Taking bad guys off the street Customs agent snares drug dealer after long pursuit

November 07, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

For two years, U.S. Customs investigator Dennis Bass had posed as a big-time Baltimore drug distributor, angling tenaciously to reel in a Turkish heroin supplier named Kazim Bayer.

They had met repeatedly, huddling furtively in a car on Belair Road, and later in a hotel room in Istanbul. Mr. Bass and another agent had even flown into the political turmoil of Yugoslavia in an ill-fated bid to arrest Bayer and his boss.

Now he was ready to set the hook again, luring Bayer to Hong Kong with a fake business deal. He paced anxiously in a back room at the Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport while the Crown Colony's own customs agents searched among the arrivals for his quarry.

Then came the bad news. The agents reported that Bayer wasn't on either of the two most likely flights.

"My heart sank," Mr. Bass recalled. "I said, 'Are you sure?' "

*

Raised in Pikesville, Mr. Bass, 41, is intense, dedicated and impatient with those who question the war on drugs. A senior special agent since 1983, he joined customs in 1976 after working in electronic intelligence in the Navy.

Law enforcement was "something I always wanted to do," he says. "Taking the bad guys off the street, . . . I enjoy that."

He had worked narcotics, child pornography and endangered-species smuggling cases. His most visible case was the 1989 Alcolac chemical export investigation, which nailed a Baltimore company for exporting thiodiglycol bound for Iraq's chemical weapons factories.

Now he was working on a handful of Turkish drug dealers who were eager to unload large quantities of heroin onto the streets of Baltimore. The investigation began in December 1989, when a trusted Turkish informant was approached by another Turk who was seeking a buyer for several kilograms of heroin.

(For his safety, the informant will be referred to here only by the pseudonym Omar. The details that follow are drawn from an interview with Mr. Bass, and from an affidavit he filed in federal court.)

Mr. Bass asked Omar to arrange an introduction. Mr. Bass posed as a heroin distributor, with Al Czerski, a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent, as his partner.

Omar would handle communication with the Turks, who spoke little English and preferred dealing with their countrymen.

The meetings with Bayer began Jan. 5, 1990, in Mr. Bass' car, near a 7-Eleven store on Belair Road. Other agents were hidden nearby in case of trouble.

Bayer and Mr. Bass immediately began to probe each other's ability to produce drugs and deliver money. They haggled over ** price, quality and logistics. Their conversations were secretly recorded.

Bayer, then 59, was a sometime legitimate importer who had just lost 10 kilos of heroin when a courier was arrested in an FBI bust at JFK Airport in New York. He said he had to destroy three more kilos because he couldn't find a buyer. He needed cash badly.

His girlfriend could bring heroin across the border from Canada, Bayer said. He could get large quantities into Europe, or smuggle some to the United States on a Turkish cargo line.

The haggling continued for two months, often by telephone and fax machine. The customs agents kept Bayer afloat with occasional $1,000 expense payments. Bayer kept them interested with offers of 50 to 100 kilos of 90-percent-pure heroin, a tantalizing haul.

But the final deal proved elusive. The agents had to get the drugs and nab the sellers in a place accessible to the U.S. justice system, and all without losing large sums of government money. The dealers were just as determined to avoid a rip-off, or a trap.

"In most business relationships, you have legal recourse," Mr. Bass said. "Here, there is no way of enforcing what you've agreed to other than violence or robbery."

In March 1990, as the deal appeared to be falling apart and Bayer was headed back to Turkey, Mr. Bass agreed to meet him in Istanbul for more talks.

"Our goal was not to see or take delivery of any drugs over there, but to meet with Bayer and as many of his associates as possible to show what their involvement was," Mr. Bass said.

The agents got identity papers from the State Department, conferred with DEA agents and consular officials in Istanbul and then began a series of meetings with Bayer at the Ramada Inn Hotel in Istanbul.

Bayer surprised them with a sample of the drug and invited them to try some. They refused, but accepted the sample to have it tested in the United States. It wasn't much, but they could now prosecute Bayer for overt distribution.

They soon were joined at the hotel by another figure, Kemal Akkaya, a hard-nosed character about 40 years old whose demands for large sums of up-front money soon imperiled the deal, Mr. Bass said. The agents didn't dare risk that much government cash.

They decided to go on the offensive and threatened to walk out. At that, Mr. Akkaya agreed to a small, relatively risk-free shipment of five to seven kilos by mail or air cargo to Baltimore, Mr. Bass said. The money, $60,000 per kilo, was to be paid after delivery.

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