to New York to meet with local police, members of the U.S. attorney's office, and representatives of other federal agencies.
Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms declined to discuss the Shotto and Nicholson murders, saying only they are under "active investigation."
Besides Mr. Mena and Mr. Velez, published reports said, at least eight other suspects are in protective custody and are cooperating with authorities. Members of this group, according to the law enforcement sources, are associated with the former Baltimore-based Colombian national who did business with Mr. Shotto.
On Monday, shortly after the indictments were announced in Brooklyn, Scott Shotto, one of John Shotto's sons, and Paula Nicholson, widow of Raymond Nicholson, were contacted by the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore. At his meeting, held Tuesday, Scott Shotto said he was asked by federal prosecutors not to discuss the investigation with The Sun. Mrs. Nicholson said she was to meet with the prosecutors today.
Scott Shotto said he met with local city and federal authorities for about 15 minutes. He said the others at that meeting were Gary Jordan, acting U.S. attorney for Maryland; Peter Semel, an assistant U.S. attorney; Ms. Nathan; and Det. Sgt. Gary Childs and Det. Chris Graul, both of the city homicide unit.
According to the highly placed federal source, Mr. Shotto was ordered killed because he had skimmed large sums intended to be used to refurbish the M/V Liberty, the vessel purchased by Mr. Shotto in an agreement with Ernesto Forero-Orjuela, described in court documents as an associate of the Cali cocaine group.
"Shotto was a wheeler dealer and he took the Colombians' money," the federal source said. "He was an opportunist but the Colombians take things like that very seriously. But Shotto took a cavalier attitude about the whole situation." Prior to his death, Mr. Shotto had been a peripheral figure in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of the M/V Liberty, the vessel he helped purchase for Mr. Forero-Orjuela. The U.S. Justice Department seized the vessel in April 1991.
Authorities said they believe that Mr. Shotto's company, Maryland Ship Inc., was a "straw buyer" of the ship, which cost $3.6 million, and that Mr. Forero-Orjuela actually financed the purchase through his company, Liberty Shipment Enterprises Inc., so the ship could be used in cocaine-smuggling activities.
Mr. Forero-Orjuela also allegedly helped launder narcotics money through Baltimore, federal agents said in a 1991 affidavit filed in U.S. District Court here. His whereabouts are unknown to the government, a DEA source said.
Members of the Shotto family said that the victim had refinanced his Harford County home on a $150,000 note, cashed in his $25,000 in Individual Retirement Accounts and allowed a $1 million insurance policy to lapse because he could not pay the premiums. He had also declared bankruptcy, his son said.