May 15, 2014
How An Underemployed Michigan Rocker Chick Became The Cocaine Queen Of 1980s L.A.
This is the stuff of Martin Scorsese movies, only without the inevitable stylized downfall. It’s been over five years since the following was published in Los Angeles City Beat, and I still think the cream of Cissie’s con was to run her operation wide open in the middle of a Hollywood then busy blaming the nation’s Drug Problem on ghetto pushers and slippin’ gangbangers. The period’s culture let her hide in plainest of sight, luck had little to do with how she operated, and she was long gone when the last hammer went down.
Cissie abides and I still hear from her now and then, What follows reminds us that while even the most charming rogues aren’t perfect, occasionally their crimes are.
The Last Resort
Who “Cissie” actually is is irrelevant to our story and how I came to know her none of your business. Who she was – the girlfriend, helpmeet and eventual business partner of the number two associate of a gentleman she calls “Don Manuel,” the still-living onetime North American representative of the Medellín drug cartel – well, that was something in the late ’70s. If you did a gram of coke in the L.A. basin in 1982, chances are it came to the country on Cissie’s small person, although she was a stranger to me until we met to share her story. Rest assured, our paths would’ve crossed sooner or later, given the dramatic way the town shrinks the longer you stay here.
Strikingly pretty in her early 50s, Cissie has faded tats, a trim figure and the thousand-yard stare of an unreconstructed rock ’n’ roll party baby, of which there are thousands in L.A. Many of these ladies eke out the odd ASCAP check and that’s pretty much her too, since one of her songs wound up in a classic Gen-X action movie. She lives quietly now in a midcity neighborhood probably best described as Koreacockwood, a vague precinct not exactly Hancock Park, only indifferently Koreatown, and Hollywood by tattered courtesy. At the foyer of her top floor apartment is a quasi-Santeria shrine, festooned with faded photos of people who’ve died, along with offerings.
Over the phone, Cissie is open, charming, plausible – and scarcely less so in person. Not that morality has much to do with what follows, but I find her commitment to who she was and loved to be the most compelling thing about her. Though my own career as drug outlaw has been on the consumption end and my taste for alkaloids close to nil, I’ve met her spiritual likeness on the sales end of pretty much everything saleable in America. As hospitality, she clips off a fat sativa bud and tosses it at me. I tamp it down, fire it up and pass it back.
I ask her why she is bothering to tell her story now, after all this time and in the middle of a different and worse era. “Believe me, my reasons aren’t all that deep” she drawls, stammering a little for the first time since I’ve known her (not long). “It’s time to tell it and, um, as long as everybody else is telling their story and getting on that train and getting paid. I got a damn good story to tell, and all my friends for years have urged me to tell it. The thing is, I can’t write! I sit down and try to and find I can’t. It’s not necessarily a role model story for women, but it’s a powerful one anyway.”
The Last Waltz
On the table is a pile of faded pictures, of 1970s people in a frozen series of long-ago goodtimes. “That’s me. Cute, huh?” she says, handing me an image of a sweet-faced, succulent blonde housewife, about eight months gone in virtuous pregnancy. “That was around 1979,” she drawls in flat upstate Michigan tones L.A. will never erode, biting off the words.
“I had about a million bucks taped to my belly. It was just before getting on an airplane. This guy,” she seems scattered, but her eyes lock eyes with mine, measuring me, “is the one who got me into it. His name was Danny, he was the one I told you about over the phone. He got me into the whole thing.” She holds aloft a photo of her with a hard-faced, soft-eyed tough guy in a Saturday Night Fever suit, a hairline up the scalp and a proto B-boy glare quite unfashionable back in the Bee Gees’s heyday. “His name was Danny and he was the old guy’s golden boy at the very start of the Medellín cartel. I was head-over-heels in love with him. He was a little prick and I hated him, too. He was just perfect!”
