Six weeks ago, Al (Dutch) Ridenour was tooling around town in his silver Cadillac, a small-time police informant riding high on the hope that his tip to federal agents about an international drug ring would bring him at least $10,000 and a new start in life.
"I feel like Serpico or Lou Grant," he was saying back then, a felt-and-feather cowboy hat cocked back on his head. "Maybe, when it'a all over, I can buy me some furniture, pay off my car and go back to my wife in Florida -- she's a dancer, you know."
But last Friday, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) made one of its biggest drug raids in recent history -- arresting two Pakistanis, seizing $28 million worth of heroin and reportedly uncovering a drug-smuggling chain that could have links to the Embassy of Chad -- the man who says he made it all happen was at home, waiting for his imitation-leather, executive-style telephone to ring.
He got only $1,400. Today, Ridenour, 41, a large-bellied man with a scraggly beard and a "Born to Lose" tattoo on his right arm, is again running an earthmover at a construction site in Manassas and hacking part time for Yellow Cab. He says he was had.
"The DEA just cut me out in the end," says Ridenour. "They didn't even tell me about the bust until Monday. That's pretty s----y. Seems like they just used me up and spit me out."
Beginning in early September, Ridenour unfolded his underworld diary for a Washington Post reporter in late night phone calls from Georgetown bars and K Street discos, surreptitious meetings at outdoor cafes and drives around the city in the leather comfort of his Coupe de Ville.
DEA spokesmen will neither confirm nor deny Ridenour's role in uncovering the drug ring, suspected of illegally bringing heroin to Washington from the
"Golden Crescent" area of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan -- the largest source of heroin for Washington drug dealers. Law enforcement sources confirmed the major details of Ridenour's account, but did not confirm or deny financial arrangements.
Weeks before last Friday's drug bust, Ridenour was telling of a foreigner named Kahn who had unlimited sources of heroin to sell and fail-safe contacts in an African embassy to smuggle the drugs into this country. U.S. attorneys later identified one of the Pakistanis arrested as Hizbulla Kahn.
The reporter observed a Sept. 19 meeting between Kahn, Ridenour and DEA agent Dwight McKinney (known for the operation as Bo, a ficticious organized crime contact from New York) in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Three days ago, Ridenour made available a tape of a discussion he had with McKinney after the bust, recorded with the help of a phone tap kit he said he bought at Radio Shack.
Ridenour even claimed to have a special DEA informant's ID number, which DEA agents declined to confirm but said followed a "realistic" format: Sgb 630066. "They call me 006 for short. I said, 'Why not call me 007 like James Bond,"' Ridenour recalled.
Secret agent Ridenour is the son of a Northeast Washington wallpaper hanger and is a self-described runaway who left home at 17 to become a military policeman rather than flank out of the old Bell Vocational High School.
For seven glorious years, Kahn said, he worked as a police informant in Georgetown, foxing a team of juveniles named Bonnie and Tophat Pete out of some government checks they had stolen from an Army sergeant, tracking runaway kids he found "on bad trips, beating their heads against walls and jumping in the canal all flipped out, slashing their wrists and getting pregnant."
He considers himself a sensitive American with the kind of pride that once led him to ride his huge black 75cc Triumph motorcyle, bedecked with American flags, through an Iranian demonstration on Connecticut Avenue. Undercover work is an extension of that sense of civic responsibility.
"I can do things police can't," he boasted to a reporter recently over a Coke at Sardi's restaurant. "It makes me feel good that I'm doing something good, even though it's risky. It's my personal vendetta against crime."
Ridenour saw the heroin caper, an odyssey that began in the second week of August, as his chance to make the big time. On his way back to National Airport in his cab, Ridenour said he picked up a man, whom he later came to know as Kahn, outside an apartment building at 4849 Connecticut Ave. NW.
"He got in the cab," Ridenour recalled. "We were driving, you know, and I told him I was born and raised in the city and that I knew a lot of people here. He said he was new in town and was asking a lot of questions. Then he asked me if I smoked pot. I said occasionally, and he asked if I ever did any other drugs. I said sure, I wanted to know what he was getting at.
"Then he asked me if I could handle any heroin. I told him I didn't do it, but that I had done a lot of dealing. I guess he figured I looked like a big, bad guy, some sort of gangster or something and that I knew a lot of people with money. A lot of people think that when they meet me.
"He took down the information about me from my driver's license and then asked me for my phone number. He wrote left-handed in that Arabic style, what I call scribbing.
[Law enforcement sources said that although it sounds highly unlikely that a taxi driver would become connected to a drug ring through talking to a passenger, that is apparently what happened in this case. "They didn't know what they were doing," one source said of Kahn and his partner. "They didn't know how to make drug deals."]
"Two days later, he called me and said a friend of his who was an ambassador was bringing the heroin in through the port of Baltimore. He said that oil sheiks were behind the deal, that he had five kilos [about 11 pounds] available now, at $200,000 a kilo. He wanted me to deal with the syndicate or the mafia for him and told me I would get a 50 percent cut on the deal . . . Later he changed it to 10 percent."
