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Ship Captain Acquitted of Smuggling 3.5 Tons of Cocaine
Criminal defense attorney, Bjorn Brunvand, represented a Ukrainian ship captain who was accused of smuggling $1 Billion worth of illegal drugs into the US. The defendant was acquitted.
The odds were against a Ukrainian ship captain and his crew who spoke little English.
At 56, a drug smuggling conviction for Yuri Chakhrach would have amounted to a life sentence. Still, he and 15 crewmembers gambled that their government-appointed attorneys could convince a jury of their innocence.
Odds certainly seemed to be in the prosecutors’ favor. Drug defendants face a 90% conviction rate in the U.S. District Court, Tampa. And the Ukrainian ship captain and crew were caught with 3 ½ tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $1 billion.
In June of 2003, the captain and his crew were piloting the Yalta, a freighter through the Caribbean Sea, toward Argentina for repairs when the captain received a call via satellite telephone ordering him to make an unscheduled middle-of-the-night stop to pick up cargo off the coast of Colombia, near Venezuela.
If Chakhrach refused, he was told he and his family would face death.
After the 3 ½ tons of cocaine – worth as much as $1 billion on the street – were stowed in a hidden compartment, the Yalta headed east-north-east. Within hours the U.S. Coast Guard and law enforcement boarded the ship, found the raw cocaine and arrested the crew.
The ship, Coast Guard on board, headed for Florida. During the five days it took to reach land, law enforcement kicked Chakhrach off the bridge because he drank too much. After he and his crew were jailed, the bust was touted in Florida newspapers as proof of the success of Operation Panama Express, an international drug interdiction operation based in Tampa.
It also made the front page of newspapers in the Ukraine, part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until 1991.
The ship’s lone Colombian, Daniel Effren Marquez-Silva -who the captain says gave him the call with directions to pick up the drugs -would later plead guilty and testify for the prosecution.
Clearwater attorney Bjorn Brunvand, a Norwegian native and graduate of the University of South Florida and Stetson’s college of law, became a key player. He was appointed to represent Chakhrach. Through an interpreter, Brunvand learned the captain’s story.
“He was told ‘cooperate or die.’ He didn’t think he had a choice,” the lawyer says, “He feared for loss of his family and his life.
“He didn’t know it was cocaine but he certainly suspected it wasn’t legitimate,” he adds, “It was the middle of the night, off the coast of Colombia. He knew he was dealing with an organization that could afford to buy a ship that cost well over a million dollars.”
As the May trial date neared, Brunvand traveled to the Ukraine.
Brunvand, 40, left Tampa at 2 p.m. on an April day. He changed planes three times during the first part of the trip and ended up in Kiev at 5 p.m. the next day, or 11 a.m. Tampa time.
The following day, he boarded a plane for Simferopol.
“It was like going back in time,” he says of the two-hour flight aboard a prop plane. “The wheels looked like they were about to explode, and they had no treads on them whatsoever.”
Tampa attorney Frederick Wiley Vollrath, who represented Yalta crewmember Gennadiy Volkhonsky, had flown to the Ukraine prior to Brunvand.
“Jerry Theophilopoulos couldn’t go because his wife had a baby,” Brunvand says. “Pat Doherty didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to fly in the Ukraine, which I understood when I got on the plane. It was pretty scary.”
Theophilopoulos of Tarpon Springs represented Volcoymir Kosenko, while Doherty of Palm Harbor defended Yakiv Kibaljuk.
Other government-appointed defense attorneys for the other crewmembers were Mark W. Ciaravella, Richard L. Cox Jr., John E. Fernandez, Roland A. Hermida and Ronald J. Marzullo, all of Tampa; Elton J. Gissendanner III, Ybor City; Stephen Maner Crawford, 13th Judicial Circuit, Tampa; Craig A. Epifanio and Grady C. Irvin Jr., both of St. Petersburg; Ron F. Smith, Largo; and Robert L. Hambrick and William E. Gottfried, both of Clearwater.
Marquez-Silva, who is scheduled to be sentenced in December, was represented by Tampa attorney Duilio Espinosa-Montalban.
In the Ukraine, employees from the International Seafarer’s Center took Brunvand to Yalta, the city made famous by the Yalta Conference where Churchill, Stalin and President Roosevelt decided Europe’s reorganization following World War II.
Brunvand also visited one of the former Soviet Union’s forbidden cities, Sevastopol, which was home to the U.S.S.R. navy. The area is now home to many seafarers, including Chakhrach and his family.
The attorney interviewed employees at the Yalta agency that retained the captain for the ill-fated trip, the captain’s colleagues, family and friends. He recorded depositions with a video camera.
Marina Chakhrach, Yuri’s spouse of 36 years, made dinner in the family’s sparse one-bedroom apartment for Brunvand and other guests. An elderly aunt lives with the couple.
“Sevastopol is very poor,” the attorney says. “Everyone lives in these gray concrete high-rises. They have doorways with broken glass. Everything is in a state of disrepair. You walk up the staircase to get the apartments.”
The Chakhrach’s apartment is certainly not the type of place an international drug trafficker would call home, says Brunvand.
In Sevastopol, Brunvand interviewed another captain, whom Chakhrach worked for in the ‘70s.
“He spoke very highly of my client other than he had a drinking problem,” Brunvand says. “They all said he drank too much. That was part of my defense. The government – I don’t know if they realized it until the end of the trial.”
The wholesale value of the seized cocaine was $160 million in the U.S., compared to $130 million in Europe where they were supposedly headed, Brunvand says.
