The bullet-riddled corpse, lying face-up on a street in Medellin in March 1996, was that of a large man with a big, bovine head and scraggly beard.
As the Colombian president took to the airwaves to brag of the killing of his nation’s most wanted man, in New York, a skeptical group of American law enforcement agents scrambled to verify the news.
They had spent nearly two decades investigating the master criminal. When they matched fingerprints on file to those of the body in Colombia, there was no denying it: Don Chepe was dead.
Real name José Santacruz Londoño, he was one of the four chiefs of the Cali Cartel, the multibillion-dollar cocaine syndicate that fueled an American epidemic of addiction. The task force of New York-based cops had pursued him since the late-1970s, earning them the nickname “Chepe Chasers.”
They had missed anniversaries and kids’ birthdays for stakeouts and car chases, risked taking bullets during raids on stash houses, seized and decoded financial ledgers, and traced billions laundered around the globe. They had rolled up key cartel operatives and hidden them under government protection with the hope that they would testify in a blockbuster trial of their former boss.
And then, with Santacruz finally on the ropes, he had the nerve to die.
But in the months to follow, a wild legal proposition formed – a Hail Mary to put Santacruz on trial despite being deceased. It was perhaps the boldest, most ostentatious and fabulous back door in the history of federal drug prosecutions.
They would indict the cocaine kingpin’s interior designers.
On an early Wednesday morning in San Francisco, a year after Santacruz’s death, Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia were awakened by a ringing phone, indicating somebody was at their front gate.
Frank went to check on it, while Alexander continued to laze in 1,200-count Egyptian cotton sheets under windows overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
When Frank didn’t return, Alexander grew impatient. He left their custom-designed Art Deco-style bed and padded downstairs, wearing only a boutique-purchased robe. He passed a vintage Biedermeier Secretary desk with the value of a new Mercedes, a Picasso etching, floors heaped with Persian rugs, chairs upholstered in mohair, and raw linen couches filled with so much down “they felt like sitting on a cloud,” as Alexander later wistfully recalled.
He reached the kitchen and felt an object being placed against his head as a voice yelled at him to freeze and put his hands behind his back. Alexander realized that the object was a gun.
Chapter 1: Miami designers arrested for allegedly helping drug lord
Designers Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia were arrested on June 18, 1997, on charges of laundering millions in Colombian drug money.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
With federal agents gripping him by his arms at the home’s front gate, Frank had a view of the law enforcement spectacle that had descended on the normally staid, exclusive neighborhood of Sea Cliff.
“Villa Vecchia,” as he and Alexander had dubbed their Spanish-Mediterranean-style mansion, was a few doors down from comedian Robin Williams’s house. Now it was under siege by a half dozen heavily armed drug agents backed up by roughly 30 more law enforcement officials whose vests showed off an alphabet soup of government force: DEA, IRS, SFPD.
Federal officials dragged Frank back to a den inside and seated him at a table. A Brooklyn native, Frank observed that these guys had thicker New York accents than his own. He later learned that they had flown across the country to wrest control of a case that federal prosecutors in California had rejected as a sure loser in court.
One of his interrogators was an obsessive New York City detective turned DEA analyst who Frank would learn was the central reason his and Alexander’s retirement plans had just been shattered. The analyst thrust at him a 29-page indictment and laid out Frank’s two options.
Frank could save himself by confessing everything and testifying against Alexander, his lover and business partner of 15-plus years. Or, the analyst explained in a cheery Staten Island brogue, Frank could die in prison.
Before his death, José Santacruz’s payroll included some of the most violent and sophisticated criminals on the planet, from killers who used battery acid and plastic bags to torture and dispatch enemies, to Ivy League-educated attorneys who laundered billions through global shell holdings and shadow accounts.
Alexander and Frank were two of his closest and longest-tenured employees, but their skills were of a completely different – and one might think legal – variety. Their work for Santacruz, even in the acknowledgment of the American government, amounted to the application of tasteful high design.
Federal prosecutors would allege, however, that by agreeing to decorate roughly two dozen of Santacruz’s properties – including a “postmodern hacienda” and an apocalypse-ready compound as the kingpin’s pursuers closed in on him – the designers had transformed his American cocaine profits into objects of value in Colombia.
It was money laundering, they argued, and an essential cog in the operations of a cartel that the head of the DEA had called “the most well-organized and well-financed crime organization in history.”
Now, through the use of federal organized crime statutes, blame and punishment for the cartel’s reign was aimed at two men who knew nothing about drug trafficking but lots about which Italian quarries produced the finest granite to top a kitchen counter.
For Mark W. Lerner, then a prosecutor in New York’s Eastern District, building the case against the interior designers was important enough to override his federal colleagues’ determination that the case was unwinnable, and to recruit hardened cartel operatives – including a confessed contract killer – to testify against two defendants whose previous criminal history was a speeding ticket.
In a recent interview, Lerner called the case a “warning shot” to the business community that even if their services were legitimate, they could be prosecuted for having drug traffickers as clients.
“Nobody was saying that the decorators pointed knives and guns and pulled triggers and stuff,” said Lerner, now a partner at a New York law firm. “What we were saying was they were the bagmen for this organization.”
Jason Solotaroff, then one of the designers’ attorneys, regards the Clinton-era case as not only the “high-water mark” of the frenzy of the American drug war, but also indicative of an era when a gay couple could more easily be made test subjects in a prosecution he calls unprecedented in its aggressiveness.
“There was something a little ‘less than,’ a little unequal, in how they were treated,” Solotaroff said. “The prosecution itself was just such an overreach. Even worse than the idea of prosecuting them was how badly they were overcharged.”
The law enforcement officials involved in their prosecution deny that sexual orientation played any role. They also deny that the millions of dollars worth of assets seized from the designers were a motivating factor in the decision to go after them, though government-hired appraisers streamed through their home following the raid to put stickers on pricey art and furniture.
But the officials openly acknowledge that prosecuting the designers served as a consolation prize following the disappointment of Santacruz’s death.
Robert Michaelis, a since-retired DEA agent who was a member of the Chepe Chasers, said in a recent interview that by prosecuting the slain kingpin’s interior designers, “we, in a way, got to put (Santacruz) on trial.”
For Alexander and Frank, who were 56 and 49 respectively at the time of their arrest, their role as stand-ins for one of the most prolific criminals in history capped a saga, never before told in full, of employment for Santacruz that had spiraled into a cocaine-coated melodrama featuring $2,400 bejeweled forks and the dawning realization that their boss was a homicidal sociopath.
Design fees were paid with $1 million in cash stuffed in a Gucci bag. The slaying of a mistress led to them being assigned the biggest job of their careers. And an unlikely bond was forged between a gay interior designer from Wisconsin and a South American crime boss’s wife, who found in him an escape from her gilded cell of an existence.
Call it “Scarface” meets “The Birdcage,” but it was serious business for authorities probing the limits of relatively new money laundering statutes.
United States v. Blarek lives on in the courts, cited as a precedent in such high-profile cases as the recent conviction of former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption and money laundering charges. Though legitimate businesspeople before and since have been prosecuted for financial dealings with criminals – among them a Brooklyn watch dealer sent to prison for money laundering last year for selling Swiss timepieces to Mexican drug traffickers – the scale of the criminal empire for which Alexander and Frank were implicated is unmatched.
The designers call themselves the “low-hanging fruit” of the drug war. Because glory-obsessed cops couldn’t snare their real target, said Alexander, “they went for the decorators who were queer and considered weaker. We were like collateral damage in the War on Drugs, which we know is a farce.”
The cops and prosecutors considered the case a test of their power to squelch the financial reach of major drug traffickers. But to Alexander and Frank, it was a test of their love.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1979, Alexander was bouncing along a country road outside the city of Cali in Colombia when he spotted a perfect specimen of contemporary architecture. (“Very Mies Van Der Rohe,” Alexander said, referring to the godfather of minimalism.) He ordered the chauffeur of his friend’s Chrysler to pull over so he could investigate the huge, under-construction home.
Alexander said it was pure chance that brought him to Los Caños Gordos, the upscale neighborhood named for plump sugar canes once harvested there. Alexander was the product of what he described as repressive cow-milking territory outside of Milwaukee. He was the son of an outdoorsman who tried to take him fishing as a child, only to be embarrassed when Alexander was more interested in plucking water lilies for a vase.
By age 11, Alexander was critiquing the chair purchases of his mother’s friends and decided it was his calling to “make houses nice.” He studied architectural interior design at Marquette and University of Denver but got bored with theoretical projects, left school and in 1973 became an associate at a Miami design firm.
Alexander said that even in the late 1970s, “being gay never occurred” to him. He was in a dalliance with a German-born decorator named Eva, and he accompanied her to visit relatives in Colombia. It was after a day spent at a nearby country club that he saw the house.
He recounted to the guard outside his credentials as an American interior designer. The house’s owners were on site, and the guard announced the couple who had agreed to receive him: Señor y Signora José Santacruz.