Ridenour said he then called the District police narcotics squad, and spoke to detective J. C. Gonzales. He said Gonzales told him that the D.C. police didn't have the manpower to cover a Sunday meeting with Kahn and that no funds were available to wire Ridenour for sound. Ridenour turned to DEA.
In the first week of September, Ridenour said, Kahn gave him a small sample of heroin. "The DEA tested it and said it was 99 percent pure," Ridenour recalled.
Ridenour said DEA agent McKinney told him he could get 10 percent of the cash value of any undercover purchase of such high-grade heroin. The DEA agents were ecstatic, and so was Ridenour.
At 1 a.m. on Sept. 18, a day after the first conversation with the reporter, Ridenour telephoned from a phone booth near the Crazy Horse Bar in Georgetown.
"They want me to tell Kahn that I have a syndicate man in New York who wants to buy the stuff, but that he just wants to talk first. But Kahn is expecting me to show up with $200,000. I don't think he'll like it. . . ." Ridenour told the reporter.
"I talked to Dwight [McKinney at DEA] about getting 10 percent. He said something about not having anything in his notes about it. . . . Then I talked to Mr. West [DEA agent Charlie West] and told him I wanted to go to Florida when it's all over. He said not to worry, that I could go to California if I wanted by the time I was through.
"I hope they don't blow that thing. I could use the money, I think that when I get it I'll go spend it. Then they can't take it away. If it was in the bank, they could take it away. Maybe I'll trade in my Caddy for a new one. I'll put it in my wife's name so they can't take that."
Three hours after his 2:30 p.m. rendevous with Kahn and McKinney at the Regency on Sept. 19, Ridenour called the reporter again, breathless. The three had met at the hotel and then left, driving around the city with Kahn in the back seat of Ridenour's Cadillac and McKinney in the front, opposite the yellow happy-face sticker on the dash.
"Kahn told Dwight he could give him a letter and Dwight could go to Istanbul, Germany, California, anywhere in the world and he could have heroin delivered to him. He said the people he works for are behind most of the heroin in the whole world.
"DEA really thinks this is a big one. Dwight shook my hand three times and said it was a big one. . . . I'm going to give Kahn a number in New York so he can call Dwight. Then the people up there are either going to switch the call back to the DEA office here or Dwight will fly up there to take the call.
"Dwight said we should do it that way becaue he wants Kahn to think that he has to go back to New York and talk to his syndicate people first about making the buy. He also said he wants to keep me involved because Kahn trusts me, that if he just gave him the number himself Kahn might think he was trying to cut me out and wouldn't trust him."
Back in the DEA office here, Ridenour said, McKinney gave him $500. "Dwight said don't mention it to anybody else and I can keep the 10 percent cut that Kahn will give me after we buy the first half kilo. He said it was some kind of technicality, that once they give Kahn the money, it's okay for Kahn to give it to me. I told Dwight it was okay as long as everything is legal."
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 12:08 a.m., Ridenour phoned about a meeting he said the three had just had at the Skyline Inn on I Street SW:
"This Kahn guy is amazing. He says he can get a ton of gold at $400 an ounce. . . . He says he went to school with some shiek's brother who is a defense minister somewhere. Kahn said the guy told him he would give him as much as $200 million to put out for weapons for his country and it would only be a drop in the bucket to his wealth. . . .
"Sure I think this guy's on the level. Dwight -- I'm telling you, goodness gracious -- he said this is the biggest thing that ever hit DEA.
But then, the mood of the conversation changed. Ridenour became quiet for a moment. Then:
"One thing, though, Dwight is making Kahn a little suspicious because he's saying that he wants to deal with Kahn only, not me and Kahn. But Kahn says I'm going to have to be there, too. He seems like an honest guy. He thinks I'm on the up and up.
"I humor him. After the meeting Dwight gave us $80 to go to elan's disco with -- that's my hangout, you know. I gave Kahn half. He says we're partners."
On Oct. 2, however, Ridenour called at 10 a.m., outraged.
"Dwight told me that last Friday morning at the Skyline Inn, he bought a half kilo from Kahn fro $50,000 without telling me. Somebody owes me $5,000. Kahn hasn't called me back. I'm going to pull a switch on him.
"DEA's s----ing on me. They're not calling me as much anymore. . . . But Dwight says they're going to do another deal and that he'll try to get some money when DEA gets their budget check from the government.
After that day, Ridenour called the reporter less frequently.
Then, last Monday, Ridenour called again:
"Hey, did you hear, they busted Kahn this past Friday. Dwight called and tolds me yesterday. I went back to work last week, started driving the cab until the union hall called about this job in Manassa. I took off today though, after what Dwight told me yesterday. It was very upsetting.
"I'm going to call Dwight today. Maybe I can't get enough to finish paying for my car. . . . I know one thing. I'll never do this again."