THE NOVICE AND THE KINGPIN
A TALE OF TWO DRUG DEALERS WHO CROSSED PATHS WITH BUSH
By Jefferson Morley
Sunday, January 17, 1993
; Page C04
AT LEAST two Americans came to discover exactly what George Bush meant when
he promised "to get tougher, tougher than we've ever been" on drugs. One was a
drug-dealing novice, the other a cocaine kingpin.
The novice was Keith Jackson. He was the 18-year-old who was charged with
(but acquitted of) selling the bag of crack that President Bush held up during
a nationally televised speech on the nation's drug problems in September 1989.
The kingpin was Leonel Martinez, one of the most successful drug dealers in
the United States in the 1980s. Known as a respectable Republican campaign
contributor, Martinez also transported cocaine by the kilo and marijuana by
the ton across the Caribbean. He lived in a $2.5 million mansion next door to
Oakland A's slugger Jose Canseco in one of the swankest neighborhoods of
Together, their stories provide an epitaph of sorts for the Bush
administration's war on drugs.
The idea of holding up a bag of crack had been dreamed up in the summer of
1989 by a clever speechwriter from Yale. Bush liked the idea. Phone calls went
from the White House to the attorney general's office to the Drug Enforcement
Administration to the local police. The request-cum-order: Lure somebody --
anybody -- to Lafayette Park and buy crack cocaine from him.
Keith Jackson, at the time, was a suspected entry-level dealer who was just
starting his senior year at Spingarn High School. He lived with his mother,
younger brother and grandfather on M Street NE. His friends described him as
loyal, easy-going and popular with girls. His teachers found him pleasant and
consistently gave him D's. Keith said he wanted to be a barber. He had also
sold cocaine on four occasions to undercover government agents. All the
president's men set him up as their sucker.
Bush, though, could have also chosen another symbol of the nation's drug
problem: a photograph, then in possession of law enforcement authorities in
Miami that showed Bush as vice president shaking the hand of Leonel Martinez.
The photograph, no less than a drug sale in Lafayette Park, illustrated how
illicit drug activities had reached every corner of American life.
The problem was that Leonel Martinez was something of a political
philanthropist who specialized in helping the Bush family. His first campaign
contribution came in May 1984, when he donated $200 to the Dade County
Republican Party, chaired by Jeb Bush, George Bush's son. In September 1984,
he donated another $2,000 to Jeb Bush's party. On Dec. 5, 1985, Martinez wrote
a check for $5,000 to the Fund for the Future of America, a political action
committee set up to advance Vice President Bush's political career. In July
1986, he donated another $5,000, the legal maximum, to George Bush's PAC. It
was probably around this time that Martinez had his picture taken with Bush.
In October 1986, Martinez had attended a Republican fund-raiser in Miami
where Bush was the keynote speaker. The next day Martinez donated $6,000 to
the Republican gubernatorial candidate -- whose campaign was chaired by Jeb
Bush. In October 1987, after yet another appearance by George Bush in Miami,
Martinez and his wife each donated $1,000 to Bush's presidential campaign.
All the while, Martinez was transporting huge quantities of drugs into the
United States. In 1983 and 1984, he imported 10 to 12 loads of marijuana
weighing 4,000 to 5,000 pounds each. Another boat carrying 23,000 pounds of
marijuana was intercepted by police in June 1984, just a few weeks after his
first campaign contribution. Customs agents, though, were unable to link
Martinez to the drugs. Between July 1985 and February 1986, Martinez attempted
to transport 3,400 pounds of cocaine into the United States in four different
shipments. Martinez was finally arrested in June 1989 after buying 800 pounds
of cocaine from undercover agents.
There's no evidence that George or Jeb Bush knew, or even suspected, that
Leonel Martinez was a drug trafficker when they accepted his contributions.
The Internal Revenue Service, Customs, and the DEA had all had their
suspicions about the source of his money. But their investigations between
1983 and 1987 proved nothing conclusively and were, in any case, not available
to the Bushes.
Nor is there any evidence that the Bushes attempted to return Leonel
Martinez's contributions when they learned in June 1989 that he had been
arrested on drug charges. The Bush PAC that Martinez favored was still in
existence at the time; its treasurer, Roy G. Hale, says that if he had been
informed of Martinez's arrest, he would have returned the money promptly.
Thus when Bush held up the bag of crack in his September 1989 speech, he
and his son knew or should have known that an indicted cocaine kingpin had
given thousands of dollars to their campaign organizations. Yet the president
preferred to dramatize the drug problem by luring Keith Jackson to Lafayette
The White House got its prop -- at the expense of an ongoing police
investigation. Keith Jackson, it turned out, wasn't really the main target of
the probe. Agents had been cultivating him in the hope that he could lead them
to bigger players in the distribution network of Rayful Edmonds, one of the
biggest drug dealers in Washington. They didn't arrest him after the
undercover buy because they really wanted a bigger dealer.
After Bush's speech, the agents had to abandon that plan. They feared that
Jackson or somebody close to him might have seen the president talking about
crack purchased in Lafayette Park and realize he had been set up. Jackson was
arrested. Shortly thereafter, The Washington Post revealed how the crack sale
had been arranged. When reporters badgered Bush about the propriety of the
set-up, the president responded angrily, "You don't have any sympathy for this
drug guy, do you?"
Not really. When Keith Jackson went on trial in December 1989 on five
counts of selling drugs, there was not much media attention. The jury could
not reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. He was retried in January
1990 and convicted for two of the cocaine sales to the undercover agents.
Under the provisions of a tougher anti-drug law passed (with the vocal support
of George Bush) in 1987, Judge Stanley Sporkin had no choice but to sentence
Jackson to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Jackson is now serving
his time in a federal prison in Petersburg, Va.
Leonel Martinez escaped the brunt of that law. In October 1990 he pleaded
guilty to running a continuing criminal enterprise and entered a detailed
description of his drug trafficking career. He surrendered nearly $22 million
in assets and was sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Martinez's plea agreement stated that he was only pleading guilty to crimes
committed before the tougher 1987 sentencing law went into effect -- despite
the fact that he was arrested in possession of hundreds of pounds of cocaine
in 1989. Martinez thus gained the possibility of more generous "good time"
provisions and consideration for parole. A Justice Department official
familiar with the case says that the fact that Martinez was 60 years old and
in poor health meant leniency was not inappropriate and that, in any case, no
political pressure had been brought to bear on his behalf.
It's not like Martinez wasn't trying. Formal approval of the plea bargain
had to be provided by Dexter Lehtinen, the top federal prosecutor in Miami --
who owed his job to Jeb and George Bush. Lehtinen, a former Republican state
legislator with little prosecutorial experience, is married to Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, the congresswoman from Miami. In July 1990, while Leonel
Martinez's case was still under consideration by Lehtinen's office, his wife's
campaign received a $500 campaign contribution from Margarita Martinez,
Leonel's wife. Three months later, Martinez pleaded guilty.
Martinez cooperated with federal drug investigators and in October 1991,
his sentence was reduced to 12 1/2 years, with eligibility for early release
for good behavior. He has since been charged in state court with the murder of
two members of his drug organization and is awaiting trial at a federal
correctional facility in Talahassee. His lawyer estimates that Leonel Martinez
will get out of prison around 1998. Keith Jackson will have to wait until the
Jefferson Morley is an editor of Outlook.
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The Washington
Post and may not include subsequent corrections.
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