WASHINGTON — A fabled Florida drug informant once known as “the Princess” has now crowned her career with a bittersweet legal victory
Capping a lawsuit filed in 1997, a federal judge has awarded the woman $1.14 million to cover care for the multiple sclerosis she attributes to a traumatic kidnapping. The judge reasoned the disease could be traced to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s failing its duty.
“DEA not only failed to protect (the Princess), but acted with reckless disregard for her safety in light of its intelligence indicating how at risk she was,” U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Mary Ellen Coster Williams wrote.
In the decision issued under seal Aug. 30, and published in a slightly redacted form last Friday, Williams further concluded “the Princess’ abduction was a substantial causal factor in the onset of her multiple sclerosis.” Severe stress, doctors testified, can trigger the crippling disease.
“The Princess was in normal physical condition before her kidnapping,” Williams wrote, adding that “during her three-month captivity, however, the Princess began to experience severe impairments . . . she began falling frequently and experienced difficulties with her right leg that foiled her attempts to escape through a hole in the ceiling.”
Michael L. Avery Sr., a Washington-area attorney who began representing the Princess in 1998, said in an interview Monday that “she’s not in the best of health,” but that she was gratified by the court’s highly detailed, 52-page ruling.
“We’re extremely excited that the court found in her favor,” Avery said. “The Princess is ecstatic.”
Citing continuing concern for the Princess’ safety, Avery would not pinpoint her current location other than to say she lives in “south Florida” and is “over 60” years of age.
The Justice Department has until the end of this week to file an appeal, if officials choose to. A DEA representative could not be reached Monday. In court filings, the Justice Department argued the Princess was subject to many other sources of stress besides the kidnapping, including, Williams noted, “a past abusive husband, a daughter battling drug addiction, divorces, and a failing business.”
The Princess started serving as an informant in 1991, posing as a money launderer in operations run by the DEA’s Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office. Her work led to the seizure of approximately $23 million, as well as over 20 “spinoff” investigations, multiple arrests and prosecutable cases against approximately 80 traffickers, couriers and others, according to the DEA.
Her dangerous, high-flying work also repeatedly sent her abroad, on trips to Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Italy, Switzerland and France.
The Princess was seized in Cali, Colombia, on Aug. 31, 1995. She was held for three and a half months in a small room with a dirt floor furnished with a bed made out of straw. At one point, her captors told her they had killed her mother and daughter.
“That’s when my body started feeling, like, weird,” the Princess later testified. “Like, the first thing I felt was like I had an octopus inside of my stomach, and the octopus was doing like this. I mean, that is very strange, but that’s what I felt.”
In mid-December 1995, a man described in court records as a “criminal associate of many high level Cali mafia members” made a $350,000 payment to the kidnappers and secured her freedom.
The DEA subsequently agreed to pay the Princess $996,000 in hopes, a Miami-based DEA official wrote, that the payment could help head off “any future litigation problem.” It did not.
At the same time, the judgment awarded a woman known in court records as SGS-92-X003 fell short of what was once sought. In the original lawsuit, she asked for $33 million. She subsequently reduced her claim to $10 million, plus the $1.1 million to cover her medical care.
Following an initial trial held in June 2007 in West Palm Beach, Fla., and in Washington, a judge concluded in 2009 that the DEA had breached its contract with the Princess. A subsequent damages trial was held in West Palm Beach.
The legal proceedings at times put the government in a bad light, as when the judge discovered the DEA had destroyed evidence, including audiotapes of the Princess’ conversations with Colombian drug traffickers. Avery filed to sanction the government. The action was later settled.
The $1.14 million will pay for an estimated 25 years worth of drugs and supplies, home services, medical services and therapies for the Princess.
“She does the best she can, under the circumstances,” Avery said.