The pair, in their mid-thirties, had an air of casual class to them. Amparo was stylishly adorned in a silk dress and wore a diamond tennis bracelet and Rolex. José spoke softly and slowly, with a limp handshake that seemed paradoxically to convey confidence.
The Santacruzes gave him a tour of the home-in-progress, which sat on 14 acres. They complained that their interior designer had absconded with their retainer. Seeing his opportunity, Alexander offered his own services.
He already had a client roster of Floridian luminaries. The founders of Ryder trucks and Royal Castle hamburgers were in his Rolodex. So was the guy who patented the technology behind photo finishes at athletic races.
A filthy rich South American was undeniably sexier.
Chapter 2: Meeting the dream client who happens to be a drug lord
Inside a magnificent Colombian home, Alexander Blarek met his dream client without knowing that he was also a cocaine kingpin.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Such clients strolled Miami’s design district with decorators in tow, carrying bags of cash. Alexander once witnessed a designer with a Colombian client accidentally leave behind a briefcase stuffed with nearly half a million dollars.
The source of at least part of that wealth was no secret to Alexander. He had seen vials of the newly chic drug cocaine being passed around at Miami parties like hors d’oeuvres.
But Alexander said he refused to profile every rich Colombian as a trafficker and had no reason to disbelieve Santacruz’s claim that his trade was construction, among other legal industries. “I didn’t even know there was a Cali Cartel,” Alexander said.
Alexander spent the rest of his trip negotiating terms with the Santacruzes. He agreed to finish the home in just over a year, in time for their oldest daughter’s quinceañera, or 15th birthday bash.
The budget was half a million dollars, plus Alexander’s $135,000 cut. He flew home with a $25,000 retainer check signed by José Santacruz and described the adventure in his personal diary.
“Made the Colombia connection, Santacruz,” Alexander wrote. “House is fantastico!”
At an Italian linens boutique in Manhattan, Alexander and Amparo Santacruz, Don Chepe’s wife, dropped $48,000 on bed sheets monogrammed with an “S” for the family name.
New York City detective Kenneth Robinson, who made less than that in a year, was in his Midtown cubicle a crosstown bus ride away, trying to figure out who was flooding the outer boroughs with seemingly endless amounts of cocaine.
Robinson was square-chinned, with neatly-parted salt-and-pepper hair and a devotion to his work that verged on unhealthy. He was a member of a newly formed, multi-agency cocaine task force, earning him ridicule from colleagues who derided the narcotic as a “kiddie drug” compared to heroin.
Alexander’s claim that he didn’t know about the Cali Cartel was undoubtedly true because at that point, even Robinson – one of the few American law enforcement agents on its trail – didn’t have a name for it either.
All he knew was that while his colleagues were distracted by the fire-bombing, machine-gunning tantrums of Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin Cartel, traffickers from a Colombian city to the south appeared to have quietly made Jackson Heights, Queens their central hub for the American distribution of tons of cocaine.
“Nobody really realized that there was a more sophisticated group working in Cali,” Robinson said in a recent interview.
He learned that in their efforts to thwart pursuers in law enforcement, the Cali traffickers maintained fleets of identical vehicles with similar plate numbers, listened to radios tuned to law enforcement frequencies and were early adopters of beepers and cell phones.
“Radio Shack was one of their favorite places,” Robinson said.
Robinson’s task force ultimately included Michaelis, a fresh-out-of-the-academy DEA agent, and Jerry McArdle, a state trooper whose prior drug experience was limited to uncovering stashes hidden in the cars of people he pulled over.
Robinson was the group silverback, calling the shots even after his pursuit of the Cali traffickers outlasted his NYPD career. The Monday after he retired from the force, he was back at work as a civilian DEA analyst doing virtually the same job.
By his own account, Robinson got in screaming matches with prosecutors and defense attorneys, bent rules when it suited his investigations and was so invested in the work that his superiors assigned him a psychologist after suffering panic attacks on the job.
Robinson struggled at first to uncover the identity of the figure behind the Cali group’s New York operations. He followed unpaid parking tickets to areas where his targets may have lived, scaled a fence at night to read a parked car’s vehicle identification number – “which was against the law, by the way,” he said – and paid a wedding photographer for prints from a cartel ceremony in Queens.
He ultimately obtained a mug shot of a man who seemed to be involved in every layer of the organization: Victor Crespo.
For years, Robinson and his colleagues thought that was the name of their quarry, as evidenced by a 1981 New York Times article describing him as a Keyzer Söze-like figure. “The search for Victor Crespo continues,” the article stated.
Robinson’s group later learned that Crespo was only one of many aliases for a chameleonic Cali businessman named José Santacruz Londoño.
As he closed in on the upper ranks of the Cali group, Robinson set up a pen register – a device that tracks numbers dialed on a target’s phone – on one of Santacruz’s top lieutenants, Freddie Aguilera.
Aguilera was a sophisticated smuggler whose work for Santacruz included overseeing labs along America’s Eastern Seaboard that processed more than $150 million worth of cocaine weekly.
Robinson studied the results from the pen register on Aguilera’s phone, using index cards to connect the numbers to known Cali bad guys, men with nicknames like “The Jaw,” “Big Head” and “Khadafy.”
But one Miami-area phone number left him stumped.
Why was a top international drug smuggler placing calls to an interior designer?
To Alexander, the target of Robinson’s surveillance was just “Freddie,” a friendly, well-dressed young gentleman who spoke impeccable English while delivering to him a briefcase containing $100,000.
That payment towards Alexander’s fee was his first dip into Santacruz’s seemingly bottomless cash reserves. It was payment for his plans to transform the home in Los Caños Gordos into a lush oasis featuring a multi-story waterfall cascading into a shallow reservoir so that “you felt like you were dining by a pond,” as Alexander put it.
But it seemed he might never lay eyes upon his Colombian designs. He shipped the furniture and fixtures to Cali with the expectation that he would collect his final $10,000, before overseeing the installation in person. But the Santacruzes suddenly went silent, leaving him to wonder if they were dissatisfied.
He said he later heard that the daughter’s quinceañera went on without him, attended by top Colombian politicians and celebrities and serenaded by crooner Julio Iglesias. Alexander finagled photos of the finished house from a subcontractor and submitted them to Florida Designers Quarterly, a trade publication that put the project on its cover.
Headlined “Hilltop Oasis,” the article didn’t name the house’s owner but included a spread of Santacruz’s man cave emblazoned with lit neon reading, “Jose’s Bar.”
Alexander never received his final $10,000, but he didn’t mope for long. His other clients kept him busy. And besides, he was in love.
While working at an upscale lighting gallery, Frank Pellecchia couldn’t help but notice the customer who pulled up in a gleaming Mercedes convertible, in country club digs with a preppy flop of auburn hair over hazel eyes. Like Frank, he had a large, impressive mustache.
Frank snuck away to find the man’s file. He wanted to make sure that the customer was not a “five-percenter,” the derogatory term for a decorator only qualified to demand that cut of a project.
Instead, he learned, Alexander Blarek was not a decorator but an interior designer, the profession’s far snootier cousin. And he was a ranking member of the American Society of Interior Designers, the industry’s prestigious trade organization.
Alexander had noticed Frank too, with his olive-toned skin, perfect stature, air of debonair flirtatiousness – and his wedding ring, ruining it all.
Frank grew up in hard-knocks, Italian American Brooklyn. His youth, as he described it, was a gritty saga in which he engaged in a doomed romance with a mobster’s daughter while secretly eyeing the glistening men who drove the dump trucks owned by his abusive father.
But then Frank trained himself in drafting, moved to South Florida and adopted an obsessive grooming routine rendering him, he allowed, “rather gorgeous.”
Fearing that he was “going to get hit on by every decorator, designer and architect that has a loose eye – been there, done that,” Frank wore the wedding band to the lighting gallery and spread among his coworkers that he was married with kids.
But for Alexander, he said, “I decided to become available.”
The next time the designer shopped at the gallery, Frank volunteered to help him load his purchases. They bantered about Alexander’s car, the weather and how nice it would be to drive to Key West together.
“Let’s face it, it was flirting,” said Alexander, whose relationship with Eva had evaporated. After his and Frank’s first dinner date, they ended up wading through bug-infested weeds at a dilapidated island home Frank had his eye on. As Alexander calculated aloud how much it would cost to fix the place up, they were mutually impressed by each other’s real estate acumen.
“I was in love from minute one,” Frank said.
Chapter 3: Alexander and Frank meet, design a love story
Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia never could have imagined that a Colombian drug lord would become a part of their love story.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Frank moved in to Alexander’s modernist home, dubbed “Casa Solana.” Alexander made Frank the vice president of Blarek Designs, Inc. In their partnership, Alexander was the visionary and Frank the project manager who made sure genius was never marred by a misplaced light socket.
That hierarchy extended to their personal interactions as well. Alexander was prone to long-winded soliloquies on why Frank was too long-winded. Frank tolerated him with sarcasm and patient eye rolls.
A narcoleptic housekeeper rounded our their cadre. Patricia Dempsey, an acquaintance of Alexander’s from Wisconsin, served as their housekeeper and office manager in exchange for room, board and a small salary. She fought off constant sleepiness by popping Ritalin and complained about “Sour Puss,” as she called her mother who never threw her a birthday party as a child.
