Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Old Drug Case Back in Albuquerque
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
A 23-year-old criminal case involving several hundred pounds of "designer drugs" is back in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque after a trip through the courts so twisted that prosecutors are struggling to piece together the sequence of events.
A central defendant, Robert Widdowson, considered a fugitive since March 1992, was arrested in Belize just before Christmas and returned to the United States via Houston, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He is scheduled for an arraignment and detention hearing today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Torgerson.
Widdowson, now in his mid-60s, was arrested with two other men, all from Austin, after a spectacular state and federal law enforcement sweep near the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos in October 1989. Authorities in helicopters swept onto the rural property "way out in the middle of nowhere ... so you couldn't smell anything and people were miles away," as one Drug Enforcement Administration officer put it.
Officers seized well over 300 gallons of the hallucinogen N-Hydroxy MDMA from the home and lab — pegged by DEA at the time as having a value of $30 million — and took precursor chemicals and laboratory equipment, including a pill press.
Widdowson was initially detained pending trial.
But the late U.S. District Judge Santiago Campos dismissed the indictment against Widdowson and the others in 1989 after finding that the DEA lacked the authority to designate drugs as illegal or restricted because Congress had specifically assigned that duty to the attorney general.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Campos the following year. It said allowing the executive branch to decide which drugs are legal, and then enforce the law, violated the separation of powers doctrine in the Constitution.
The government sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case in 1991. Meanwhile, the high court ruled in a case with similar facts from the 3rd Circuit that the DEA listing was constitutional, and Widdowson's case was sent back to the 10th Circuit and then the district court.
By the time the indictment was reinstated in early 1992, Widdowson was gone. He and his co-defendants also had been charged with violating state water quality laws by dumping chemicals used to make the drugs.
Widdowson had failed to show for a hearing in Taos in 1991, and a state district judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest even before the federal case was revived.