The odds were against a Ukrainian ship captain and his crew who spoke little English.
'Only in America'
The odds were against a Ukrainian ship captain and his crew who spoke little English.
By Janet Leiser and Jill Yelverton
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 prosecutorsi 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 1/2 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 Venezeula.
If Chakhrach refused, he was told he and his family would face death.
After the 3 1/2 tons of cocaine o worth as much as $1 billion on the street o were stowed in a hidden compartment, the Yalta headed east-northeast. 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 shipis lone Colombian, Daniel Effren Marquez-Silva o who the captain says gave him the call with directions to pick up the drugs o 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 Stetsonis college of law, became a key player. He was appointed to represent Chakhrach. Through an interpreter, Brunvand learned the captainis story.
iHe was told ecooperate or die.i He didnit think he had a choice,i the lawyer says. iHe feared for loss of his family and his life.
iHe didnit know it was cocaine but he certainly suspected it wasnit legitimate,i he adds. iIt 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.i
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.
iIt was like going back in time,i he says of the two-hour flight aboard a prop plane. iThe wheels looked like they were about to explode, and they had no treads on them whatsoever.i
Tampa attorney Frederick Wiley Vollrath, who represented Yalta crewmember Gennadiy Volkhonsky, had flown to the Ukraine prior to Brunvand.
iJerry Theophilopoulos couldnit go because his wife had a baby,i Brunvand says. iPat Doherty didnit want to go because he didnit want to fly in the Ukraine, which I understood when I got on the plane. It was pretty scary.i
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 Seafareris Center took Brunvand to Yalta, the city made famous by the Yalta Conference where Churchill, Stalin and President Roosevelt decided Europeis reorganization following World War II.
Brunvand also visited one of the former Soviet Unionis 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 captainis colleagues, family and friends. He recorded depositions with a video camera.
Marina Chakhrach, Yuriis spouse of 36 years, made dinner in the familyis sparse one-bedroom apartment for Brunvand and other guests. An elderly aunt lives with the couple.
iSevastopol is very poor,i the attorney says. iEveryone 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 to the apartments.i
The Chakhrachis 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 i70s.
iHe spoke very highly of my client other than he had a drinking problem,i Brunvand says. iThey all said he drank too much. That was part of my defense. The government o I donit know if they realized it until the end of the trial.i
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 wasnit aware of the planned drug smuggling when he boarded the ship in Panama.
iWhy would they clue him in?i Brunvand asks.
iThey brought on $40,000 cash on the day they were leaving Panama, and said, eDonit give it to the captain. He canit be trusted. Heis a drunk,i i he says. iWell, if you canit trust the captain with $40,000 because heis a drunk, are you going to trust him to tell him weire getting ready to do this massive drug deal? I donit think so.i
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: iMy guy laughed and said, eI wasnit scared of him. I was scared of whatis behind him.i They had his name and addresss, his wifeis name and address, his childrenis name and address.i
On the Sunday prior to trial, Brunvand visited Chakhrach at the Orient Road jail in Tampa.
iKnowing he was the captain, knowing he was on the ship with 3 1/2 tons of cocaine, he knew there was a very good chance he wasnit going to be found not guilty,i Brunvand says. iI told him I donit 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 couldnit do that because part of that is saying he knew it was cocaine prior to leaving Panama, and he couldnit do that. He couldnit say that.i
The captain had to gamble.
iWe had joked about later meeting up in the Ukraine and having a vodka together,i Brunvand says. iAnd he looked at me and said, eIim never seeing my family again.i I said, eDonit give up hope. I just have to tell you both sides of it. Weire still fighting. But if you lose youire going to spend the rest of your life in prison.i i
Following testimony, jurors deliberated two or three days. They easily reached a verdict on 14 of the 16 defendants.
iI 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,i Brunvand says. Arunas, an electrician spoke more Spanish than the others and is the only one that communicated directly with Marquez-Silva.
iMy motto,i Brunvand says, iis if I canit convince myself of what Iim trying to convince the jury of itis not going to happen. In this case, it wasnit 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.i
Jurors argued over two of the 16 and then reached a verdict on the 15th defendant. It deadlocked on the last one.
iYou have no control over whatis going to happen,i Brunvand says. iThen they start announcing the verdicts and they skip over my client. And Iim thinking, eOh God. ... theyire hung on my client.i i
Brunvand, it turns out, was right to believe in his client. Jurors were hung on Arunas, whois scheduled for a retrial next month.
The jury acquitted the captain and 14 crewmembers.
iI thought he was going to pass out,i the lawyer says. iHe was so happy. I was so happy. It was a great moment. It was against all odds. If I told you Iim representing a captain of a boat that took on 3 1/2 tons of cocaine, and he admitted he ordered the crew to take the cargo on, youire going to tell me Iim a fool if I think I can win that case. Itis a wonderful system. Only in America.i
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 Chakhrachis defense, including the 10 days in the Ukraine. He submitted a $71,000 bill for 770 hours at $90 an hour. Judge Moody OKid $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, heid have received about $250,000 to $500,000 for his work.
Not that he regrets his role.
iWeire supposed to do things not only for lucre,i he says. iWeire supposed to do it because itis the right thing to do. Without doing that, the system wouldnit function.i
He contends little was accomplished with the crewis arrest.
iI think their (government) intentions are good in the war on drugs,i he says. iTheyire trying to stop drugs from coming into our country and even Europe. I think the problem is o this is what I said during the trial and after the trial o in this case these guys became victims of both the cartel and the government. And we really havenit 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 itis in Colombia, Panama or Europe, have been caught.
iAnd 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,i he adds. iThey donit know the people who own the drugs. They couldnit point the finger if they wanted to, and those are the people we have. Now supposedly theyire starting to get a few of the big fish. But I donit think theyire anywhere near the people that control everything.i
In the past decade, Brunvand has represented more than 50 defendants accused of drug smuggling in federal court.
iMost have pleaded guilty,i he says. iTheyire on the boat and thereis cocaine on it. Theyire throwing bales overboard. The normal sentence for someone whois not a captain and is just on the boat is 11 years and three months. You have the option of going to trial, but youill end up with 20 to 30 years in prison if you lose. The question is: eDo you want to take that gamble?i Youire a foreigner and youire in a country where you donit speak the language. Itis a tough call. Most people say Iim not going to take that chance.i
Does Brunvand feel like the hero Chakhrach has called him?
iYeah,i he says hesitantly. iI donit know that Iim ever going to have a case quite like this again. I have a lot of serious cases. Iive had many victories, many great victories. But this one was special.
iI believed in my client all along, but no one else did,i he adds. iI told prosecutors I was going to win this case, and they laughed at me.i