MIAMI, OCT. 3 -- A former pilot for the Medellin drug cartel dropped the latest bombshell in the trial of Manuel Antonio Noriega today, testifying that he saw the former Panamanian leader fraternizing with Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and other cartel bosses at a meeting in Colombia in mid-1983.
Roberto Striedinger, who pleaded guilty to drug charges last year, also set the stage for what sources close to the case said will be another sensational government allegation next week -- that the cartel provided Noriega with six look-alike French prostitutes from the Crazy Horse burlesque club in Paris as part of a bribe to protect its cocaine shipments through Panama.
One day after he saw Noriega meeting with cartel leaders in Medellin, Striedinger said, he was ordered to Escobar's luxurious estate and directed to fly six French-speaking "young ladies" to a village on the Colombian coast near Panama.
The women were first mentioned in the trial last week when Luis Del Cid, a former Noriega aide, testified that he saw six "easy women" from France at Noriega's office in Panama City.
A source close to the case said that, early next week, Gabriel Taboada, a luxury-car dealer and convicted drug trafficker, is expected to complete the story by testifying that he was present when cartel leaders offered Noriega the women and a suitcase filled with $500,000 in cash in exchange for his promise to protect their drug operations.
Noriega is charged in a 10-count drug-trafficking and racketeering indictment with receiving millions of dollars from the cartel to turn Panama into a safe haven for the cocaine business. But until Striedinger testified today, the government had presented evidence only that Noriega dealt with traffickers through intermediaries. No witness had placed Noriega in the same room as the cartel leaders.
Striedinger, 44, once described by prosecutors as "chief pilot" for Escobar's drug organization, told jurors that he had been working for the cartel for several years when, one day in late May or early June 1983, he was summoned to a two-story building that is on the outskirts of Medellin and used as Ochoa's offices.
After walking past a group of young women "16, 17 years old sitting in the living room," Striedinger testified, he went to the second floor and entered an office where a meeting was taking place. Inside, he said he saw Taboada, cartel leaders -- Escobar; Ochoa; Gustavo Gaviria; Ochoa's younger brother, Fabio, and Pablo Correa -- "and the gentleman present in this room, General Noriega."
As Noriega glared at him from the defense table, Striedinger said he had been ordered to the meeting because Gaviria wanted to instruct him about a flight that he was to make the next day from Escobar's estate to Panama.
But while in the meeting room, he said, he saw an animated discussion in which cartel members urged Noriega to direct the Panamanian ambassador to Colombia to use his diplomatic permit to import a Ferrari automobile for Fabio Ochoa, who is known to be fascinated with sports cars.
But Noriega, who Striedinger said was "dressed . . . completely in white" civilian clothes, was resisting, the witness said. "He said that, if he authorized the ambassador to use his permit to import the Ferrari, it would be the same as letting a photograph be taken of himself embracing Fabio and sending it to the New York Times," Striedinger said.
Striedinger then extended his arm, demonstrating how he said Noriega threw his arm around Fabio Ochoa while making the comment. Despite Noriega's refusal, however, Striedinger testified "there was general laughter . . . they were all very euphoric at that meeting."
The next day, Striedinger said, he flew the six women to the coast, then returned to the estate where Gaviria and Noriega, dressed in khaki shorts, drove up after he landed his plane.
A brief discussion ensued, Striedinger said, about his forthcoming flight to Panama to smuggle cocaine. The only comment he remembered by Noriega, he said, was about the need to use Floyd Carlton Caceres, another former Noriega associate who testified for the government this week, as a "copilot and guide."
With the trial in recess Friday, cross-examination of Striedinger is expected Monday when Noriega's chief lawyer, Frank Rubino, is expected to attack the witness as a self-confessed felon with no credibility.
Originally indicted as a codefendant in the Noriega case under the incorrect name "Roberto Steiner," Striedinger had been living in a $2.4 million home in Key Biscayne, Fla., on property once owned by former president Richard M. Nixon, when he was arrested last July.
Prosecutors had described him then as a high-ranking Medellin cartel member. They have since agreed to drop most drug charges against him and recommend a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against Noriega.