He ran one of California’s biggest drug empires… …complete with all the trappings — Ferraris, strippers, tricked-out jacuzzis, and garish fake waterfalls – then, the Feds ran him. A star informant takes us through his personal hell…
The first sign that something was wrong was when a car followed him onto his street – a one-way cul-de-sac at the top of Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood Hills where the mansions start at a million dollars. He was driving back from Bad Boys Bail Bonds, where he’d just dropped three grand to spring one of his drivers who had gotten popped in Santa Monica on a routine haul. Earlier in the day, he had pulled off the kind of transaction that some dealers go their whole lives without seeing – 300 pounds of primo weed for $1 million, which had netted him a cool $90,000 for two hours work. His senses heightened, he could feel the vibe going sour as he steered his discreet rental car past his own driveway. Another 60 feet, and suddenly there were searchlights washing every street corner – at least 30 undercover police cars – with a helicopter swooping down on top of him in case he decided to make a run for it down the open cliff face.
“I hadn’t done a deal in six months,” says Oz (most names in this story have been changed), a 48-year-old ex-marijuana trafficker and big-time baller who once dominated the I-5 corridor from British Columbia to Tijuana, was responsible for 70 percent of the marijuana smoked in Los Angeles and saw $4 million move through his operation every two weeks. “They take me inside – they’re stripping the house, and here’s my $90,000 all out on the table. I said, ‘Dude, just shoot me now. I don’t blame you guys, but I’m not going to rat on any of my people, so I’d prefer to be dead.’ The Fed says, ‘No, man, I can’t do that. But we need to talk.’”
Cruising through the Hills in a tricked-out Lincoln Navigator, on loan from a fellow drug runner who got out of the game when he found religion, Oz can’t help but point the sites of his former glory: The Russian tanning salon in Hollywood where you could order up Vicodin or steroids on demand; the Melrose Avenue tattoo shop that moves 50 to a hundred pounds of weed a week; the Mexican restaurant that serves up kilos of coke with its carne asada. But he is less expansive when describing his life since the 2004 bust that curtailed his hand-built empire – and his uneasy resurrection as an undercover informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. In the world he lived in for over 20 years, the worst thing you could be was a rat – a turnabout of fate that obviously weighs heavy on him. In the past three years, Oz has survived three suicide attempts – not counting his choice of livelihood.
Still retaining the hard angles and displaced muscle mass from his early years as a bodybuilder and protracted steroid enthusiast, Oz today most resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger if you put him through a threshing machine and then tried to spot-weld the bigger pieces back together. He’s had his bicep torn off from trying to break a guy’s neck in a bar, all his teeth are capped from being broken off in fights and he’s literally got screws in his head to hold his skull in place. He earned the sometimes nickname “Shrek” from taking so many punches to the face that his eyebrows calcified into scar tissue, leaving a large protruding ridge in his forehead. And in the kind of colorful anecdote that no doubt made it easier for him to do his job, he once bit his best friend’s ear off in the back seat of a limo.
“I have a short man’s complex,” admits the 5’8, 220-pound brawler, still capable of flashes of intense anger and pervasive menace, as well as intense emotion over the secondary victims of his chosen lifestyle. “I realized at one point that most people were my friends because they were scared of me. I’ve never killed anybody, but I’ve hurt a lot of people – and every one of them deserved it.”
A hyperactive kid who was expelled his first day of elementary school in suburban Washington state for biting a school bus monitor, Oz excelled in football and wrestling in high school, soon graduating to weight-lifting, bodybuilding (he once placed fourth in a statewide body building contest) and, later, the Tough Man bare-knuckle fighting tournaments that were all the rage in the early ‘80s. He bought his first gym at age 25, eventually co-owning a chain of seven. He also became a guru of sorts to anyone looking to shoot anabolic steroids, of which the average bodybuilder easily can consume an ungodly 12,000 milligrams in a week. This turn was earning him between $5,000 and $10,000 a month on the side, and the resulting spikes of temper quickly gained him the reputation of someone to avoid antagonizing.