But with Alexander and Frank, birthdays, holidays and daily meals were shared as a “functioning family,” Alexander said, for three adults who otherwise had missed out on one.
For a year and a half after last hearing from Santacruz, Alexander rarely thought about the Colombians and the lost $10,000. But in July 1981, his phone rang, with Amparo Santacruz on the other line. She announced that they were in Miami and had “some very good news.”
Shortly thereafter, a Colombian entourage packed into the home office of Blarek Designs. It included Amparo, her mother, two daughters, a nanny and an American pilot who served as a de facto translator.
And then there was a chipper José Santacruz. Business was booming, and he had loads more work for them.
Grainy camcorder footage, of the sort Frank recorded during nearly every job, shows Alexander wielding a tape measure while deep in rumination. Measuring couches and windows, he’s meandering through a Cali penthouse office suite busy with secretaries who duck out of the way of Frank’s camera.
At the time of this filming, around 1982, the job is still in progress. But some of Alexander’s fine touches have already been installed: office furniture and an executive bar veneered with crotch mahogany and inlaid with the semiprecious stone tiger eye; rooms divided by a large aquarium stocked with Colombia’s rarest fish breeds; and carpet, wallpaper and drapery adorned with a subtle pattern that reveals itself to be the initials JSL, for José Santacruz Londoño.
Alexander and Frank have insisted they had no inkling at the time that in designing this tycoon’s lair overlooking the Andes, they were prettying up the nerve center of a criminal cabal. The job had provided what Alexander considered a “closer look at his business dealings,” and it all appeared legitimate.
On the penultimate floor were offices ostensibly devoted to Santacruz’s agricultural concerns, featuring enlarged farming photos. Below that was the floor for Santacruz’s real estate and construction companies. Employees in tropical corporate attire rushed about.
In fact, the illusion of a legitimate business empire was carefully cultivated by Santacruz and his partners, known to Colombians as the “Gentlemen of Cali.” While rival Escobar’s global notoriety increased with every high-profile act of violence, the Cali chieftains instead quietly funneled profits into widespread property acquisition.
Santacruz gradually revealed his own holdings to Alexander and Frank after their work on his office led to more opportunities.
Atop both prongs of Los Conquistadores, high-rise twin residential towers, Santacruz and Amparo maintained his-and-her penthouses in need of interior design. A short flight away in Bogota, Amparo owned a 10,000-square-foot apartment that Alexander decked out with furniture upholstered in hand-painted silk. In Santacruz’s own penthouse apartment in the same city, Alexander deployed sea foam green and peach hues because he noticed the don “responded to soft colors.”
For these projects, as the housekeeper Patricia later testified, Alexander and Frank planned “everything down to, say, the hangers in the closets, and the bathrobe in the bathroom, and the toothbrush.” Alexander even picked out the Italian wool for Santacruz’s suits.
Alexander plotted virtually every detail with Amparo, who joined him on boutique trips and brought him ripped-out pages of Architectural Digest as inspiration. In Alexander’s eyes, she, not Santacruz, became his true client.
According to Alexander, flying to New York to raid Bloomingdale’s was for Amparo akin to a religious experience. He later described to a Brooklyn federal courtroom how much Amparo liked shopping: “She said it was better than sex with her husband.”
Amparo, Alexander learned, had abandoned higher education for Santacruz and a life she described to him as a “golden cage.” According to Alexander, Santacruz was abusive, at one point blackening her eye out of jealousy that she was closer to their children than him.
Alexander and Frank were a respite from that life. On trips to the United States, she could ditch her retinue of buff female bodyguards and ride the designers’ boat, The Pegasus, to the Florida Keys. They ransacked the department stores of Miami’s Miracle Mile and danced at gay nightclubs. “She was so curious, she wanted to know more, she wanted to learn,” Alexander said.
As project manager, Frank spent more time with Santacruz himself. He and the boss developed a Sunday morning tradition during Frank’s installation trips to Colombia. They would climb into Santacruz’s Mercedes, flanked by Jeeps full of armed men, and go out for some rustic breakfast followed by a stop at a countryside lecheria. Frank and the don shared an addiction to ice cream.
Court testimony later showed that many of Santacruz’s employees considered him to be a “forbidden person,” so fearsome that they refused to say his name, instead referring to him as The Man, or even God.
But to his interior designers, he was simply Joe, just another wealthy client with whom they weren’t afraid to joust. Frank screamed at him on a couple of occasions over minor issues, like whether to obscure unsightly structural beams.
Alexander said “there was an ordinariness about” their interactions with Santacruz, and he was unafraid of pushing back when the boss balked at a project’s escalating price tag.
“When he said ‘no’ on something,” Alexander said, “I would tell him that ‘yes’ is a better answer.”
Alexander was expecting a prospective client in September 1981 when the doorbell pulled him away from his drafting table at home in Miami.
Instead, he opened the door and and greeted two men in “drab, cheap suits.” They displayed badges identifying themselves as federal agents.
The agents asked him to identify anybody he knew in an array of photos they showed him. Alexander chose the image of his client, Santacruz.
The agents informed him that Santacruz was in the drug business, describing him as “smart and dangerous.” Alexander later said he asked whether he was doing something wrong and that the agents responded, “No, as long as you just stick to interior design.”
Kenneth Robinson, who interviewed Alexander that day along with his supervisor, denied recently that he gave the designer his approval in continuing to work for Santacruz.
He disliked Alexander immediately, describing him as “an obnoxious, you know, ‘I’m better than you,’ type of guy.”
Chapter 4: DEA agents check in with Alexander and Frank
DEA agents pay a visit to Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia to reveal the truth about their dream client.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Alexander said he was stunned by the allegation that Santacruz was a drug trafficker. He called his personal attorney, who told Alexander he believed he was not in legal jeopardy.
“I’ve had clients with baggage before,” Alexander said, before listing misconduct – exposed marital affairs, drunk-driving arrests, an investigation for political corruption – of slightly lesser seriousness than helming a global drug trafficking empire.
But he determined that it wasn’t part of an interior designer’s job description to be a moral arbiter of their clients. “Do you stop working [with a client] because he might be connected” to crime, he asked, “and yet you have no proof and you didn’t see anything?”
He had little time to ponder such matters before the doorbell rang again the next day. This time, his visitor was José Santacruz, who turned down Alexander’s offer of coffee.
“Have any government people been to see you?” he asked. Alexander affirmed that they had.
“Well, I have to go,” Santacruz responded.
Alexander watched his boss disappear into the greenery of suburban Miami. He later testified: “It was a really frightening experience to think that man just seemed to drop out of the sky.”
Alexander said he called Robinson later that day to inform him of Santacruz’s visit and left a message on an answering machine. Robinson said that Alexander should have called the minute Santacruz left so agents could track him or take him into custody.
“We missed our opportunity because he didn’t tell us, which really pissed me off,” Robinson said.
The encounter kicked off what Robinson’s colleagues describe as a years-long grudge against the designers. He often grumbled about what Alexander was hiding from him and how the arrogant designer thought he was going to get away with it.
“Kenny obviously had a thing for them from the start,” Michaelis said.
When Frank returned from work at the lighting gallery and heard about the federal agents’ visit, he was shaken to learn of Santacruz’s reputation. He and Alexander later said they resolved that on an upcoming trip to New York, in which Alexander was to discuss designs with Amparo, he would break the news that they were severing the relationship.
After Alexander’s arrival at LaGuardia Airport, Freddie Aguilera drove him to a Queens motel, where the designer realized the meeting wasn’t with Amparo but with Santacruz himself.
Alexander described his vision for the Cali office and then gingerly announced he was quitting. The next designer could have his plans for free.
Santacruz’s mood, said Alexander, went from “being congenial to being rather dictatorial.” Santacruz reminded him that gentlemen fulfill their agreements.
The designer took note of a gun on the nightstand, and another in a shoulder holster Aguilera revealed by taking off his jacket.
“You will finish the office, and I’m looking forward to it,” Santacruz said.
But then the office led to other projects. When the designers later attempted to quit again, Santacruz waved them off with a one-liner: “I terminate people. They don’t terminate me.”
He then asked if they heard about the two designers from Miami who showed up in Colombia dead in a crate of furniture, before laughing at his own joke.
Besides the problem that their client was an accused cocaine kingpin pursued by international authorities, Alexander and Frank had a more immediate issue: the guy could be a micromanaging penny-pincher.
Santacruz once dispatched a man to grill all of Alexander’s furniture and appliance providers to see if the designer was billing him fairly. He also became apoplectic over “la pot rack famosa,” the saga of a pot rack that went missing in transit. To calm the situation, Alexander paid for the $15,000 kitchen item himself.
And Santacruz completely halted one project when he learned that it had become an ostentatious, expensive shrine to Alexander’s friendship with his wife.
Santacruz had asked them to design a rustic farmhouse outside of Cali, his only requirement being that it blend in with nearby ranches so it wouldn’t attract the attention of roving guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Instead, Santacruz learned that Alexander and Amparo conceived of the house as a roughly 20,000-square-foot “modern version of the old hacienda.” It was to be called “La Novillera,” or the female bullfighter.