By 1978, Cissie was out of an all-girl Catholic high school and into a series of cover bands as a petite, blues-howling front, gigging for whatever small change was then available in southern Michigan. Vacationing in Fort Lauderdale with a girlfriend – two bikinied nymphets padding along Bahia Del Mar like those playboy sleuth Travis McGee would brood over in John D. McDonald’s novels – she met Danny in a restaurant bar one evening. “He was clever and funny and charming,” she smiles, still smitten at the memory. “And it was love at first sight. Danny saw himself as my Pygmalion. When I met him that night I was wearing jeans and suspenders; I was just beachy cute.” She squeals and holds up another bleached photo: “I still have the spandex pants he bought me!”
Another Kodak is fished from the pile, this one of an ornate cream-colored luxury car – “There’s my Gucci Cadillac!” she yells, flapping the photo around. “It was a present from him when I moved to Florida. It was from Bramon’s Cadillac in Miami and it was supposedly the first one ever made. Look at the inside. Gucci everywhere. The big “G” and the stripe. It came with a set of luggage and listed for about $22,000 back in 1978. I sold this car to my friend in Laguna, and then she sold it to some older lady there, so it might still be around. That would be funny.”
Cissie is shy of last names and resists using proper nouns like “Medellín” or “Pablo Escobar” in tape-recorded conversation, as well as being wary of causing “Danny’s” family grief. Her stories root her securely in the fattest part of the Florida cocaine boom of the late ’70s, as use of the powder began to spread out of show-biz and the demimonde and into the parties and bedrooms of the American middle classes. The Medellín cartel had already begun shooting cops within Colombia itself (including the 1976 murder of two agents who’d arrested cartel overlord Pablo Escobar) to anchor its base of operations, recruiting Colombians within the United States to wrest control of distribution from Cuban gangs dominating the trade. Danny, born in 1949 in Colombia and living in New York from 1968, waited tables and sold cars before turning a considerable talent as hustler to fueling the ever-bigger, ever-wilder party America was throwing in the late Vietnam years. He also saw something of himself in his new lover. “It was natural talent I had,” Cissie says bluntly. “You have to have some ability already, but he taught me. When we met, it was like looking in a mirror, spiritually, and we were soul mates.” She decided to stay in Florida.
“I married a friend of Danny’s brother and they paid me $7,000 to marry this guy, and I couldn’t turn it down,” she cackles. “We shook hands, had lunch and that was it. It was to get the guy his papers and I got paid to do this. This was ’78 and that was my first li’l ole job. I got paid to do this. Before that, it was tests, y’ know, like he was testing my loyalty. He’d come over to my place with his friends and cut up a whole bunch of cocaine in my living room, leaving me the mess to clean up. Little tests, which I passed.
“Eventually, I got him to front me one kilo and I was in business for myself.” The trips to California started soon after, with Cissie in friendly competition with Waldo, Danny’s other guy on the West Coast. Of course, there was little room for the wife in all this and Danny’s marriage ended when his wife found out about Cissie. “This was a coupla years after we met,” she remembers with rueful humor. “Raphael, one of Danny’s brothers, had a sister who was a snake, and she told her about me and the bitch keyed my Porsche. I was blonde and they were all dark, and I was hated by some for that. I saw what she done to my car, and she and I raced our Porsches down PCH, and I had a .38, the kind with no trigger that you have to cock, and I emptied it into her car. Then we had a ‘peace meeting’ – Danny, her and I – and she lifted up the table and threw me against a mirror, so obviously there was gonna be no peace. I don’t know how he thought he could arrange that. And the sister was arranging the whole thing just so she could fuck him!” she snorts, still marveling at the amount of duplicity in the world.
I ask an obvious question, and Cissie answers. “This was a real job,” Cissie insists – the topic is a comparison to Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Scarface. “I wasn’t anything like her. She did coke through the whole movie and never left the house. You didn’t see her crawling on her hands and knees through the Colombian jungle.”
“You did what?” I must look incredulous, because she adds sheepishly, “I had to get under a fence once, and we couldn’t get in otherwise. Little Miss Drama Queen overdramatizing everything.”
“These things happen to us all,” I muse. “What’s a little B&E among friends?”
