Two assassins for a Colombian drug lord have admitted to the 1991 contract murder of a Baltimore waterfront businessman and the killing of a hardware chain vice president who was not their intended victim, prosecutors said yesterday.
Their confessions, unveiled yesterday, bring to a close one of Baltimore's most puzzling murder mysteries.
Juan Carlos Velasco, 26, and John Harold Mena, 25, Colombian nationals who were living in Queens, N.Y., told federal prosecutors in Brooklyn that they came to Baltimore Sept. 4, 1991 and killed John R. Shotto, a financially troubled entrepreneur, and Raymond Nicholson, vice president of the Hechinger Co.
The two men were gunned down from a passing car as they crossed a parking lot after a meeting at the Baltimore International Warehouse Co. on Broening Highway.
As it turned out, federal investigators cracked the case almost a year ago. But they kept it a secret because they were after something bigger.
The Baltimore story, emerging from unsealed court documents and interviews with investigators, involves Mr. Shotto, a hard-pressed Baltimore businessman who died because he skimmed money the Cali cartel had provided him to refit a ship it wanted for smuggling, and Mr. Nicholson, who died because he was in the line of fire.
But investigators now say the Baltimore killings were part of a larger pattern of drug cartel violence in the United States. One of the men involved in the Baltimore slayings has also confessed to the highly-publicized contract killing of Manuel de Dios Unanue, an editor and writer who spoke out against the cartel in a New York Spanish language newspaper. He was shot twice in the head in a Queens bar in March 1992.
Although the confessions have been kept sealed in New York until now, the Colombian hit men actually told federal authorities last November that operatives of the Cali cocaine cartel hired them to kill Mr. Shotto. Mena also admitted to the contract killing of Mr. de Dios.
Sources said the hit men got about $25,000 for each assassination.
Neither man will be prosecuted in Maryland because of an agreement with federal authorities, but both face possible life sentences on federal charges for their involvement.
The confessions were made public in federal court in the Eastern District of New York yesterday when their defense attorney in a separate narcotics case had their guilty pleas unsealed as part of a routine discovery motion.
Sources familiar with the case said Velasco was the shooter and Mena the driver of the car used in the Baltimore killings.
Velasco and Mena pleaded guilty to a variety of federal counts, including interstate murder for hire, use of a telephone to facilitate a murder for hire and narcotics charges.
A source said they are being held at a New York prison.
Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland, and Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said yesterday that authorities here agreed to allow the two men to plead to the Baltimore murders in New York because investigators are still trying to identify and find others involved.
Paula Nicholson, widow of the slain Hechinger executive, who lives in Prince George's County, said she met with prosecutors in Baltimore yesterday but that "they didn't tell us anything new. Our youngest wanted to know when the killers would get out of jail."
Since the murder of her husband, Mrs. Nicholson has been raising their three children, 12, 11 and 7.
BTC Scott Shotto, a son of the other victim, declined to comment.
Several sources close to the investigation said Velasco and Mena flew into Baltimore-Washington International Airport the day of the slayings and, by prearrangement, picked up a rust-colored sedan at an airport parking lot.
Although they knew that Mr. Shotto, a consultant to BWI, would be at a meeting to discuss a legitimate business deal at the Baltimore International Warehouse Co., neither knew how to get there. So, sources said, they hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address. Mena followed the cab in the sedan.
Gunshots in a rainstorm
Velasco and Mena waited in a rainstorm until Mr. Shotto, Mr. Nicholson and others emerged from the meeting early that evening. As Mr. Shotto walked toward his powder-blue Mercedes, they drove slowly toward him. Velasco pointed a .44-caliber Bulldog revolver through the open passenger window and fired several shots, sources said, hitting Mr. Shotto in the head and Mr. Nicholson in the lower back.
Before they sped off, the gunman threw the murder weapon into a clump of weeds nearby. City homicide detectives recovered it several hours later, but the weapon's serial number had been obliterated and there were no traces of fingerprints.
According to investigative sources, Mr. Shotto was ordered killed by Jose Santa Cruz Londono, chief of the world's biggest narcotics cartel. Until recently, the organization dealt exclusively the multibillion-dollar cocaine trade, but it has now expanded into heroin.
"They figured Shotto had ripped them off in a business deal, and they wanted him dead," one source told The Sun. "They also speculated that because federal authorities went after the Colombian investment in that business deal, that Shotto was protected, that he might have been an informer."
The source emphasized that Mr. Shotto, who was 52 when he died, was not an informer for any U.S. police or intelligence agency.
Six months after Mr. Shotto's death, investigators said, Londono ordered the killing of Mr. de Dios to silence the journalist's persistent crusade against the Colombian cocaine traffickers -- primarily the Cali and Medellin organizations -- and their money-laundering business fronts in Queens.
Investigators think the killings were among at least 14 in the United States ordered by Colombian drug lords over a 10-year period. Most of the targets, federal intelligence sources said, were involved in the drug trade or had double-crossed the Colombians.
The de Dios slaying alarmed law enforcement officials, however, because it showed the Colombians would reach out from 3,000 miles away to have someone not implicated in the drug trade killed in the United States. A multiagency federal task force was established to investigate the exporting of violence.
Investigative sources said Mr. Shotto acted as a "straw buyer" in purchasing a ship for Ernesto Forero-Orjuela, a Baltimore-based Colombian national with family ties to the Cali cartel.
Another source told The Sun that Mr. Shotto was killed because he skimmed funds that the Colombians had put up to refurbish the ship, the M/V Liberty.
'A cavalier attitude'
"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. . . . Shotto took a cavalier attitude about the whole situation."
Described by investigators and associates as a waterfront entrepreneur whose shipping businesses had gone sour, Mr. Shotto was a peripheral figure in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration probe of the Liberty, which was seized by the Justice Department in April 1991.
Mr. Shotto's company, Maryland Ship Inc., bought the $3.6 million vessel, but court documents showed that Mr. Forero-Orjuela actually financed the purchase through his company, Liberty Shipment Enterprises Inc.
Investigators said the cartel wanted a legitimate ship it could use to smuggle cocaine.
Mr. Forero-Orjuela's whereabouts are unknown to the government, sources said.
Members of the Shotto family said at the time of the killing that their father had experienced financial difficulties.
Mr. Shotto had declared bankruptcy, his son Scott said.
ABOUT THE CASE
On Sept. 4, 1991, a rust- colored sedan drove slowly across the parking lot of a Southeast Baltimore ware- house company. From the open passenger's window, a .44 revolver roared.John R. Shotto, a water- front businessman with finan- cial woes, and Raymond Nich- olson, a Hechinger Co. vice president, were left dead.Their deaths led investiga-tors to a pair of contract hit men for a Colombian drug car-tel and a campaign of violence in the U.S. that ensnared the cartel's business associates, political adversaries and innocent bystanders.