Around $4 million was required for only the design elements of the home, according to Alexander. He planned to cover the floors of her master suite with $40,000 worth of leather from cows raised on farms where there was no barbed wire to nick their hides. And he designed a secluded area where Amparo could shower beside a frieze of nude figures – the central of them modeled after Alexander himself – before strolling into a private garden and Jacuzzi area to sunbathe naked.
Santacruz grew enraged when he learned of the monumental excess of the home, and ordered all of its construction workers home. But he then relented, and work resumed.
Santacruz had reason to assuage his wife. On a night in 1984, he called Alexander and Frank down to the lobby of the hotel in Bogota where they were staying while working on Amparo’s apartment. He nervously confessed to them that he had a secret family – three sons with a mistress named Marely. A fourth child was on the way.
It was the first of several such confessions about mistresses he secretly supported, each time stated a little less abashedly. Each mistress had several properties that required Alexander and Frank’s interior design attention.
By then, Alexander’s fondness for Amparo had swelled. Even his deep-tissue masseuse weighed in, telling him that perhaps Amparo had become his muse. Alexander agreed, thinking: “If I ever had to marry a woman, she would be just like her.”
Chapter 5: Santacruz gives the designers projects for his mistresses
Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia learn their client has multiple families – and that they also need homes designed.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
According to Alexander, he told Santacruz they would do the work for the mistresses, under one condition. If Amparo asked whether he was designing for them, Alexander said, “I will not be able to lie to her.”
Santacruz, with salaried killers at his disposal, contemplated this ultimatum from his interior designer. Then he chuckled and replied, “OK.”
The mistress jobs were a lucrative, but fraught, design niche for Alexander and Frank. There were so many apartments, chalets and farmhouses scattered along a strategic route around Cali that the designers implemented a coding and sticker system to keep their jobs separate. A Miami freight forwarder handled the logistics of getting the furniture and other amenities – from chandeliers to refrigerators to grand pianos – into the country, shipping them on crates via commercial flights.
“We were filling up the airplane almost,” that freight forwarder, Maria Elena Rojas, later testified.
To avoid high import taxes, Rojas paid everyday Colombians who lived abroad to claim that they were moving their belongings back home. Once in Colombia, the goods filled a warehouse.
“God, it was just unbelievable,” Alexander later said in a phone conversation he didn’t know was recorded, describing the warehouse as “like a Home Depot.”
The scale of the operation came to resemble Santacruz’s specialty: trafficking, but in tasteful goods rather than cocaine.
Court testimony and records would describe the designers’ cash collection that looked, to federal authorities, like criminal activity. (They apparently didn’t hide their cash proceeds from the IRS and were not charged with tax evasion.)
According to Patricia, their housekeeper, Frank had handled most of the cash pickups after Alexander, armed with a hammer under his car seat, had been spooked while collecting a shoe box full of money in the Miami suburbs.
On at least eight occasions later detailed in court, Frank or Alexander had collected six figures worth of cash from Santacruz’s associates. They were typically informed of incoming payments by Claudia, his office secretary.
The designers also received wire transfers totaling at least $2 million from Santacruz’s shell accounts in Colombia, Germany and Panama. Court proceedings would reveal the manner in which federal authorities circled closer to Santacruz, and his interior designers. Frank picked up cash from a Santacruz operative known as “Tanga” within nine days of Chepe Chaser Robbie Michaelis capturing the gangster.
In his diary, Frank confessed that collecting all that cash had him frazzled. “I awoke anxious for delivery man,” he wrote before one payment in New York. “I feel a lot of stress.”
Alexander and Frank have downplayed the weirdness of receiving millions through duffel bag deliveries. They maintained that past interior design clients – including, according to Alexander, the onetime Bahamas attorney general – often paid with cash.
But they acknowledged they had never previously been paid with a Gucci bag stuffed with a million dollars like the one delivered to them at one point by a Santacruz gofer.
The designer bag of money was the cartel equivalent of a payroll error, as Alexander and Frank were expecting only $100,000. Somebody came to pick up the excess but Alexander kept the Gucci bag. “I liked it,” he said.
Chapter 6: The million dollar Gucci bag
Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia’s dream client was beginning to raise eyebrows, especially when he paid them with a Gucci bag full of cash.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
A logistical error with more dire consequences occurred when diapers and other supplies for Marely’s baby were accidentally shipped to Amparo.
Amparo, already privy to the gossip of servants about her husband’s other women, demanded over dinner at the Helmsley Palace, a posh New York hotel, that Alexander tell her whether he was designing for Santacruz’s mistresses.
When he confessed, Alexander said, Amparo burst into tears. “Everything else I’ve got to share, and now my designer?” she said.
She threatened to quit working with Alexander, but he managed to calm her by promising that the design work for the mistresses was of a lower quality than hers.
The diapers incident contributed to a volatile domestic situation. On a morning shortly thereafter, Marely tearfully confronted Frank at her home in Cali and expressed fear about the well-being of her children should something happen to her. On another occasion, the paramour asked Santacruz’s freight forwarder whether she knew her boss was a trafficker.
“Marely and Jose were publicly fighting, they were insulting each other and it was already obvious that there was a problem,” that freight forwarder, Rojas, later testified. “And after that she disappeared.”
In 1989, Santacruz explained to the designers that Marely had abandoned her four children. Later, the story was that she died in a car accident in Michigan.
The designers found the explanation bizarre. “Why the hell would she be in Michigan?” Alexander asked. They grappled for the first time with the possibility that their boss – who Frank maintained was “always such a sweetheart” – was a cold-blooded killer.
For the Chepe Chasers, that concept was old news. The New York cops knew Marely, having staked out the Queens apartment where she and Santacruz stayed during early kilo runs in the 1970s.
They learned from intelligence sources that he had ordered her murder. “He liked her because she was very spunky and talked back to him,” Michaelis said. “And I guess eventually he got tired of that.”
But in Santacruz’s world, murder begat opportunity. He announced to the designers that Amparo had agreed to take in Marely’s children – and nurses, nannies, maids and the live-in shrink he had hired to counsel the kids on the death of their mother.
Which meant that Alexander and Frank would have to design them a much larger house.
If Alexander and Frank were looking for an escape from the Santacruzes, the opportunity had come to their door two years before Marely’s disappearance, with another visit from Kenny Robinson.
This time it was Frank who had showed up on a Cali gangster’s pen register. Robinson showed up at their home just as Frank was leaving. Robinson recalled that Frank was shaking so hard he could barely get a word out. “I never saw a guy – never since, never before – as scared … as this guy was,” he said.
Frank denied being nervous at all – just late for an appointment. Because Alexander wasn’t home, Robinson asked a couple of DEA colleagues to try again the next week. Those agents asked Alexander whether he had any recent contact with Santacruz.
Alexander could have thrown himself and Frank at the mercy of the government, offered to help bring down Santacruz and perhaps joined the growing roster of former Cali Cartel associates in the Witness Protection Program.
When asked later in court about this moment, Alexander likened their position between Santacruz and the feds to a path with barbed wire on both sides. Fall off either direction, he explained, “and you’re going to get it.”
But in recent interviews, Alexander described such utterances about his fear of Santacruz as mostly court theatrics. The real reason he was loathe to betray the Santacruzes was rooted in how a federal judge later described the designers’ relationship with the family – like that of Michelangelo and the House of Medici, a patron family with bottomless wealth to finance grand artistry.
When Amparo desired a set of serving dishes, a dining set and flatware, she traveled with Alexander to the finest boutiques in Miami, New York and London. Dissatisfied with their offerings, she instead asked Alexander to design the set himself. His creation featured English sterling silver inlaid with gold and semiprecious stone, with every eating utensil crowned with an “S.” According to Alexander, the set cost more than $500,000 to fabricate.
Santacruz huffed when he learned at the price of tools to shovel rice and beans, but then approved the purchase.
Outside of the Shah of Iran – whose dining set for his private jet had been purchased from the same firm that produced Alexander’s design – there were few clients like the Santacruzes.
So when the DEA agents asked Alexander about his recent contact with Santacruz, a question to which they already knew the answer, the interior designer told what he later admitted was a brazen lie. He said he hadn’t seen Santacruz in years.
According to Robinson, his colleagues warned Alexander as explicitly as possible the fate that awaited him.
“We told him, ‘Hey listen, we’re going to lock you up some day,” Robinson said. “And he seemed to shrug it off, you know?”
Alexander and Frank had on several occasions planned on finishing one last job for Santacruz before getting out for good. This was partly because they didn’t know how much longer they had together.
In 1986, Frank had gone for a routine checkup when his doctor discovered he was HIV-positive. Frank told Alexander he could leave with no hard feelings, but instead their bond – constant bickering included – grew only stronger.
Forgoing early side-effect-heavy HIV medication, Frank adopted a holistic routine that included acupuncture and massage, taking Chinese herbs, eating a high-protein diet, jotting in his dream journal and regular support group meetings.