“There was no moment when I said ‘yes’ to the life, because I was manipulating Danny toward letting me work anyway,” Cissie says, circling back to a prior subject, as we’ve done several times. “When he finally did, God, every fiber in my body was tingling because I’d led him that way, passed every test he gave me. I had family, finally. I came from a divorced family who pulled me this way and that in court, and I divided weeks between them. I was 11, and they tried to get me to make life-altering decisions. That kind of shit fucks you up. They were such a family and the men kissed each other! There was nothing like that in Michigan. I felt like I belonged, plus I was with little Mister Kingpin. He was a ‘favorite son’ in the organization. Then my own tree began to have people under it.”
Cissie talks in spurts again. “My mother loved it because I gave her money,” she says. “We had a party when I paid off her mortgage and I bought her a 7-Eleven franchise two blocks from her house. I took her to Saipan and in Honolulu on the way there I gave her $5,000 just for herself. She left her purse and somebody swiped the five grand. Boy, was I pissed and I wasn’t a pleasant girl back then. My mouth and tongue were really sharp. I must’ve said something bad to her and she cried, so I gave her another $5,000. Because I felt guilty.”
Cissie found L.A. a wide open and inexhaustible market for cocaine – “It retailed for up to $100 a gram in those days,” she recalls. “I could get $65,000 a kilo in L.A. You couldn’t get that kind of money for it in New York. You could buy it for $20 in Florida, but it was if we paid up front $8,000.” Soon, she was moving scores of kilos from her home base in Boca Raton, with drivers making relays from south Florida to L.A. “Wholesale, I only had five buyers I’d meet in L.A. They took about 15 keys each and they were all just your basic, normal white guys. One was a farmer up north and another was a guy who dealt in antique cars. Another was an older gentleman in Laguna and another a middle-aged surfer boy at Huntington. People no one would ever expect, like the Kevin Nealon guy in the show “Weeds.” None of them were hoods, all of them were normal in every way. We’d go to each other’s houses, visit each other’s children.”
Most of her crew were girlfriends. “A couple of them actually started off as housekeepers I got through Danny, and we became friends,” says Cissie. “The one who threw the kilo in my Jacuzzi came from my hometown. She was the girlfriend of Pio, one of my drivers, and she was over at my Costa Mesa house doing too much coke and thought she saw a murder up the street. She called my mother, and I heard about it and came over there, and found out she cut open a kilo and dumped it. At that time, they were worth $50,000. I found that out because the pool guy tested it. So she left after that. One time, I took 10 girls to Haiti on vacation, and there was a lot of jealousy – everybody was getting drunk and getting high. Drama becomes way excessive and vicious. The girl I paid to stay and watch the drugs robbed me three months later. Then Waldo, the guy who disappeared and they never found his body, well, his worker guy and my worker chick hooked up and burned me.”
What happened to Waldo? “Yeah, well, I found 21 kilos in his house. He was the one I originally held the kilos for myself when I first went into business out here. We were friends and competed who could sell the most after Danny set me up. His wife was a chick named Lynn [Armandt], who was the other woman in the Donna Rice scandal with Gary Hart. She was on the Monkey Business with Donna and told her story to Barbara Walters [and sold to the National Enquirer for $25,000 the infamous picture with the luckless senator’s arm around Ms. Rice]. She was married to Waldo to get his papers, but they practically lived together, and she really loved him, and she disappeared, and she came out here and she was the only one who knew the safe combination. And Danny and Mario and Eddie and the rest of ’em came out to Vegas about it, and they wanted to know what was going on, since there was 26 kilos involved. 72 hours passed before Lynn and I got to the safe, and found 21 keys in there and he’d taken five.
“Lynn was friends already with the girls in Florida and all these Pittsburgh ladies who were my girlfriends, like normal chicks,” she adds. “These I took into the business. Another family extension. Lynn later went on Barbara Walters. She was pretty hot. She had a bathing suit place at Turnberry, which was a hub for drugs. I used to see James Caan there all the time. Like that’s a big surprise!”
