March 2001

HEADLINE: Snowjob: a drug warrior lines his pocket; The Playboy Forum; case of the Colonel's smuggling wife; Brief Article

BYLINE: Bovard, James

You probably caught the 60 Minutes interview with the drug-fighting colonel and his drug-smuggling wife. The segment had all the emotional trappings of Jerry Springer, a made-for-TV movie or an episode of Law and Order: Women who abuse drugs and the men who love them.

Laurie Hiett had a long history of drug abuse. She had even done cocaine in front of her husband, a fact he did not report in 1998 when he was placed in charge of America's antidrug crusade in Colombia. At first, Laurie had asked her husband if she and their two children could remain in Texas, but a taste of the good life in Colombia swayed her. "I had cars, I had security, I was going to these beautiful parties, beautiful places for dinner. I was like a queen," she said.

On a whim, she asked her Bogota chauffeur (his salary paid by U.S. taxpayers) to get her some cocaine. He returned with a kilo brick. Hiett realized she could not snort the whole kilo, so she decided to share her stash with friends in New York. In 1999 she used a U.S. Embassy pouch to ship 15 pounds--$700,000 worth--of coke and heroin to contacts in New York. She then made several trips to New York to retrieve her share of the profits, approximately $25,000.

She gave the cash to her husband. Both the colonel and his wife maintain she never told him how she got the money, and apparently he never pressed the issue. He used it to pay bills. In June 1999 Army investigators told the colonel his wife was suspected of smuggling drugs. Hiett did not reveal his wife's sudden influx of cash. Instead, he bought money orders and paid off more bills. The evidence simply disappeared--sent to a dentist and five credit card companies, among others.

After her arrest, Laurie Hiett confessed. In January 2000 a federal judge in Brooklyn sentenced her to five years in prison.

At first, the Army handled the colonel with kid gloves. News stories reported that the Army Criminal Investigation Division in Panama had cleared him, saying he had "no prior knowledge" of his wife's crimes. The Army transferred Hiett to another post. The official response seemed to indicate he would be allowed to retire with his $50,000-a-year pension.

Federal prosecutors were slightly less benevolent. Eventually, Colonel Hiett agreed to admit to failing to report a felony. The prosecutors asked for probation, but in April 2000 a federal judge sentenced Hiett to five months in prison, to be followed by five months of home detention. The Army fired him, effectively revoking his pension.

Most reporters presented the story as a romantic tragedy, but a few Americans saw a different picture. The Hietts had been judged by a different standard. Both had received far more lenient treatment for their crimes than other Americans could hope to receive. Laurie Hiett, who had shipped 15 pounds of heroin and cocaine into the U.S. and reveled in the profits, received the same sentence a small-time dealer would get if he were caught with five grams of crack in his pocket. Colonel Hiett also fared well. Compare his sentence with any of the cases mentioned in "Who Goes Free?" (The Playboy Forum, December 2000). Colonel Hiett said, "The only thing I did, that I did consciously, was to try to protect my wife after the fact." Actually, what Hiett did meets the definition of structuring, a subclass of money laundering. By breaking $25,000 into small amounts, he avoided triggering a Currency Transaction Report (mandatory for transactions of $10,000 or more).

Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, noted the injustice of the situation: "If Colonel Hiett had been Mr. Hiett, he would have been charged with conspiracy to traffic in more than a kilogram of heroin, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. He would possibly face life without parole. He would have been charged with possession of a firearm [his Army-issued weapons] in the furtherance of drug trafficking, with a mandatory five-year consecutive sentence. If his weapon were an assault weapon or an automatic weapon, he would face a mandatory 10 years--or up to 30 years--on top of the drug sentence. Mr. Hiett would have been charged with money laundering, facing up to 20 years. Mr. Hiett would, at a minimum, have been charged with aiding and abetting his wife's money laundering, facing 20 years."

Most drug warriors pretended either that the Hiett case had never happened--or that it mattered little. When drug czar Barry McCaffrey appeared on a radio talk show, a listener asked about the Hiett case. "How about starting with your own people instead of decimating a country?" he asked. McCaffrey replied: "They're not my people. These are Americans and, you know, we've got a woman chronically addicted to cocaine, the wife of the military group commander down there. What a tragedy. But this is going on all over the country. There are 3.6 million chronic cocaine addicts in America and every one of them produces that kind of criminality and tragedy."

But when any of those 3.6 million is caught, they don't get coddled.