At the time, the virus was considered a certain death sentence, as it had proven to be for several of their friends. “I made deals with God every three weeks,” Frank said. “’Let me see this job finished, and you could take me then.’”
Following Marely’s disappearance, it seemed that Alexander and Frank’s final job would be their most lavish yet.
The Santacruzes’ new home – on the site of the demolished original house in Los Caños Gordos – was called Casa Blanca, or the White House. Prosecutors later claimed it was to be a replica of America’s presidential residence, which the designers deny.
The plans were for a nearly 30,000-square-foot compound fit for riding out a pending personal apocalypse in high modernist style.
By the turn of the 1990s, global authorities were closing in on Santacruz. Kenny Robinson no longer had trouble getting his law enforcement colleagues to care about the Cali traffickers. The cartel’s bloody war with Medellin had boosted its profile, as had the unprecedented tonnage of cocaine it imported into American cities. The Chepe Chasers were in the process of tracing Santacruz’s drug profits to secret holdings in Panama, Luxembourg and Monaco.
Before Uncle Sam could seize it, the Santacruzes seemed determined to blow at least a portion of their fortune on their dream home.
Casa Blanca would have more than a dozen bedrooms and bathrooms to house members of the newly expanded family and hired help. Its laundry facility wouldn’t be out of place in a Marriott. There was to be a pool of nearly Olympic proportions, a gymnasium, courts for racquetball and handball, and a soccer pitch complete with bleachers for professional “futboleros” to play exhibitions.
Casa Blanca’s scale – with estimated design costs set to exceed $8 million – overshadowed each of Alexander and Frank’s previous jobs. After Alexander warred with a Colombian architect who had been hired for the project, he was put in charge of its architecture as well.
Alexander and Frank jetted off to Italian stone yards to handpick nearly a million dollars in marble, tile and massive blocks of pure black granite, the latter to be carved into pillars for the home. They picked out $350,000 worth of glass mosaic tile to line the pool.
But Santacruz had commissioned his splendid apocalypse bunker too late.
The undercover fleet included yellow cabs, a gold Volvo and a hippie van. For days in February 1988 the Chepe Chasers lived in these vehicles while watching a suspected Cali Cartel trafficker known as “El Camaron” – or The Shrimp – collect duffel bags from around the city and bring them home to suburban Queens.
When they raided his house, two state troopers tackled The Shrimp – squirming, naked and wet from having jumped out of the shower – as he grasped under the bed for an Uzi and an AR-15. The cops found $7.8 million in cash in duffel bags in the stash house.
But the raid’s biggest score was two notebooks filled with scrawled entries of kilo deliveries and cash pick-ups.
The drug ledgers would prove to be the Chepe Chasers’ Rosetta Stone in their pursuit of the Cali Cartel. No transaction was too intimate for the ledger. One note showed the kingpin using cocaine profits to pay for a nose job for one of his daughters. “We used to joke that if we ever saw (the daughter) we should seize her nose,” Michaelis said.
Also in the ledgers, according to court testimony: Alexander and Frank’s names, their New York and Miami phone numbers and details of apparent cash deliveries.
It was evidence that laid bare the direct manner in which cocaine sales funded interior design. Earlier in the same month of the raid on The Shrimp’s stash house, ledger notes showed that $250,000 had been subtracted from the drug cash on hand for delivery to the designers.
Though the ledgers didn’t indicate what the cash was for, the designers had an array of projects underway at the time, including an apartment for one of the daughters while she was studying in Boston, a New York City pied-á-terre for Amparo, a farmhouse for a mistress and more renovations to Santacruz’s office.
None of this was of much concern to the Chepe Chasers, who at the time were intent on bringing down Santacruz, not his home décor professionals.
They kept coming up short. Robinson tried to catch Santacruz visiting his daughter at her Boston-area school by dressing up as a private security guard to monitor the cars arriving for a parental event. The Chepe Chasers posed as a BBC camera crew at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and filmed Santacruz’s family in their seats. But Santacruz himself was too smart to show up.
By then, the Cali Cartel was about to overtake its vanquished Medellin rivals as the DEA’s foremost enemy. In 1991, a national news publication made that distinction unavoidably explicit.
Alexander and Frank in the mid-1980s had moved to a waterfront home in Tiburon, California, flying first class while their housekeeper Patricia drove across the country with their terrier and $225,000 from a safety deposit box.
They were returning there with some friends from Boulders, their Lake Tahoe vacation home, when Alexander spotted his client’s unsmiling face staring back at him from a gas station magazine rack.
On the cover of the July 1, 1991 issue of Time magazine, under the headline “Cocaine Inc.: The New Drug Kings,” were the photos of five bosses of the Cali Cartel, including the prominently placed mug of José Santacruz.
“My heart started to race and it was like this panic attack,” Alexander recalled. He hastily bought a copy of the issue and brought it out once he and Frank were alone.
“Oh my god,” Frank uttered as they read of the client’s “marble citadel” that “looms high above the sugarcane fields of Cali.” Designing the interior of that citadel had been among Alexander and Frank’s first jobs for Santacruz.
Chapter 7: A magazine cover reveals the shocking truth about Santacruz
Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia find their dream client splashed across Time magazine. Can they end their arrangement?
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Frank described an instinctive repulsion. “How do you put distance between yourself and this?” he wondered.
But Alexander started rationalizing what he had just read, questioning the article’s accuracy. “What do you do next?” he asked. “We’re working on a major project. … There is nobody to go to for any kind of advice because the government had already come to us twice in the previous years, and they were no help.”
“Can these men be stopped?” the magazine had demanded. In the ensuing years, the Chepe Chasers were tantalizingly close. Medellin Cartel chief Escobar was killed in 1993 with the help of U.S. special operations forces, and his manhunt became fodder for a best-selling book and Hollywood projects. Robinson’s crew seemed destined for similar glory, having by the middle of the decade methodically indicted many of Santacruz’s top operatives.
Among them was Francisco Laguna, a slick Georgetown-educated attorney who spoke five languages and helped disguise the cartel’s global system for washing Santacruz’s cocaine cash.
When Laguna agreed to cooperate following his 1995 arrest and was debriefed at length, he mentioned what he knew about Alexander and Frank.
But the official response showed just how concerned the DEA was with the alleged criminality of Don Chepe’s interior designers. The agents didn’t bother to take notes during that part of the briefing, Laguna later testified.
From the bathroom, Alexander heard the housekeeper Patricia yell to him and Frank: “Turn the television on, quick!”
It was July 1995, and the trio had recently moved to Villa Vecchia, the “million-dollar fixer-upper,” as Alexander described it, in the San Francisco enclave of Sea Cliff.
The half a million dollars in renovations to the home included a giant palm tree, brought to their front yard by a flatbed truck clogging traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge and installed via construction crane.
Their Bay Area contractors later testified to the differing stories they said the designers told them about their top client: that he was the president of Peru, or a top Venezuelan government official.
But Alexander and Frank now learned that the high times were likely nearing an end. They watched on TV the news that Santacruz had been arrested by Colombian authorities.
The implausibility of their boss allowing himself to be taken into custody, and Colombian police being motivated to do so, suggested to the designers that he had orchestrated his own arrest.
Alexander floated this theory during a phone call the next day with freight forwarder Rojas, musing that the arrest was probably a “stage performance to prove to the world that they are cleaning it up.”
For once, he and the Chepe Chasers agreed.
Mark Lerner, then a baby-faced 32-year-old federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, cut his teeth during a period when New York City was under siege by violent drug traffickers. To him, there could only be one satisfying end to the saga of José Santacruz.
“I wanted him in New York, in my courtroom, in front of a jury, getting convicted of what he did to generations of New Yorkers,” Lerner said in a recent interview.
In June 1995, his office had made inroads towards that goal by indicting the kingpin on charges that he had flooded the city with tons of cocaine and laundered $30 million in profits. Lerner knew Santacruz was a long shot to see the inside of an American courtroom, but the indictment allowed authorities to seize overseas accounts. The prosecutor also believed in using the law to send a message.
Santacruz’s arrest in Colombia the next month seemed an evasive tactic in response to the American indictment. Colombia had a history of resisting the extradition of top traffickers to the United States and instead sending them to cushy, so-called prisons they could leave on a whim.
Sure enough, Santacruz “escaped” from Colombian prison six months later by simply driving through its open gates.
He was killed less than two months after that. Though the official story was that he and his bodyguards had waged a gunfight with Colombian police, physical evidence – including garrote marks around his neck – suggested a lonelier end had befallen Don Chepe, according to the American police. They believed that he was likely tortured by rival gangsters before corrupt Colombian cops finished the job.
When they heard the news, Alexander and Frank felt sympathy for Amparo and the children, now thrust into an uncertain fate. And they don’t deny that, criminal empire and body count aside, they liked Santacruz. “I felt I lost my buddy for ice cream,” Frank said. “I know it sounds silly, but that’s the way it was.”
Then there was the matter of what was supposed to be the biggest job of their lives. Global authorities seized as much as they could of Santacruz’s assets, dooming Casa Blanca to rot half-finished in the Cali countryside.