Of course, getting the product from Colombia was often trying. “Sometimes we’d use an oil tanker for bigger shipments,” Cissie narrates, her voice picking up speed and comic outrage. “It would stay in international waters in the Bahamas and the cigarette boats would go get it off the tanker. There were two captains on that ship – one of them an ex-general in Batista’s army and the other guy was some fishing boat captain from Key West and there was one motherfucking compass on the whole ship and it broke! They were out there six days and ran out of water and food, a 250,000 gallon tanker with 40,000 pounds of weed and about 1500 kilos of coke. Where the fuck are they? We found them off a Bahamian island, on their way from Barranquilla. We lost them for six days and didn’t get far. That was how dumb they all were. This kind of thing could happen 25 years ago. It was like being in another world.”
When in town, Cissie stayed in Beverly Hills. “The place on Roxbury was called the ‘butterfly’ apartment because of the butterfly wallpaper that was made of cloth,” she says, still a little bemused by her fortunes.
“I rented it for the parking space below it, which was where I parked my car with the hidden compartment that held 20 keys. I only had a few coke parties with friends there because the worst place in the world to do business would be Beverly Hills – nosy old neighbors. I could sleep there before driving back to Orange County. I also bought a condo on Thayer I lived in about a week. I also lived in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach and a condo in Palm Springs I went to all of once, because I’m an idiot. I thought it was a trendy thing to buy!” She whoops with laughter. “It’s only money and now it’s all gone anyway! I loved Newport and Laguna and operated a lot out of there.”
This brought her a predictable level of social access. “It got me anywhere I wanted to go. I sold coke to everybody, record moguls, showbiz people, you name it. Whoever I hung out with. I was making a killing and laughing about it. I retailed only to record execs and movie stars. Of course, the very fact I was their coke dealer kept me from being introduced around. It was a case of too much information and I knew their secrets. I think that screwed some things up for me. I had some fabulous affairs with a few powerful men.” She speaks flatly: “That was fun.”
Back in Florida, she kept a house around the corner from Danny at the Boca Bath and Tennis club, and the ’80s were nearly half gone before Cissie began to think of getting out of the life. The death toll among her Columbian associates was beginning to climb, eventually to reach what she says was 80 percent. “Most of this happened in Colombia,” she recollects, and most were dead from a combination of boredom and simple machismo. “They’d rip each other off,” she remembers with cynical wonder. “Say you gave ’em $500,000 up front and say you can get the coke $4,000 a kilo. By the time it gets delivered, it’s up to eight. So you give ’em the half million and they’d have all kinds of coke, you know, try this and try that, but the stuff you paid ’em for isn’t here yet. That kind of stupid shit. Somebody’d say it was lost or stolen and people would get pissed. And they got killed because it all went to their head. They were invincible and could do anything. It was a game of whose penis is bigger and who can piss farthest. The paradox was you gotta have that kind of attitude or you wouldn’t be in this game in the first place.”
“In the Scorsese movies,” I interrupt, “one sees that attitude – the emotional problems of a tight-knit bunch of morons playing with guns and money. It was inherent in the business that people make ruinous mistakes and die.”
“Exactly! That’s it!” Cissie shouts. “The whole thing just imploded. There was enough for everybody, but they all wanted just a little bit more. The risk has to equal the reward and where’s the reward in that? They were risking ripping off somebody when they already have all the money they could ever spend in their lives. For what? The thrill of fucking somebody over.”
“Since machismo holds no charm,” I put in, “What was your payoff?
She is simple and blunt – “Money,” she sparkles, wriggling happily and grinning. “The smell of it. Oh, my god! I got to be a big shot! That one Billy Joel song is about me. It’s a powerful feeling and unbelievable. Especially at that age.”
The Last Days of Disco
By 1984, Cissie, worth $10 million a year to the Medellín cartel, had all the cash she ever thought she’d need and was looking to get out. She’d also caught Danny in one affair too many. “Oh, there was a breakup,” she snarls softly, “when I caught him in bed with a chick. It was I don’t-know-how-many times before that, but this was the last straw.” That was also the year she took her one and only bust.