Acting on a stray rumor floating through one of his gyms, Oz tipped off a 25-year-old stoner kid and client who was importing bales of pot from hydroponic grow houses in Vancouver that the DEA had him in their sites. To Oz’s surprise, “Mikey” offered $20,000 to spirit him out of the country. Facing litigation in the gym business from unscrupulous partners, and having watched much of his accumulated assets walk out the door with an ex-girlfriend, in whose name he had unwisely tried to hide them from the impending lawsuit, he accepted. He loaded a quarter-million dollars in the trunk of a rental car, drove Mikey and his girlfriend to Tijuana and walked them through customs without a hitch – the crime of smuggling cash into Mexico apparently being a sufficiently novel one. As a perc, Mikey awarded him a slot as a driver on interstate runs, where his boundless energy, business acumen and innate loyalty quickly allowed him to move up the chain, from driver to collector to distributor to kingpin.
“We had White Widow, a special strain that the Hell’s Angels liked, Purple Kush and Hash Plant, that went to Snoop Dogg and his crew, Green Goblin, Orange Crush and dozens more,” says Oz. “It would wholesale for $3,000 a pound, and when it got to the end users, they were paying twice that.” To receive the Canadian trans-shipments, Oz or his drivers would meet helicopter drops in the Great North Woods or fishing trawlers at prearranged secluded piers on the Puget Sound. Some importers would target their shipments to Indian reservations, hidden aboard logging trucks or in special compartments drilled into campers. On one occasion, he was told to park on a dirt road at a designated time with his trunk open, and four riders on dirt bikes tossed backpacks right into the car without ever stopping. Some drops took place at remote airfields in the middle of the night, where they would dump the duffel bags directly onto the tarmac. His key supplier would routinely convert his money into 200 kilos of cocaine and smuggle the new, deadly currency back across the border into Canada – a practice confirmed by DEA Special Agent John McKenna.
“Marijuana is the biggest money maker in terms of drug proceeds,” says McKenna. “In cocaine and heroin, the markup is not as much, it’s just easier to package and transport.”
In 2000, Oz relocated to Los Angeles, where he entered his “kingpin phase”: He owned a one-of-a-kind yellow Porsche Boxster, a black Cadillac Escalade, a private limousine and a blue Ferrari 360 Modena Maranello he bought for cash from a well-known NFL player. His “Miami Vice”-style drug lord mansion was actually a house within a house: Mirrors in the back bedroom disguised secret doorways to an entire other set of rooms with a lap pool and waterfall, where he kept a recreational cache of Ecstasy and Vicodin on hand for his club kid clientele and where a wine cellar housed his private safe and vintage machine guns. He had a network of 20 wholesalers he routinely sold to, and multiple safe houses scattered throughout the canyons as designated drop-off points. There was also the requisite string of stripper girlfriends, fat steaks at Mastro’s in Beverly Hills every night and VIP access to the clubs du jour. (A Hollywood nightclub promoter remembers him, saying, “He’s a scary dude, and I don’t want to be connected to him in any way.”)
But for all the menace he cultivated, it was an earlier act of kindness in the Seattle area that tripped him up. During Oz’s drug-running phase, a friend in his mid-20s named Casey went to the doctor for kidney stones and was diagnosed with inoperable testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen. Desperate, Casey put together a last-minute ecstasy deal to raise the $20,000 for a spurious Mexican treatment, and lost his $12,000 investment to the Asian Mafia. Oz offered to let him ride shotgun and split his delivery fees, but just outside of Eugene, Oregon, Casey started coughing up blood. Leaving him at a hospital to complete the run, Oz flew back to take up a bedside vigil, and Casey died two days later. But unbeknownst to Oz, his friend’s ecstasy sales had landed him on the DEA radar, and they had photographs of every one who went in and out of the hospital. Soon after, 18 DEA agents showed up at his girlfriend’s house to question him, but Oz was ghost – skipping Rain City for sunny So Cal.
