Saturday, August 06, 2011

Miami in the summer of '79: 'Cocaine Cowboys' and serial killers

Rakontur's Alfred Spellman posted this note on my Facebook page the other day:
Bill are you gonna do a Ted Bundy trial post? We were just talking in the rakontur office today about how crazy the spring of 1979 was. The turnpike shootout in April, the Ted Bundy trial in June and then the Dadeland shooting in July.
Consider it done, Alfred!


"El Loco" and the Florida Turnpike shootout - April, 1979
Colombian hit man Conrado "El Loco" Valencia Zalgado, racing along the turnpike in his Audi in April 1979, opened fire with his MAC-10 on rival drug runners who were trying to evade him in a Pontiac Grand Prix. After the shootout, authorities found a handcuffed corpse in El Loco's abandoned car.
Miami News, Aug. 28, 1979. 
Click image to enlarge
Miami Herald, Monday, September 13, 1982

For the elusive cowboy who calls himself El Loco , the westward trail has ended.

Conrado Valencia Zalgado, a legend in South Florida cocaine corridors, loved his money, loved his women and loved his nickname. He brought all of them to California -- and they did him in.

After three years on the run, "the crazy one" knocked on the door of a girlfriend's apartment 10 days ago and got the barrel of a revolver stuck in his mouth.

Wisely, he chose not to make a fuss.

The gun belonged to a wary Los Angeles County narcotics detective. He knew the reason for Valencia 's notoriety.

It was the summer of 1979 when El Loco allegedly hung from the window of a speeding Audi, firing a .45-caliber submachine gun at another car on Florida's Turnpike extension in South Dade.

His cocaine enemies retaliated. A few weeks later, horrified shoppers at the Dadeland Mall watched as assassins with submachine-guns murdered two of El Loco 's compatriots.

But El Loco already was gone. He had plunked down $105,000 cash, checked out of the Dade County Jail with his St. Lazarus pendant and vanished.

His flight only enhanced his reputation as Dade's original cocaine cowboy. Police knew him as brazen and extravagant, a macho master of deception. Valencia 's shadow was seen from New York to Miami, from California to his native Colombia -- but no one caught up with him.

Last year, for example, a SWAT team and drug agents from three police departments surrounded a house in Southwest Dade during a quince, the traditional 15th birthday party for one of Valencia 's daughters. At midnight -- when all glasses were raised in a toast -- police stormed the house.

El Loco was nowhere to be found.

What finally led to his capture 3,000 miles away was a careless mistake by the woman who loved him, a suspicious spillage of $20 bills, two cops with keen memories -- and Valencia 's own boastfulness.

On the streets of Los Angeles, he called himself the one name that cocaine cohorts everywhere knew: El Loco Martel.

"His nickname. That's what did

him in," said Metro-Dade detective Al Lopez, who has tracked Valencia over the years.

The Los Angeles investigation began last December, when a family of Colombians suddenly abandoned their rented house, leaving all their furniture and $480,000 in cash. Even in Southern California, this is considered strange behavior.

Weeks later, the fretful landlord called police to report that another group of Colombians wanted to rent the same house. They offered $4,500 cash, all in $20 bills.

That sort of transaction would be accepted in Miami as business-as-usual, but not in Los Angeles. Detective Dick Sloan of the Los Angeles County "narco squad" went to work. He discovered that one Colombian woman had begun renting several homes and apartments in the Los Angeles area -- always with cash.

"If they had just used a checkbook like everybody else, this would never have happened," Lopez mused.

The woman's name was Brenda Valencia . It meant nothing to Sloan. He didn't know she was El Loco 's common-law wife.

Years ago, in Miami, El Loco caught Brenda with another man and shot her in the chest with a .357 magnum.

Apparently, all was forgiven.

When the Los Angeles detectives began following Brenda, she led them to a balding, muscular man with a gold St. Lazarus pendant around his neck.

A new life

Conrado Valencia had little trouble making a new life for
himself in California. On Jan. 19, he was issued a drivers license with the name "Salvadore de la Roca." He rented a home near Beverly Hills using the name "Max Valencia ." He got an American Express card and Social Security number 265-67-6912.

When he wasn't zipping down Sunset Strip on his brand-new Honda motorcycle, he was cruising the hills of Topanga Canyon in a red 1948 De Soto convertible. The tag read: "LAXPRES."

"He was acting," Sloan said, "like he was king of the road."

Sloan says surveillance teams witnessed several cocaine deals conducted by Valencia and his associates. A favorite hangout was a Colombian bar in San Pedro called The Fabulous Palace.

When an undercover cop tailed Valencia into the place, he heard the nickname El Loco spoken in tones of reverence. When Valencia left, the cop reported, the doors were locked for 10 minutes so that no one could follow.

But Sloan's men stayed close. What they saw during some of the stakeouts was downright weird.

For instance, on garbage day, the occupants of three different homes rented by Brenda Valencia would haul their trash bags -- not to the street, but to the house where El Loco stayed. After a brief inspection, the contents would be left on the curb.

The cops, of course, promptly swiped the garbage in search of clues. In one heap they found insurance forms from a traffic accident in Miami. In another they found Brenda's $480 telephone bill. Someone had placed long-distance calls to 31 different numbers in Dade County.

Collecting clues

Those weren't the only South Florida connections. Detectives noticed a number of new cars coming and going from El Loco 's houses and apartments. Although the cars had Oregon license plates, a computer printout showed that all had been rented from a National Car agency in Miami, then driven to California.

This supported Sloan's theory that the Colombians were bringing cocaine shipments to Los Angeles from Florida. But he still did not know the real identity, or reputation, of the man with the motorcycle.

On Aug. 11, Sloan decided to call Dade County organized crime detectives with a list of his suspects.

"The only name that rang a bell was Brenda Valencia ," Lopez said. "I told Sloan who she was married to, a crazy bald guy who called himself Loco ."

"That's the guy." Sloan said.

"I couldn't believe Brenda was using her real name," Lopez said. "Wait till Loco finds out that's what did him in."

Lopez told Sloan that Conrado Valencia was wanted for attempted murder and numerous firearm violations in Dade County. He told him about the dead Colombian who was found in the trunk of the Audi after the Turnpike shootout, and about Valencia 's alleged alliance with reputed "Cocaine Queen" Martha Libia Cardona, a federal fugitive.


Ted Bundy Murder Trial, June - July, 1979

Miami News, June 27, 1979

Miami News, July 17, 1979

Miami News, Aug. 2, 1979


The Dadeland Mall Shootout, July 11, 1979

Video from Rakontur Films Cocaine Cowboys

from the Associated Press, Oct. 1, 1979 
(Click here to enlarge)

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