BALTIMORE, MAY 24 -- Federal law enforcement officials announced seizure today of 485 pounds of cocaine, the largest ever in Maryland, and the arrest of four suspects in a sophisticated Venezuela-to-United States drug-running scheme.

In a related action, Venezuelan authorities said they seized an additional 495 pounds of Baltimore-bound cocaine hidden in boxes labeled "bathroom fixtures" awaiting shipment from the Caracas-area port of La Guaira.

Three suspects were arrested there.

The cocaine discovered in Baltimore was detected by customs agents drilling through a false wall in the side of a cargo container holding toilet bowls and other plumbing fixtures that had just been unloaded from a ship. Agents seized the contraband after it was taken by truck to an importer in New Jersey, officials said.

"This is the largest seizure of cocaine ever in the history of the state of Maryland," said U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox at a dockside news conference along with officials of the Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, Maryland National Guard, Baltimore police and other agencies involved in the three-week surveillance leading to the seizure.

John Taylor, Baltimore DEA special agent in charge, said the cocaine, taped in two-pound bricks and laced with pepper to throw off drug-sniffing dogs, had a street value of $15 million.

In addition to the cocaine, agents seized $139,000 in cash and arrested four men at or near World Imports in Berlin, N.J. Baltimore Customs agent-in-charge Donald G. Turnbaugh described World Imports as a "sham business" set up to receive illegal drugs from South America.

Willcox said the seizure here indicates that "narco-terrorists" have begun using conventional cargo ship containers to ship secret deliveries of cocaine from South America. The containers, steel boxes up to 40 feet long, are commonly used in U.S. ports to streamline loading and unloading.

"I suspect this is not going to be the last {such} seizure," Willcox said.

Turnbaugh said that when the cargo ship Obod arrived here May 1 from Venezuela laden with 200 containers, Customs agents began a routine search and soon became suspicious of a single container consigned to World Imports, an unfamiliar company that had never made shipments through Baltimore.

The container held 150 toilet bowls and other fixtures. After measuring the 8-by-8-by-20-foot container, Turnbaugh said, agents suspected it had a false wall. They drilled through the wall. When the drill bit was withdrawn, it contained white powdery residue, later found to be cocaine, Turnbaugh said. Behind the wall lay the cocaine, he said.

With agents following closely, a commercial truck then drove the container to World Imports in New Jersey, where the four suspects were arrested. All U.S. citizens, they were identified as Michael Gonzales, 30; his father, Secundino Gonzales, 55; Joseph Weckesser, 34; and Frank Grassi, 39. They were charged with conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.