The multi-agency task force that finally took Oz down included the DEA, Homeland Security, the California Bureau of Narcotics, International Criminal Investigations (ICI), U.S. Customs and a handful of local law enforcement agencies. The fact that his case crossed so many jurisdictions is a testament to the magnitude of his crimes.
“They’d been catching all my Blackberries,” he says, “and they showed me a transcript of an argument I had with some Canadians a couple of weeks earlier that got really heated. This guy I used to work for owed $4 million to these Hell’s Angels that were tied to the Mexican Mafia, and I was supposed to drop to them the next day. So the Feds showed me the next transcript right after that, where the guy paged the Mexicans and said, ‘Yeah, he’s got the money. Just fucking take him out.’ These guys were going to try and kidnap me, take me back to my house and torture me until I gave up where the money was. The Feds said, ‘We’ve got you for about 35 years.’ At that moment, all I really cared about was getting enough room for me to kill myself.”
That night, Oz tried to hang himself in his jail cell, but he couldn’t go through with it. As a fallback plan, he agreed to go ahead with his scheduled pickups and drop the next day – just long enough to throw himself off the fourth floor of the Glendale Galleria. This was thwarted when DEA agents, taking no chances, handcuffed him to a table, and then made him do business on the ground floor. When the drop went as planned and the Mexican cartel fell like dominos, the DEA saw they had an unanticipated resource on their hands. Pressed for likely targets, Oz’s mind reeled back to a Colombian called Paco who early in his drug career had sold him 10 kilos of cocaine for his Canadian contacts that had inadvertently been soaked in diesel oil, then pulled a gun on him when he tried to collect. Oz wore a wire to a meeting with Paco, and they busted him with ten keys of coke and 20 pounds of crystal meth. Soon he was showing his newfound acolytes how a chop shop built secret compartments into the rocker panels of luxury vehicles (not unlike the ride his alleged former end-user client Snoop Dogg was recently busted with), or how to re-hydrate dry, inferior product with banana and orange peels to give it the desired sweet, sticky quality. He had to check in with his control agent three times a day, but he was walking the streets a free man, and slowly working off his time. (“When I was running a field group with 15 confidential sources,” says DEA agent McKenna, “we met with them daily if not more. I’d talk to them more than their own family.”)
“I snapped,” Oz says today. “I just went, ‘Fuck it: I’m exposed in my hometown, I’ve got nothing to do. I’m never going to eat the food I ate; I’m never going to fuck the chicks I fucked. I’m done, man. I can’t take this.’”
After a fight with his girlfriend when he was close to working off his beef with the DEA, he took 100 Valium and woke up in the hospital with a tube down his throat. Two months ago, before he had a chance to validate himself and tell his story, he washed down 150 aspirin with half a bottle of vodka and was in kidney failure by the time the Feds found him three days later.
“Afterwards, my DEA contact said, ‘Why did you do that?’” says Oz. “‘You’re getting five years, and they’ll put you on probation.’ So they sent me home to the Seattle area. They could have put me in witness protection, but it’s an expensive scenario, and they don’t want their informants identified. [“If an individual is in the program, we can’t use him,” says McKenna.] Six months later, my contact called me on my birthday. He sang ‘Happy Birthday’ using all my aliases, and then he laughed and goes, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re not in jail?’ So maybe I jumped the gun a little bit. In the end, I didn’t even get probation. And they offered me a job.”
It was also here that Oz realized he’d been looking at this all wrong. Rather than rat out his brothers in crime, most of them fuck-ups and sociopaths to begin with, this was his ticket to settle all the beefs he’d built up over a dozen years in the game: for instance – a rich girl they called Hot Pants who was reportedly tied in to the Israeli Mafia once beat him out of $120,000. Meeting her and four scary Israelis in a Hollywood supermarket parking lot, he checked their boxes of money and then headed for his van.
