Marshals nab last of ‘cocaine cowboys,’ on lam for 26 years

FILE - This undated photo provided by Orange County Corrections shows Gustavo Falcon, the last of South Florida's "Cocaine Cowboys". Falcon was arrested Wednesday, April 12, 2017, some 26 years after he went on the lam, while on a 40-mile bike ride with his wife near the Orlando suburb where they apparently lived under assumed names. Gustavo Falcon, 55, also known as Taby, was booked into the Orlando County jail, Wednesday. He is scheduled to have his first appearance in Orlando federal court on Thursday, before his expected transfer to Miami. (Orange County Corrections via AP)

MIAMI (AP) — A quarter-century after he vanished on the eve of a major drug indictment, the last of Miami’s fabled “cocaine cowboys” was in custody Thursday, nabbed on a suburban bike ride with his wife near Disney World.

Prosecutors say the man living under an assumed name is Gustavo “Taby” Falcon, who was part of a homegrown drug gang that used super-fast speedboats to smuggle 75 tons of cocaine in the 1980s “Miami Vice” era.

Falcon, 55, had been on the lam since 1991, when his older brother Augusto “Willie” Falcon and fellow drug kingpin Salvador “Sal” Magluta were indicted by a federal grand jury. U.S. Marshals spokesman Barry Golden said investigators were surprised to find him living in a typical pink stucco home in a quiet, middle-class Kissimmee suburb.

“Nobody thought Gustavo Falcon was still in the United States,” Golden said.

At his initial court hearing Thursday in Orlando, Gustavo Falcon agreed to be sent to South Florida to face charges of conspiracy to import cocaine into the U.S. He was ordered held without bond, court records show.

Augusto Falcon and Magluta were small-time drug dealers when they dropped out of high school in the late 1970s to begin building their cocaine empire that would amass more than $2 billion, according to trial evidence. They eventually owned world-class ocean racing boats and lived like royalty.

Mickey Munday, who did prison time for flying cocaine loads for Colombia’s Medellin Cartel, said the pair was known for their honesty in business deals — legal or otherwise — and the expertise of their boat-building operation.

They also drove flashy cars and lived in seaside mansions, even when murders and shootings linked to their organization brought police scrutiny.

“They were so flamboyant,” Munday said. “Everybody in the world knew what they were doing. Why attract attention to yourself?”

Gustavo Falcon was not viewed as a top leader of the organization, and vanished just ahead of a 1991 indictment that charged him along with his brother, Magluta and others. He had not been seen since until Wednesday, when U.S. marshals surveilling his rented home in Kissimmee watched him and his wife leave their garage for a bike ride.

A neighbor, David Pera, said he frequently saw the couple riding their bikes and never saw them in a car. An older model pickup truck sitting in the driveway never moved, he said.

“I’d say hi, they would say hi, and that was about it,” Pera said Thursday.

It took an exhaustive records search to bring the marshals there. Weeks earlier, they discovered a Florida driver’s license issued to a Luis Reiss, traced back to a South Florida home that had been owned by Gustavo Falcon. Then they found 2013 car accident involving Reiss, which eventually led to the house he was sharing with his wife, Amelia. She also had fake identification, in the name of Maria Reiss.

Marshals followed as the couple got on their bikes and headed out Wednesday for what turned into a 40-mile ride. Because they were both wearing helmets and sunglasses, it took a while for investigators to make a positive identification, Golden said. Once they felt sure enough, marshals with guns drawn stopped the couple at an intersection a few blocks from their house.

“We had to be 100 percent certain this was the guy,” Golden said.

After his arrest, Gustavo Falcon told authorities he had been living in the Orlando area since 2009 and in the rental house since 2012. It’s not clear where he was during all the other years, but officials say it’s believed he was living overseas for some of that time. Authorities said they did not know if Falcon had a job. His wife was not arrested.

His brother and Magluta were acquitted of all charges at their trial in 1996, leading to the resignation of then-Miami U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey. Despondent at the loss, Coffey and others went to a strip club where he got into an altercation involving the biting of a stripper.

Later, it turned out that Augusto Falcon and Magluta had bought off witnesses and at least one member of the jury, a foreman who did 17 years in prison after accepting $400,000. Magluta, now 62, was tried a second time, convicted of drug-related money laundering in 2002 and sentenced to 205 years in prison. That was reduced to 195 years in 2006.

Augusto Falcon, now 61, then accepted a plea deal in 2003 on similar charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and is scheduled for release from a Kentucky facility on June 17.

Their mansions, boats, cars, planes, bank accounts and other ill-gotten gains are long gone, seized and sold by the government.

Munday, the former cartel pilot, said Augusto Falcon and Magluta should have disappeared as well, after their initial not-guilty verdicts.

“They were guys who went from nothing to having just about anything they could imagine that they wanted,” he said. “As soon as they got the innocent verdict, they should have hauled out of here to Argentina.”

_____

Associated Press contributors include John Raoux. Follow Curt Anderson at http://twitter.com/miamicurt

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