It began in May 1989 as a much-heralded federal indictment of 30 people, most of them Panamanian nationals, accused of participating in an international drug ring that allegedly imported about 50 kilograms of cocaine a month into the District.
Today, after five trials, months of testimony and days of wiretapped conversations in Spanish played and translated for juries, the case that started as U.S. v. Marcos Loinas Anderson still isn't over.
So far, 28 defendants have pleaded guilty or been convicted of drug trafficking and conspiracy in the case, said Judy Smith, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens.
The most recent verdict in the case came Nov. 16, when a jury convicted four of the defendants. Their trial before U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was their third time before a jury: Their first trial ended in a mistrial declared in connection with a defense attorney's questioning, and a second trial ended in a hung jury.
At first, the case had promised sensational developments. At a news conference announcing the indictment, Stephens refused to dismiss the possibility that now-deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega might have been connected to the ring. No such connection was demonstrated.
Then the case was overshadowed by the trial of Washington drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III, which was going on in the same courthouse. Unlike the Edmond trial, which featured dramatic testimony straight from the streets, the Panamanian case was based almost completely on wiretaps.
The jurors heard hours of 90-second telephone calls in Spanish, arranging one drug transaction after another. The wiretaps may have lacked drama, but they apparently made persuasive evidence.
Anderson and Gabriel Davis-Munoz, described by prosecutors as the leaders of the drug ring, were convicted last December. Anderson got a 53-year sentence; Davis received 20 years. Ruth Booker, 78, a Northeast Washington resident who, prosecutors said, acted as the telephone operator for the ring, was sentenced to 12 1/2 years.
Fifteen other defendants received prison terms ranging from eight months to 22 years, and 10 are awaiting sentencing.
Two defendants remain. The jury that returned verdicts on Nov. 16 failed to reach a verdict on them, prompting the lawyer for one of the two to complain of government overkill. "They've spent millions of dollars on this nickle-and-dime operation," said John Floyd, lawyer for Roberto Hinds. No date has been set for another trial, which will be Hinds's fourth.