Crime Disbarred Rancho Santa Fe attorney convicted in scheme to fly plane loaded with cocaine

16:55  06 november  2017
16:55  06 november  2017 Source:   Los Angeles Times

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The seal of the Drug Enforcement Administration is seen on a lectern at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va. © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images The seal of the Drug Enforcement Administration is seen on a lectern at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va. A disbarred Rancho Santa Fe attorney on probation for a San Diego-based fraud scheme has been found guilty by a Brooklyn, N.Y., jury of conspiring to fly a private plane loaded with more than 3,000 pounds of cocaine.

Todd Macaluso, an experienced pilot, was arrested last November in Haiti along with two other men as the smuggling flight was in the final planning stages. The plane was to pick up cocaine in Ecuador and then unload in Honduras, according to the complaint filed in New York federal court.

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Macaluso, who was convicted Friday, has maintained his innocence, saying that he believed the chartered flight was to explore a real estate venture. He has accused the government of misconduct.

Macaluso gained prominence earlier in his career for his high-award verdicts, as well as for his famous — or infamous — clients. He was part of the defense team for Casey Anthony, the young Florida mother charged with killing her toddler daughter in 2011. Anthony was acquitted, and news reports speculated that one of Macaluso’s private planes secretly shuttled her from Orlando and into hiding when she was released from jail.

He also said in a letter to a judge that he flew the Kardashian family around “for years.”

In 2015, he was sent to prison by a San Diego federal judge for five months after he forged client signatures that would give investors a claim over a portion of the winnings in his clients’ personal injury cases.

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After Macaluso was released from prison, his financial woes prompted him to file for bankruptcy. He reported between $10 million and $50 million in liabilities, according to court records. The bankruptcy court discharged his debts, but he still owed $1.2 million that could not be erased, including unpaid taxes, court-ordered restitution and a fine.

He was being supervised by a probation officer and working as a pilot, shuttling wealthy clients to a Mexican resort where he owns property, when he was contacted by the traffickers, according to court documents filed by prosecutors.

His probation officer had approved several Mexican flights — with the required two weeks’ notice — but did not immediately reply when Macaluso asked if he could fly to the Dominican Republic on a day’s notice. On Nov. 10, 2016, Macaluso traveled to Tijuana without permission, then the next day to San Diego, and later to Orlando and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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Macaluso had been selected for the drug flight only after another plane, a Gulfstream II in Florida, was unable to leave the United States. Investigators from the New York Police Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said in court documents that U.S. planes are desired for such work because traffickers think they attract less attention.

In a motion filed before trial, prosecutors said Macaluso had met with the co-conspirators in Tijuana beginning in June 2016, months earlier. Prosecutors said Macaluso was introduced to Humberto “Mateo” Osuna Contreras and other drug dealers at the meeting by an unnamed employee of San Diego attorney John Kirby, who had partnered with Macaluso in the Mexican aviation business, according to the court documents.

Kirby represented Macaluso in his fraud case.

In Nov. 13, 2016, a co-conspirator was recorded by law enforcement as saying a crew member, “Mateo,” would be going along for the ride to represent investors who were to buy a portion of the cocaine, according to the complaint.

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Flight records show the two men flew to Haiti the same day. In another recorded conversation the following day, co-conspirator Carlos Almonte Vasquez said the “chauffeur” would be arriving and that the “captain” knew “everything” but the co-pilot did not, according to the complaint.

Once in Haiti, Macaluso, Osuna and Almonte met to finalize the plans, agreeing on $185,000 payment, most of which would go to Macaluso, the complaint says. Macaluso explained the structure of the jet and confirmed, in Spanish, it could hold “1,500 kilos,” documents state. Macaluso says the conversation was not about drugs.

Prosecutors said the plan was to pick up the cocaine in South America and then drop it off in Central America — a common tactic used by smugglers to get the drugs closer to Mexico, where they can then be smuggled by land into the United States.

Haitian law enforcement arrested the men after the meeting. The trio were flown back to New York to face international drug distribution conspiracy charges.

kristina.davis@sduniontribune.com

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