Colombians arrested in huge cocaine bust
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
ST. PETERSBURG -- A Coast Guard cutter returned to its home port in St. Petersburg on Tuesday carrying 41 bales of cocaine and four Colombian sailors accused of drug smuggling.
The Pea Island, one of three 110-foot Coast Guard cutters based in St. Petersburg, unloaded nearly 3,000 pounds of cocaine that smugglers had been trying to bring to American shores, authorities said.
"There's no question that it was headed to the United States, either directly or indirectly," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Rob Suddarth.
The cocaine was seized Friday by the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk, based out of Key West. It intercepted a smuggling boat 200 miles north of Barranquilla, Colombia.
The Mohawk sent its helicopter and a small inflatable boat to chase the smugglers' 35-foot "go-fast boat," Suddarth said. The inflatable boat's crew fired warning shots, but the suspected smugglers kept trying to escape, so a Coast Guard sharpshooter disabled their boat's engine with an M-16 rifle.
About 10 rounds hit the engine, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Paul Rhynard, who called it "an example of excellent marksmanship."
Four Colombian sailors were arrested. The Mohawk's crew transferred the cocaine and the four smuggling suspects to a U.S. Navy vessel, which brought them to a rendezvous point in the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa Bay and transferred them to the Pea Island.
At the Coast Guard base in downtown St. Petersburg, crew members loaded nearly 11/2 tons of cocaine onto a truck Tuesday morning, placing the drugs into the custody of the U.S. Customs Service.
The four Colombians were indicted on drug smuggling charges Tuesday in Tampa in connection with Operation Panama Express, a continuing investigation in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean that has resulted in the confiscation of more than 123 tons of cocaine and about 190 arrests, according to the U.S Attorney's Office in Tampa.
The four Colombians -- Winford Taylor-Walton, 32; Avelino Hodgson, 28; Rodolfo Gordon, 54; and Jorge Brockman, 32 -- face charges of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine.
The amount of cocaine seized Friday is far from a record but is still a significant amount, Suddarth said.
Commissioned in 1992, the Pea Island came to St. Petersburg in August 2000. Its tasks include combatting illegal drugs, illegal immigration and illegal fishing, as well as search-and-rescue missions in the gulf.
-- Staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report.
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