Last August, a Colombian blogger uploaded a video of himself touring its ruins while waxing dramatic about the politicians and futboleros who had sipped whiskies around the pool that was now a trench of algae, and “how many girls … maybe entered and never came out.”
He was apparently unaware that the house was never occupied. A significant portion of the video’s roughly 1,000 views may be attributed to hate-watching by the American designers who once thought the house would be their portfolio’s crown jewel.
“His reportage is ridiculous,” Frank griped recently. “It is torture.”
The blogger stated that a tall balcony had been a parapet for machine gunners. In fact, Alexander explained, it was designed so one of the daughters could sunbathe nude without being seen by the gardeners.
Following Santacruz’s death, the Chepe Chasers experienced their own stages of grief. “There was some twang of, ‘Damn it, they got him,’ – not we got him,” said Lerner, the prosecutor. “I was happy he was out of commission, but sad it wasn’t our way.”
McArdle, the state trooper turned DEA agent who had been after Santacruz since 1980, put it more simply: “I was crushed.”
Robinson tried to busy himself by wrapping up loose ends in the wake of Santacruz’s death, but the challenge was gone. Top money launderers who had been indicted alongside Santacruz quickly pleaded guilty, no longer afraid of ticking off the boss.
Two of Santacruz’s partners atop the Cali Cartel, brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, would ultimately be extradited and plead guilty to cocaine importation. They were sentenced to 30 years each and are still in American prisons.
But the brothers were a Miami case. It was a different office from that of the Chepe Chasers, and prosecutors and cops can be as turf-obsessed as any cartel.
In Lerner’s federal district including most of the outer boroughs of New York City – where Santacruz had built the foundation of his empire – closure in the pursuit of the Cali Cartel seemed in danger of slipping through the cops’ fingers.
Chapter 8: Santacruz is dead, but the DEA shifts sights on designers
Jose Santacruz is assassinated in Colombia, but this means a new set of problems for Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Shortly after Santacruz’s death, Alexander and Frank showed an old friend around their new home in San Francisco.
Rojas, the Miami freight forwarder who for years had transported crates of furniture and fixtures Alexander purchased to Santacruz’s homes, said she happened to be in town. She brought to Villa Vecchia a friend she introduced as an aspiring interior designer named Annie James. The friend took a special interest in a tour the designers gave of their new digs.
It was her first time in one of Alexander and Frank’s homes after years of methodically digging through their garbage.
For the Chepe Chasers, the designers may have been on the back burner. But for Amie Clarke, the San Francisco-based DEA special agent posing as aspiring interior designer Annie James, they represented a potential high-profile money laundering case worthy of a lengthy investigation.
Clarke had first been assigned to look into them as a rookie agent in 1992 as part of a DEA-wide initiative called TKO, or Targeted Kingpin Organizations, focusing on criminal leaders and their high-level cronies. The interior designers weren’t kingpins, but they were kingpin-adjacent. More than 50 times, Clarke and a partner had driven up to Alexander and Frank’s Bay Area homes in the middle of the night with headlights out and flung their fastidiously separated recycling into their trunk.
“I’ve never seen somebody’s trash as clean as theirs was,” Clarke said. The haul from these trash dives – ripped-up sheets of notebook paper, Rolodex cards, stray Post-Its – confirmed the designers had “ongoing, yet unspecified relations” with the drug kingpin, according to a DEA summary of the investigation.
Clarke needed a non-garbage-based source, and she found one in Rojas, who was eager to assist the federal government.
Unlike the designers, Rojas’s money laundering for drug traffickers did not occupy a legal gray area. She had used false bottoms of furniture crates to send millions in drug proceeds to Colombian dealers, charging her clients a 2% fee. When the DEA raided her office, they found $650,000 in cash stuffed in a candy machine. Rojas became an informant in an effort to reduce her punishment.
Rojas had grown close to the designers during their work for Santacruz, even asking Alexander to father her child, according to court testimony. After he declined, she named her first born Alexander.
In the period of Santacruz’s arrest and death, she started calling Alexander with worried dispatches from South Florida. Unbeknownst to Alexander, the calls were made in Clarke’s presence, recorded and transcribed.
“Everybody is indicted,” Rojas fretted in one call. “Judges, attorneys, everybody.”
But Alexander seemed to underestimate his legal peril. He advised Rojas that if federal agents asked about shipping items to Santacruz, she should just tell them she “had no idea who it was for,” and that she was unaware Santacruz was a drug trafficker.
Then he shifted the conversation to his namesake’s progress in horseback riding and piano, and snarked about how Santacruz looked “heavy” when he was arrested.
Clarke tasked Rojas with helping her get into the designers’ mansion to meet them. The DEA agent said she came away from the undercover encounter liking Alexander and Frank and didn’t think “they were malicious in any way,” but was nonetheless determined to see them go to prison.
“I had no doubt that they knew what they were doing was illegal,” Clarke said recently.
The prosecutors in her district did not share her zeal. At a meeting in a Downtown San Francisco federal building, Clarke attempted to persuade them to charge the interior designers with money laundering. According to a May 1996 DEA memo, a chief prosecutor rejected the case because “a conviction is extremely unlikely.”
Typically, that would’ve been the end of the criminal inquiry. The interior designers would have roared away on their twin Harley-Davidsons, into retirement and the sunset over the Pacific Coast Highway, unaware that a DEA agent had admired their recycling.
But three days after prosecutors rejected Amie Clarke’s case, she put into motion her back up plan.
She called Kenneth Robinson – well-known within the DEA for his decade-plus pursuit of Santacruz – and asked if the Chepe Chasers would be interested in picking up the case against the interior designers.
Robinson listened to Clarke’s first-hand account of the designers’ lavish San Francisco mansion and salivated at the idea of raiding it. Though Robinson thought the evidence against the designers sounded weak, he hoped it was enough to convince a prosecutor to sign off on a raid. “If we hit that house, we’re going to find something,” Robinson said.
Robinson and Michaelis believed that the Chepe Chasers already had the “other half” of what Clarke lacked in her investigation of the designers: drug ledgers and other evidence showing the harm caused by the crime syndicate.
Lerner, the Brooklyn prosecutor, agreed. “When I saw the word ‘decorators’ in the drug ledgers there was not a doubt in my mind that we were dealing with guys who were knowingly money launderers for the cartel,” Lerner said.
Money laundering had been outlawed by the U.S. government in 1986 as a weapon against those working with drug traffickers, and since then the government had been testing the statutes in court. Among them was somewhat vague language making it a federal crime to “engage in a monetary transaction in criminally derived property” exceeding $10,000.
Lerner planned an ambitious indictment in which the designers would be charged under the RICO Act, a mob statute holding individuals culpable for the conspiracy of their gang as a whole. As he later put it in court, Alexander and Frank were Santacruz’s “partners in crime,” and their role was as the “heads of the department of lavish and excessive drug dealers’ consumption.”
He said recently that the case’s rejection by San Francisco prosecutors was “only an incentive” to try to secure the conviction his counterparts thought was impossible.
“You’re kind of like, ‘OK, somebody else turned this down? That makes this a little more interesting,’” Lerner said.
To Dave Gallo, the Army-trained DEA tactical specialist who planned the raid on Villa Vecchia, the interior designers were a different breed of target than the street-savvy Oakland dealers flipping cocaine by the ounce whose doors he routinely battered in. They were worse.
“They were the money side of it, and that’s the most important side,” Gallo said in a recent interview. “That’s how you decapitate a drug organization: You kill their money.”
He staked out their mansion for weeks, puzzling over how they could blast through the home’s heavy front gate without traumatizing poodle-walking neighbors. Ultimately he arrived at a ruse in which a San Francisco police officer would ring their front gate to tell whoever answered it – Frank, as it turns out – of a problem outside, at which point Gallo’s tactical team would storm in with guns drawn.
Robinson recently explained that the show of armed force was appropriate even though the designers had never displayed they were capable of violence. “I knew Blarek could be really dangerous because of his attitude towards us, you know — the hatred,” Robinson said.
Once inside, Gallo took note of what he considered to be the proceeds of the cocaine trade. “I remember these pictures of fat women,” the agent said, referring to Fernando Botero paintings.
Alexander was brought to a federal building for interrogation. In questioning Alexander, Michaelis said he did his “best Colombo,” playing dumb in order to bait him to lie.
It apparently worked. According to later court testimony, Alexander told the agent that he had stopped working for Santacruz after reading the Time magazine article and that a safety deposit box in his name had contained only papers. Michaelis refuted those and other claims with help from agents collecting evidence in their mansion.
In fact, there had been $50,000 in the safety deposit box, and more than $600,000 in another one. In total, according to an indictment, federal authorities had evidence of more than $1.7 million that the designers had stashed in safety deposit boxes in previous years.
They also found in Villa Vecchia passports they claimed that Alexander had fraudulently reported missing and bleached to wipe out the stamps showing his travels to Colombia. Alexander’s version is that he had reported them missing only because he was having a “hairy time” with Colombian customs officials who noticed his frequent travel. The apparent bleach, he said, was because their housekeeper had accidentally put the passports in the laundry.
