Nearly 30 years after former Southold resident William LaMorte was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison for his role in an international drug conspiracy, a co-defendant who spent the ensuing decades on the run has admitted taking part in the criminal enterprise.
Appearing at the federal courthouse in Manhattan Wednesday, Jacob Moritz, 72, pleaded guilty to one felony count of participating in a conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to sell less than 50 kilograms of marijuana. Mr. Moritz, who was arrested near the Canadian border in Montana last April, is facing up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine at his sentencing in September. The longtime fugitive has also agreed to forfeit $2 million in assets as part of his plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong and I’m sorry,” Mr. Moritz told Southern District Court Judge Loretta Preska, who will rule on how much time he serves at his Sept. 12 sentencing.
Mr. Moritz told the judge he was “nervous and scared” as he entered his guilty plea Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara LaMorte, who is of no relation to the co-defendant in the case, said Mr. Moritz will turn over a bank account and title to property he owns in the Republic of Maldives, an island nation in South Asia, in an effort to satisfy the forfeiture agreement. Ryan Poscablo, an attorney representing Mr. Moritz, said they are currently working to access the Maldives account, which he said his client established under the name Arthur Chestnutt, an alias he used in that country.
Mr. LaMorte, who owned the former Key Foods in Cutchogue during some of the years he also allegedly ran the large-scale drug smuggling operation, had previously been the only person convicted among the four indicted co-conspirators in the case. The four men were accused of smuggling more than 1,200 tons of marijuana and hashish into the U.S. and Canada from ports in countries like Morocco and Lebanon in a series of shipments from 1971 to 1986.
While the other three defendants in the case fled, Mr. LaMorte stood trial. He was convicted by a federal jury in March 1991 and sentenced to 50 years in prison and ordered to pay $49.2 million in fines. He was also ordered to forfeit $25 million in assets.
The well-known businessman later admitted to The Suffolk Times in a jailhouse interview that he would transport the drugs from freighters anchored miles offshore through Gardiners Bay to houses his family owned in Southold using smaller boats. He always maintained that he should not have been convicted, saying he had stopped smuggling drugs years before his arrest and the statute of limitations had passed.
Mr. LaMorte, who died in prison on July 4, 2007 at the age of 60, lost several appeals of his conviction.
At Mr. LaMorte’s trial, his younger brother Thomas testified that the elder Mr. LaMorte received 50 percent of the proceeds from the massive amounts of marijuana they would bring into the U.S. He testified that he and Mr. Moritz would split the remaining half. It was said at trial that shipments could exceed $15 million.
Thomas LaMorte, who had testified against his brother to avoid serving time in prison for an unrelated drug arrest, would later write a letter to the judge in support of his brother’s appeal.
While it was previously alleged in court papers and through testimony at William LaMorte’s trial that the enterprise began in 1971, Mr. Moritz only admitted Wednesday to participating in it from 1975 to 1985.
Mr. Moritz was arrested in the early morning hours of April 15, 2018, after crossing the Canadian border near Rexford, Mont., according to a statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Border patrol officers had been searching for Mr. Moritz and another man after receiving a tip of two suspicious men emerging from a wooded area not far from the border, agents said at the time.
Mr. Moritz remains free on a $100,000 bond posted in April 2018 by his sons, attorneys Jonathan and Dillon Brozyna of Tampa, Fla. He is currently living with his wife in an apartment in Tampa, where he is monitored through the use of GPS and subject to a 7 p.m. daily curfew, court records show. A 1989 indictment states that Mr. Moritz lived in Connecticut and New York City at the time he vanished.
To this day, co-defendants Fayez Barade and Harry Sunila have never been apprehended by federal authorities.