On the surface, David Basta appeared to be a general contractor whose wood-and-stone home graced a 57-acre parcel on pricey Belfast Road in northern Baltimore County.
But narcotics investigators say that the company was bogus and that from the mid-1980s to 1993, Mr. Basta headed one of the largest marijuana and hashish rings in Maryland.
An indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court charges Mr. Basta and seven others with offenses that include drug trafficking and money laundering, federal prosecutors announced yesterday.
Baltimore County narcotics officers, who began the investigation in summer 1992, believe that the ring distributed more than 3 tons of marijuana and a similar amount of hashish -- mostly in Maryland, but sometimes to as far as the West Coast and Canada.
"In my 22 years, I would say this is one of the major marijuana organizations," said Lt. Rob Dewberry, who heads the Baltimore County narcotics squad.
Officers have seized more than $440,000 along with several vehicles and residences, he said. But authorities said that because the organization shut down soon after the investigation began, officers confiscated only a small quantity of drugs.
A grand jury returned the indictment March 8, but it remained under seal until this week, prosecutors said.
Charged with drug conspiracy are: Mr. Basta, 43, of Sparks; Richard C. Schiminsky, 45, of Fallston; Richard Koogle, 57, of Baltimore; Lester W. Wiencke, 48, of Blacksburg, Va.; Harry C. Russell, 51, of Vienna, Va.; Frank A. Falco, 44, of Austin, Texas; and Douglas P. Dorsch, 30 of Finksburg. Mr. Basta and James T. Fawcett, 52, of Baltimore also face money laundering charges.
Three others have pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges.
"We believe that the evidence will indicate that the quantities [of drugs] involved were quite substantial and some defendants will be looking at significant prison time," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jefferson M. Gray. If convicted, most of the defendants could receive a maximum sentence of 40 years to life.
Efforts to reach Mr. Basta and his attorney yesterday were unsuccessful.
The investigation grew from the Anne Arundel County case against Todd Hibler, who claimed that his drug organization distributed as much as 6.5 tons of marijuana over a six-month period. Hibler, who ran the largest drug operation ever prosecuted in that county, was convicted of drug charges in 1990 and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
In the summer of 1992, informants in the Hibler case told investigators about a Baltimore County marijuana organization that they said was headed by Mr. Basta, according to a federal court affidavit.
They described buying more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana between 1987 and 1990 from an associate of Mr. Basta's.
Another informant later described helping distribute drugs for the group since the early 1980s. By 1986, the informant was transporting 500-pound loads of marijuana from Texas to Maryland. The drug was hidden by construction materials, and he was paid $7,500 for each trip. A year later, when he began helping arrange shipments, the size of the loads had doubled, according to court records.
When investigators checked Mr. Basta's finances, they discovered that he had paid off sizable loans over short periods. In 1989 alone, he satisfied loans totaling about $901,000, according to court records.
But in that same year, tax returns for Mr. Basta and his wife, Jennifer, showed that their debts outstripped their income. Later, when authorities investigated his company, New Day Enterprises Inc., they discovered it had no debts and no assets. According to investigators, accounts in the company's name at Maryland National Bank were used to launder proceeds from the marijuana operation.
"David Basta wrote miscellaneous checks to his pager company, a credit card company, insurance company and miscellaneous court costs," an investigator wrote in one affidavit. "No checks were issued to pay salaries, workman's compensation, purchase materials or other contracting related items."