“I was supposed to say, ‘I’m going to get the van,’ and once I walked away, to put my hands through my hair. That was the signal. So the minute I ran my hands through my hair – there are dozens of agents swarming from every angle, and, as I’m strolling out of harm’s way, I’m hearing guns clicking and agents going, ‘Get the fuck on the ground!’ My orders were to continue to walk, cross the street, down the road, go into a Starbucks and wait there…” As a final humiliation for the broken drug wizard Oz, Hot Pants’ wealthy parents eventually got her sprung on charges and set her up with her own clothing line. “Once,” says Oz, “in a half-assed effort at making good with me, she gave me a dozen $1,500 designer dresses. I have to disclose everything to the Feds, and, laughing at me, they sold the dresses in asset forfeiture.”
To date, Oz has run successful stings on an Asian “Triad” syndicate operating out of the casinos, a Dominican cartel and fronted for a Canadian snitch to pop a local guy who had the good fortune to have a heart attack at the gym before they could take him down. Many more are in the works. He estimates that whereas street rats can make $500 for information, he stands to make as much as 10-25% of total assets seized (up to $250,000 a year), as long as he can keep from getting arrested again and exposing himself or another agent. But it’s not easy getting used to high-rolling on a budget.
“The Feds don’t give you flash,” he says, referring to the wad of cash that every player carries for instant credibility. “They’re broke. Flash to them is like a thousand bucks. Or you say, ‘I want 100 kilos now,’ and they say, ‘Great, I’ll send over five keys.’ They’re not going to stick a hundred grand out there to buy five keys, because they don’t have a hundred grand in cash that they can let walk away. They may make the purchase, but the sellers will get maybe a block away and they’ll pull the guy over. This is why they have so much trouble busting up major cartels: No money or drugs can walk.”
“If we’re certain there is going to be a conveyance, we cannot let the drugs hit the streets,” says DEA Agent McKenna. “We would stop them. Money, the same; we make every effort not to let the money get away.”
“Do not get locked up, don’t expose yourself or the agents, and don’t commit perjury,” says a former undercover police detective familiar with DEA-informant relationships and sting operations. “If he gets locked up while he’s working for them, that gives defense lawyers an out: ‘Why should we believe him?’ However, they are not heavy on moral turpitude provisions. If the guy fails to pay child support, they’re not going to axe him as an informant.”
Pulling onto the Sunset Strip, past Miyagi’s, the Body Shop, the Standard and all the other high-end hangs where the doormen knew him by name, Oz runs through a mental checklist of all the people he used to know: Mikey came back for a brief stint in the game before disappearing to Costa Rica. He was recently extradited, and Oz is expressly prohibited from contacting him. Most of his former business associates are broke, busted or betrayed by the handful of people they trusted. Some are junkies, waiting for the slow end. His ex-driver – the one who lost an ear – now drives a delivery truck.
“I’ve had some people do some bad things to me,” Oz says. “But I’ve always given them the opportunity to rectify it. This isn’t the white trade [cocaine]; people aren’t getting shot or stabbed, and they ain’t whoring their sister out. So I have to find my way through this. And I think I’m finding my way through this via telling my story. That helps me cleanse my soul. Being straight up with the Feds helps me feel some redemption. And I’m sure this is wrong, but being able to stand up for myself against some of the people that wronged me has also been therapy for me. But I also know that, if I stuck my head in a car and got shot, at least if I got killed in the line of duty; then maybe I could justify my existence, because I feel bad about what I did.”
At the light on Sunset, he rolls up his sleeve to reveal the enormous tattoos covering his entire bicep:
There’s a broken heart, with the Grim Reaper rising out of it. It says, “I’m still here.”
• This story was originally published in Maxim magazine. All rights reserved by the author.