“I was driving the last of some office stuff back to Boca Raton from Corona del Mar for a something I was going to open up,” she begins, gathering up an earlier conversational thread about a jackleg movie producer who eventually took her for half a million dollars. “Pio was driving a U-Haul truck and I had my big silver Impala that held 75 kilos, but was empty. We were entering the freeway at Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Pio got us pulled over for failure to signal long enough. I was like what-the-fuck?, and out steps the cop in his SWAT jumpsuit. They basically profiled Pio, because he had long hair and a mustache. I don’t know how they had the right but basically they searched everything down at the station and I had two ounces of weed they never even took because they were convinced they had Ma Barker after they took the car apart with an air-jack hammer and found the hidden compartments, and the safe from the office had $150,000 in cash, a .357 magnum and my vibrator. I got mouthy with them and I knew there was nothing there, and then they found a dirty coke grinder that was field-tested at 84% pure, which put it up into another category, and they decided to charge me with second-degree felony trafficking.
“They took the money and the IRS took half of it. I got a letter from them saying don’t try to take it back,” she relates, still incredulous. “Tucumcari took the other half, but they didn’t have shit except my money, so I never saw it again. I got booked, spent the night in jail, but we were never arraigned and it was dropped. The lawyer cost me $50,000. We saw a thing on 60 Minutes called ‘Cocaine Corridor’ soon after that that Tucumcari police had netted $500,000 in six months along the 10. The jail even had a color TV because the Colombians had bought it and left it for the prisoners!
“If my car had been full of cocaine we would not be having this discussion,” Cissie says flatly. “The fact that it happened after I decided to retire was enough to convince me to stay retired. My life would’ve been over if $2 million of cocaine was in that. I’d never see the light of day, plus I’d owe the Colombians. Thank God I didn’t hand over my passport because it had like a thousand stamps to Colombia on it!”
“Why did you leave all that?” I ask, knowing the answer already. “I hadn’t slept in five years,” Cissie marvels. “Zoom, fly, back-and-forth. Dollars, powder, green duffel bags full of shit. You lived it, you breathed it.”
“Yeah, but did you get to keep any of it?”
“Close to a million in cash,” she shoots back, “but I tried to save everything. I shoulda cut my losses and I mighta still had all that. Money went out and none came in. Eventually, I wound up sitting here. I didn’t manage it well at all. It was all gone by about ’90. The party was over. I went to New York, I came back here. I tried to live a normal life as a waitress, then I wanted to act. Neither worked out, but luckily I was still able to write songs. That’s how I kept going and I’m lucky enough to be paid for that. The ending of the story isn’t so good, because I go back to a normal life.”
By 1990, the money was gone, except for odds and ends like the brown paper bag crammed with $14,000 a maid found in a washing machine. “I pulled $100,000 out of a bank in Saipan and the bank collapsed,” she laughs. “I became a legend, apparently, because I took down a corrupt bank. Meanwhile, I’d lost a shitload of money! Again! Because it went into receivership, I kept getting small checks. That dribbled out a few years. I had houses, condos, shit like that to sell. The money I lost in Tucumcari was like a domino effect. I didn’t have Dean Witter or Merrill Lynch telling me to do anything, and if I did, I would’ve said, ‘Who are you to tell me anything?’”
Danny died in a shootout in Columbia in April 1991. “I hadn’t spoken to him in six months, but we were on friendly terms,” Cissie remembers, looking distant, “He had over 30 bullet holes in him. I went over to girls after that. Danny was a tough act for any man to follow.”
Looking around at Cissie’s apartment, stuffed with colorful Caribbean art and yowling with dogs and cats she’s rescued, I think of her man Danny’s long run in a difficult game, her own brisk and efficient sense of self-preservation and mumble an idle remark about her being too pragmatic to feel much survivor guilt.
“No!” she giggles, for a moment a teenager again. “I have guilt over out-surviving the money!”