If Alexander and Frank knew they were breaking the law, that hadn’t stopped them from meticulously cataloging their wrongdoing. The agents found blueprints for Santacruz projects, itemized invoices and receipts, detailed day planners and dozens of videotapes of the designers at work in Colombia.
The seized evidence included Frank’s dream journal. Among the dreams Frank had recorded was one in which he had apparently received reassuring legal advice from his accountant, who told him the “DEA had nothing to stand on at all.”
In real life, that accountant’s Florida office was being raided by federal agents who carted out boxes of Alexander and Frank’s financial documents.
The housekeeper, Patricia, was arrested and told she faced criminal charges if she didn’t cooperate. Even Frank’s elderly mother was threatened with the seizure of her California home under the suspicion that it was purchased with drug money.
Alexander and Frank were both facing decades in prison, but the feds singled out Alexander as ringleader. “My gang was Frank, the housekeeper, the freight forwarder and the accountant,” Alexander said. “What a pathetic gang I was a leader of.”
Frank’s interrogator was Kenny Robinson, who he said was fixated on the idea that the designers had laundered $30 million for Santacruz. That figure made its way into an indictment after Robinson referred to it during grand jury testimony, though in later court proceedings he could not state where the number came from.
According to Frank, Robinson accused him of hiding the missing millions in their topiary and threatened to use a helicopter to lift up their statues in order to find the cash.
Robinson recently denied making that threat but maintained “without a doubt” the designers had secreted away part of their fortune. “I knew we’d never get it,” Robinson said. “Because no matter what you say about Alex, Alex is a smart man. No way he would put it where we could grab it.”
Robinson attempted to convince Frank to flip on Alexander and sign an admission of guilt. Frank responded that he would only sign their paper after the cops walked him into a crematorium oven.
“He was too loyal,” Robinson said. “He was still in love with Blarek.”
In February 1998 in a Brooklyn courthouse – a particularly bleak example of Brutalist architecture in the federal complex where Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” was convicted two decades later – Frank took stock of the audience there to watch the trial.
It looked like a “cheap Italian wedding,” he said, a doomed union of two families at odds. On one side, there were the designers’ stylish artistic friends. On the other, the Ross Dress for Less crew, cops and government lawyers in off-the-rack suits.
Frank and Alexander wore their displeasure openly. “The defendants seem rather despondent,” Judge Jack B. Weinstein observed at one point during the two-week trial. “Is there any chance of suicide here?”
Much of the first half of the proceedings seemed to be the trial of somebody else: José Santacruz.
Chapter 9: Court is in session. Did the designers break the law?
The U.S. government accuses Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia of money laundering through their designing of homes for a Colombian drug lord.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Francisco Laguna, the polyglot money launderer, was escorted in by U.S. Marshals, having emerged from the Witness Protection Program.
Laguna testified as to the cartel’s sophistication, explaining a scheme in which American profits would be smuggled from Panamanian banks to fictitious European concerns, and finally back to Colombia.
The cartel’s brutality was also on display, via the testimony of German Salazar, a former fixer who solved problems in Colombia and America with torture and murder.
Salazar had made previous attempts to cooperate in order to reduce his thirty-year prison sentence, but federal agents had ended interviews every time after deciding he was lying and would never actually betray his cartel colleagues.
Salazar’s fortune changed when another inmate gave him a prison copy of El Diario La Prensa, a New York City Spanish-language newspaper whose editor Salazar had previously helped assassinate due to writings that had peeved Santacruz.
On the cover that day was news of the arrest of the two interior designers, and Salazar called his federal handlers to tell them a story about how he had once delivered cash to the man named Frank.
Michaelis and the prosecutor Lerner met with Salazar in jail to vet him as a potential witness. But when Salazar started disclosing his violence on behalf of the cartel – which included overseeing up to five or six killings and torture sessions a week – the prosecutor’s eyes were “bugging out of his head,” according to Michaelis.
“We can’t use this guy,” he said Lerner protested. “We can’t put on a witness that’s worse than our defendant.”
Michaelis reasoned with Lerner that Salazar’s status as one of the most irredeemable criminals on the planet underscored the horror behind the blood money with which the designers were paid.
Lerner acknowledged recently that putting on the witness stand a professional serial killer caused him to “grit (his) teeth” but that you “go to war with the army you have. The army we had was bad guys.”
Hours of court testimony from members of that army passed without mention of the designers, role players in a trial where their conviction was only one of the priorities.
“We wanted a clear record that the cartel operated in New York, operated at the scale we knew it operated – which was absolutely massive – and that there were persons in the U.S. who could be held accountable for cooperating with them,” Lerner said.
Alexander argued recently that the testimony showing Santacruz’s criminal savvy made it more absurd that he would choose pricey interior designers as a method of laundering money. Alexander charged nearly twenty times the going rate of a confessed launderer like freight forwarder Rojas.
But still, Alexander admitted that he was stunned by the showcase of the evil of his top client – and disturbed by his role in it.
“That Amparo was ooh-ing and ah-ing over my designs and somewhere else at the same time people were being tortured and killed with plastic bags and battery acid and Marely was being killed – it’s still hard for me to imagine that those two worlds co-existed,” Alexander said. “How could (Santacruz) be so good at being two people?”
The trial, like much of the designers’ saga of work for Santacruz, descended into the surreal. It included an extended courtroom debate about whether dreams are admissible as evidence. Though the judge opined that they could be, he barred prosecutors from using Frank’s dream journal against the designers.
Among the former confidantes who testified against them was Rojas, who burnished a reputation for embellishment. She testified that a Santacruz gofer named El Tigre once picked her up at Times Square in a jalopy with a machine gun in his passenger seat during a George H.W. Bush presidential event to give her a sack with $100,000 inside.
“The ones that go dr-dr-dr-dr-dr,” she said of the model of gun.
The designers’ longtime accountant, Robert Rachlin, also testified, describing an arrangement in which they would give him cash in return for checks drawn from a trust he controlled.
Rachlin said that he played along when the designers told him their main client was a South American head of state despite all of the clues about the prevalence of drug traffickers at the time. “Newspaper articles, ‘Miami Vice’ on TV. I figured they probably never worked for the President of Peru.”
Patricia Dempsey, the housekeeper, described receiving so much cash from Santacruz couriers that she once lined Alexander and Frank’s bed sheets with large bills as a prank. She said that the designers instructed her to keep their client’s identity a secret and disputed the notion that they continued to work for him out of fear. “Alexander is not afraid of anyone,” she said.
Patricia read from a letter Alexander sent her a month after his arrest. “I have such a hollow hopeless feeling when I think that everything I have worked for and we have worked for is gone,” Alexander penned. “I will have nothing and will probably end up an old homeless man in the park.”
In a recent interview, Patricia confessed to pawning Alexander and Frank’s leather outfits and hats after they were arrested in order to pay for her legal and other bills. “They could have at least called me and told me how sorry they were,” she said of her former housemates. “I was just left out to dry.”
The designers’ lawyers agonized over how to appeal to the jury before deciding on what attorney Solotaroff called the “interior design defense.”
That defense – that Alexander and Frank were simply performing their craft in a world-class manner – required a showcase of skills. For nearly three days, Alexander held court: about his captivation by the profession as a boy; the definition of art deco; and every minute detail of several of his projects. “Judge, is this a sales presentation?” Lerner, the prosecutor, complained.
At one point, Alexander started crying. “That was on cue,” he recently acknowledged – an attempt to win the jury’s sympathy. He said that in order to get the waterworks flowing, he thought back to the time Santacruz gave his friend Amparo a black eye.
When Lerner cross-examined Alexander, he grilled him about secret compartments he had designed in some of the furniture, and whether Santacruz hid weapons and lists of assassins in them. Alexander responded that the don used them to stash his pornography.
The downside to Alexander taking the stand was that he was forced to repeatedly own up to past lies, big and small: his claims that he hadn’t seen Santacruz in years, or had stopped working for him after learning he was a drug trafficker, or about the contents of his safety deposit box full of money, or that he didn’t know that Marely was Santacruz’s girlfriend. “For about the fifth time, yes,” Alexander snapped at one point when asked if he had lied.
But when prosecutor Lerner referred to Alexander’s “scheme,” he pushed back. “I was not involved in a scheme. I was involved in interior design,” he said.
In his closing argument, Paul Schechtman, one of the designers’ attorneys, imagined that Santacruz had risen from the dead, watched the trial of his stand-ins and lamented, “Whoever conceived this has heads like maracas.”
The jury was unmoved. They convicted Alexander and Frank of money laundering and all but one of the RICO counts. Upon hearing the verdict, Frank considered landmarks to throw himself off of and other methods of ending his misery.
“I figured Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, electrocution, drowning in the bathtub – who knew?” Frank said.
Lerner saw in their conviction a much-needed score against a historic criminal organization. “It in essence validated that the Santacruz cartel existed, operated the way we said it did and that these guys were a part of it,” Lerner said.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, the designers faced between 11 and 14 years in prison. But Judge Weinstein took some pity on them.