In the dark
Brunvand believed the captain when he said he wasn’t aware of the planned drug smuggling when he boarded the ship in Panama.
“Why would they clue him in?” Brunvand asks.
“They brought on $40,000 cash on the day they were leaving Panama, and said. ‘Don’t give it to the captain. He can’t be trusted. He’s a drunk,'” he says. “Well, if you can’t trust the captain with $40,000 because he’s a drunk, are you going to trust him to tell him we’re getting ready to do this massive drug deal? I don’t think so.”
Chakhrach testified during the 23-day trial in front of federal Judge James Moody Jr.
On cross-examination, the prosecutor pointed out that the Colombian was of smaller stature than the captain, Brunvand says, adding: “My guy laughed and said, ‘I wasn’t scared of him. I was scared of what’s behind him.’ They had his name and address, his wife’s name and address, his children’s name and address.”
On the Sunday prior to trial, Brunvand visited Chakhrach at the Orient Road jail in Tampa.
“Knowing he was the captain, knowing he was on the ship with 3 ½ tons of cocaine, he knew there was a very good chance he wasn’t going to be found not guilty,” Brunvand says. “I told him I don’t know but I might be able to work something out where you can get 10 to 15 years (in a plea deal). He said he couldn’t do that because part of that is saying he knew it was cocaine prior to leaving Panama, and he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t say that.”
The captain had to gamble.
“We had joked about later meeting up in the Ukraine and having a vodka together,” Brunvand says. “And he looked at me and said, ‘I’m never seeing my family again.’ I said, ‘Don’t give up hope. I just have to tell you both sides of it. We’re still fighting. But if you lose you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison.'”
Following testimony, jurors deliberated two or three days. They easily reached a verdict on 14 of the 16 defendants.
“I thought my guy was going to walk and for him to walk I knew everyone below him had to walk, with the exception of Milkintas Arunas,” Brunvand says. Arunas, an electrician spoke more Spanish than the others and is the only one that communicated directly with Marquez Silva.
“My motto,” Brunvand says, “is if I can’t convince myself of what I’m trying to convince the jury of it’s not going to happen. In this case, it wasn’t a strain for me to believe him. To me, it made sense, the way he told the story. I confronted him many times throughout the year when I met with him.”
Jurors argued over two of the 16 and then reached a verdict on the 15th defendant. It deadlocked on the last one.
“You have no control over what’s going to happen,” Brunvand says. “Then they start announcing the verdicts and they skip over my client. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh God … they’re hung on my client.’ ”
Brunvand, it turns out, was right to believe in his client. Jurors were hung on Arunas, who’s scheduled for a retrial next month.
The jury acquitted the captain and 14 crewmembers.
“I thought he was going to pass out,” the lawyer says. “He was so happy, I was so happy. It was great moment. It was against all odds. If I told you I’m representing a captain of a boat that took on 3 ½ tons of cocaine, and he admitted he ordered the crew to take the cargo on, you’re going to tell me I’m a fool if I think I can win that case. It’s a wonderful system. Only in America.”
The government picked up the tab for the defense as well as the prosecution of the Yalta crew, estimated to top $1 million in all.
Brunvand says he easily put in more a thousand hours on Chakhrach’s defense, including the 10 days in the Ukraine. He submitted a $71,000 bill for 770 hours at $90 an hour, Judge Moody OK’d $61,000.
Defense attorneys combined have received about $336, 489, according to court records. Then there are the costs for the interpreters, transcripts and expert witnesses, at least another $76,000.
But the government received a pretty good deal at that price, Brunvand says. As a private attorney, he’d have received about $250,000 to $500,000 for his work.
Not that he regrets his role.
“We’re supposed to do things not only for lucre” he says. “We’re supposed to do it because it’s the right thing to do. Without doing that, the system wouldn’t function.”
He contends little was accomplished with the crew’s arrest.
I think their (government) intentions are good in the war on drugs,” he says. “They‘re trying to stop drugs from coming into our country and even Europe. I think the problem is — this is what I said during the trial and after the trial — in this case these guys became victims of both the cartel and the government. And we really haven’t accomplished anything other than taking a year away from their lives. None of these people that control the strings on this big ship and on this cocaine, whether it’s in Colombia, Panama or Europe, have been caught.
“And I think that part of the problem with that whole Panama Express operation is we have hundreds of hundreds of these guys that are basically peasants and fishermen, they have no money, they live in extreme poverty in Colombia, Guatemala.” he adds. “They don’t know the people who own the drugs. They couldn’t point the finger if they wanted to, and those are the people we have. Now supposedly they’re starting to get a few of the big fish. But I don’t think they’re anywhere near the people that control everything.”
In the past decade, Brunvand has represented more than 50 defendants accused of drug smuggling in federal court.
“Most have pleaded guilty,” he says. “They‘re on the boat and there’s cocaine on it. They’re throwing bales overboard. The normal sentence for someone who’s not a captain and is just on the boat is 11 years and three months. You have the option of going to trial, but you’ll end up with 20 to 30 years in prison if you lose. The question is: ‘Do you want to take that gamble?’ You’re a foreigner and you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language. It’s a tough call. Most people say I’m not going to take that chance.”
Does Brunvand feel like the hero Chakhrach has called him?
“Yeah,” he says hesitantly. “I don’t know that I’m ever going to have a case quite like this again. I have a lot of serious cases. I’ve had many victories, many great victories. But this one was special.
“I believed in my client all along, but no one else did,” he adds. “I told prosecutors I was going to win this case, and they laughed at me.”
“Only in America”
Gulf Coast Business Review (GCBR)
By Janet Leiser and Jill Yelverton