Originally created 09/19/03

Man admits drug trafficking



A former FBI Top 10 fugitive pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Augusta on Thursday afternoon, admitting he ran an international cocaine smuggling operation.

James S. Springette, 43, funneled tons of cocaine to the U.S. mainland and raked in millions of dollars. He is facing a prison sentence of 10 years to life without parole for conspiracy.

He was there when boats brought cocaine into the Virgin Islands and when airplanes dropped bales of cocaine in half-ton loads.

He arranged for the purchase of a cargo freighter for more than $300,000, a ship confiscated Oct. 1, 1996, with 6,000 kilograms of cocaine hidden onboard.

He was there when British Virgin Islands police tried to stop a van carrying more than 2 tons of cocaine and the occupants opened fire with automatic weapons, seriously wounding one officer.

Mr. Springette escaped that night with two Colombian citizens who were later arrested and tied to the shootout. He later arranged for their escape from prison.

Mr. Springette escaped in Colombia in March 2000 and lived as a fugitive until his capture in Venezuela on Nov. 5.

"Nothing, your honor," Mr. Springette answered U.S. District Chief Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. when asked which of those facts he disagreed with.

Mr. Springette had been scheduled to stand trial next month with Francis Moulan, 32, a Dominican citizen indicted along with Mr. Springette and several others. Mr. Moulan has pleaded innocent.

The 1998 indictment against Mr. Springette and the others is the biggest drug-trafficking case ever prosecuted in Augusta's federal courthouse.

On Thursday, U.S. Customs Agent Larry Sapp testified that investigators were able to reach into Mr. Springette's Caribbean network by breaking up Augusta area cocaine trafficking operations. The local dealers revealed they had each gotten cocaine from Mr. Springette, the agent testified.

According to the indictment, Mr. Springette ran the operation from February 1991 through 1999. As late as last November, he was planning to move more cocaine, Agent Sapp testified.

Through it all, until Thursday, Mr. Springette had never been convicted of a felony, defense attorney Pete Theodocion said. He did stand trial in 1994 in the Virgin Islands, accused of a weapons crime, but he was acquitted of that charge.

A sentencing date has not been set. Four others who have pleaded guilty in the case received prison sentences of 84 to 288 months.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.