He wrote in a May 1998 decision that Alexander and Frank faced a harder time in prison because of their “sexual orientation as well as their demeanor and build.”
Though that was the focus of media coverage of his decision – “Judge Gives Gays Lighter Sentence,” headlined The Associated Press – Weinstein lingered longer on his belief that the designers had not struck their “Mephistophelian deals” with Santacruz out of financial greed, but the pursuit of artistic freedom.
“So obsessed were defendants with creating art that they lost sight of reality,” Weinstein wrote. “Abandoned was their previously unblemished law-abiding life. In exchange for professional glory and economic freedom to create, they chose to live by the credo of the Cali drug cartel.”
To stick to the federal guidelines, Weinstein concluded, would amount to “needless cruelty.” Instead, the judge sentenced Alexander to just over five and a half years in prison, and Frank to four years.
The designers have suggested that Weinstein’s reading of their motives was correct. “At one point, it’s not about the money,” Alexander said. “It’s about the freedom.”
But the judge’s sympathy had its limits. The government had laid claim to virtually all of Alexander’s and Frank’s assets, including Villa Vecchia and other homes, three Harley-Davidsons, a Mercedes-Benz, about $75,000 worth of jewelry and hundreds of thousands of dollars found in bank accounts and safety deposit boxes.
Alexander was allowed to keep an empty lot in The Hamptons in New York he purchased before he met Santacruz, valued at $305,186. In his ruling, Weinstein fined Alexander that exact amount, ensuring that both designers were financially obliterated.
Chapter 10: Frank and Alexander are separated and imprisoned
Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia try to find ways to survive in prison and keep their relationship alive.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
Even reduced, their sentences were still greater than those of some of their convicted cronies.
Rojas, who had secreted millions of dollars to Colombian drug traffickers, was sentenced to time served – less than a day in jail – thanks to her cooperation in multiple cases.
A prosecutor filed a letter declaring that her assistance in the designers’ case “resulted in the conviction of high-level money launderers and the seizure and forfeiture of millions of dollars in assets.”
Laguna, the attorney who used his legal expertise to help the cartel launder billions, received a 53-month sentence.
Rachlin, the designer’s accountant, pleaded guilty to money laundering for giving them checks for their cash, and was sentenced to probation. He was then nabbed on unrelated charges for preparing fraudulent tax returns, and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.
German Salazar, the killer who in 1994 was sentenced to 30 years in prison, was in 2003 resentenced to time served and released. The court records indicating why he was resentenced are sealed.
In each case, USA TODAY was either unable to reach these witnesses or they did not respond to a request for an interview.
Attorney Alan Dershowitz briefly took up the designers’ case, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court that the conviction would put “thousands of doctors, dentists, merchants, and other business people … in serious jeopardy.”
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The designers were shuttled off to separate prisons – Frank to a facility in Lompoc, California, and Alexander to a prison camp in Eglin, Florida. Inmates at separate facilities aren’t allowed to correspond, but on rare occasions they smuggled “kites,” or illicit notes, to each other. In one type-written underground message to Alexander, Frank referred to his prison work as a tailor “making pockets for the infamous.”
“Oh what a joy!” Frank penned sardonically.
Alexander said recently of existence behind bars, “It was very beige.”
Frank kept expecting to wither away and die without his routine to battle HIV. Instead, he snagged a position with the prison giving him access to the food pantry and sold some of it to a “select group of inmates who in return did me favors.”
He became rich with postal stamps – a prison currency – which he then smuggled out to his mom, who sold them to her elderly girlfriends and put the cash in Alexander’s commissary. “I did my time, my way,” Frank intoned.
Alexander taught other inmates yoga and typing. He said he decorated the office of his 45-cents-an-hour job with discarded materials – including a vintage map to mark his world travels with push pins – but it was too nice, and a jealous prison official made him tear it all down.
At his Florida camp, there was a lagoon where sometimes Alexander could sit and hear the distant waves of the Gulf Coast lapping. When the moon was full, he liked to think about how he and Frank were both under it.
“I felt that the government could tell me where the body should be,” he said, “but they couldn’t tell me where my mind would be.”
Frank is perched on a silk chenille armchair in front of a television, watching footage of an Italian stone yard worker hosing down granite. “When you water the stone,” Frank explains, “you can see the true life of the granite.”
The videotape is from around 1994, when he and Alexander headed to Italy to buy tons of some of the most expensive stone in the world for Casa Blanca. The tape later includes footage of his favorite restaurant there, and a Yorkshire Terrier on the street outside, turning Frank weepy.
“So that’s the life of a racketeer, all right?” he remarks, shutting off the video.
“How long is this marathon going on?” demands Alexander, walking down the stairs from the third floor of their Hollywood townhouse. “There are things to do, Frank.”
Chapter 11: The reunion of Alexander and Frank
They didn’t think they would both make it out of prison alive. Now they’re designing their future.
Sandy Hooper and David Hamlin, USA TODAY
They were freed from prison – Frank in 2002 and Alexander two years later – having been left with a combined net worth of negative $100,000, according to court records.
Through a quirk of law, the only possessions the government returned to them were those that had been entered into evidence. That included the Gucci bag that had once contained $1 million, and a bronze sculpture of a plump ballerina in mid-pirouette that Amparo had gifted them long ago.
Alexander was the only resident of his halfway house with a Botero.
They each filed for bankruptcy to clear out their debt. Frank got a no-show job at a friend’s motorcycle boot business to satisfy his release requirements. Alexander found some home design work for relative plebeians, clients who made $500,000 or so a year.
The designers realized they didn’t miss their former wealth that much. “Actually, life was back to where it was, without the millions of dollars,” Alexander says.
But then their relatives started dying. First Alexander’s mother. Then his Aunt Fanny. And then Frank’s mother. Each of them left a significant inheritance, they say.
They started buying, renovating and selling their own homes again – in Palm Springs, Los Angeles’ chic Norma Triangle neighborhood, and now this sleek townhouse.
They purchased it for $1.1 million in December, property records show, and plan to sell it for much more than that when they’re done with it. Their total overhaul of the property includes coating the ceiling with silver leaf and installing a helix-shaped chandelier of Swarovski rods over the kitchen island.
Alexander, now 78, and Frank, 71, have landed on an off-brand version of their pre-raid existence. Instead of Robin Williams as their neighbor, they complain about how loudly the singer Pink plays her stereo. Instead of a palm tree being hoisted, they use a construction crane to noisily drag an expensive cabinet to their roof deck. The mustaches remain, though they’ve lost much of their color.
José Santacruz was a central character in a recent season of Netflix’s “Narcos,” but Alexander and Frank have no interest in watching it. Though they wonder how Amparo has fared, potential legal jeopardy has made them too timid to reach out.
Frank thinks often about Santacruz’s children, particularly Marely’s orphans. Her sons were lonely boys who ran in front of Frank’s camera while he documented a property to be renovated, holding up their pet rabbits for him to film and chasing ducks around a pool.
“They evolved into some beautiful children,” before he lost touch, he says with his voice breaking, and he hopes to one day give them his library of the de facto home videos.
Amparo appears to be on Facebook, listed as living in Cali and with her profile photo showing her posing under the lights of the Eiffel Tower.
She and her children, and those of Marely, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.
For their work in the designers’ investigation, Robinson, Michaelis and Clarke were given the Administrator’s Award, one of the DEA’s highest accolades. The honor included a gala in Washington where the head of the DEA, flanked by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, handed out plaques.
Two decades later, Robinson remains as skeptical as ever of his old targets.
During Alexander and Frank’s trial, rumors circulated that they had concealed some of their Santacruz proceeds from the government.
Lerner, the prosecutor, told the judge that two prisoners had separately informed him that Frank had said he had money hidden away that he and Alexander were going to use to flee.
Nothing came of the allegation, and prison snitches are notoriously unreliable. But Robinson still believes the interior designers got one over on the American government.
Robinson, now 77, leads a Floridian life far less glamorous than that of his former suspects. During an interview for this story, his wife scolded him for talking with half his teeth out. Of the old suspicion that the designers hid their millions under their Sea Cliff topiary, Robinson says with a guffaw, “I might go there and dig it up now – I need it.”
For a case so thoroughly investigated, it’s notable that the government never seemed to have a precise tally of how much in total Santacruz paid his designers.
There was the figure of $30 million cited in an indictment with apparently little to back it up. A Department of Justice bulletin stated that the designers’ “offense conduct after 1986” – when money laundering was outlawed – involved at least $5.5 million, half of it in cash. The designers’ attorneys filed a spreadsheet in court estimating Santacruz’s total design costs to be $7.8 million, but Alexander says the figures were “not at all accurate” and suggested the actual total is higher.
“Nobody truly knows how much except me,” Alexander remarks in their kitchen in Hollywood.
He indicates Frank: “He doesn’t even know.”
“Because you don’t trust me,” Frank complains.
Alexander responds that he just didn’t want the government to waterboard him for the amount. To this day he’s kept it to himself.
He then adds with a smile, “I know how much to the dollar.”