By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
One of Lister's partners in the venture, San Diego SWAT team weapons maker and government supplier Tim Lafrance, told the Weekly in 1997 that Pyramid was a "favored corporation" used by the CIA to help smuggle weapons to the Nicaraguan contras. Lafrance said he traveled to El Salvador with "two giant boxes full of machine guns and ammunition"—goods Lafrance said returned with him at the end of the trip.
"The whole idea was to set up an operation in El Salvador that would allow us to get around U.S. laws and supply the contras with guns," he explained. "The smart way to do this was to find a military base. It's much easier to just build the weapons down there."
While in El Salvador, Lafrance claimed, he manufactured weapons for Nicaragua's CIA-backed rebels known as the contras inside a mass-transit center run by the military. The weapons were airlifted by helicopter to contra training bases in Honduras, on Nicaragua's northern border. Lafrance also asserted that Pyramid's employees were guests at the well-appointed barracks of the elite, U.S.-trained Atlcatl battalion, the unit that carried out the massacre in El Mozote.
The Pyramid security contract offers further evidence of Lister's CIA connections. On its cover page, the contract lists Richard E. Wilker as the firm's "technical director." Wilker is identified in corporate papers as an employee of another Newport Beach company, Intersect Inc. Wilker's current whereabouts are unknown, but two founding members of Intersect—both former CIA agents—told the Weekly they knew Lister.
Although both nervously denied the CIA ever employed Wilker or Lister, the firm's vice president, John Vandewerker, said Wilker once traveled to El Salvador on business and mysteriously had to flee the country. "It was kind of touchy . . . as far as getting out of the country and all that kind of stuff," he said. Vandewerker also said that either Lister or Wilker had once helped him apply for a job with Nelson at Fluor Corp. "For a while, I tried to get a job at Fluor when I stopped working, and I know Rich [Wilker] was trying to sell something to Fluor," he said.
Nelson seemed to be a potential source of employment for many former CIA agents—an irony, given that one of his final acts as a deputy director at the CIA was to recommend the agency terminate full-time jobs for CIA agents who were "marginal performers."
"We owe these people a lot," Nelson wrote then-CIA director George Bush in a 1976 memo. "But not a lifetime job."
Hundreds of CIA agents left the agency's payroll that year, including Vandewerker and Nelson himself, who said he was retiring for personal reasons.
During his FBI interrogation, Nelson claimed Lister had applied for a job with Fluor. "He was never offered a job," states the FBI memo. The next sentence was censored by the FBI, but the memo continues, "Nelson thought Fluor might be able to use his [Lister's] company"—an apparent reference to Pyramid. "Nelson said [Lister] started traveling overseas, Lebanon and Central America, and he always had some scheme that never materialized."
'A DUMB THING'
The Lister-Nelson-D'Aubuisson connection is only one strand of Lister's life story. But the FBI documents also appear to allude to another: Lister's claim that he was simultaneously running cocaine with the support of the CIA.
Nelson told his FBI interrogators that during a March 1985 meeting with Lister, the former Laguna cop begged Nelson for help. "I did a dumb thing because of greed," Lister reportedly told Nelson. What Lister meant is unclear—the next seven lines of the FBI memo are blacked out. But Nelson's response is intact: he told the FBI he informed Lister there was no way the Agency could help him.
Perhaps Lister was talking about the activity that earned him the most money—and ultimately the most trouble—in the 1980s.
In 1982—the same year Lister first traveled to El Salvador for Pyramid—and while meeting regularly with Nelson, Lister hit upon a lucrative business scheme: running cocaine to raise cash to support rebels in neighboring Nicaragua. Despite their close ties to the CIA, the rebels had a problem: their reputation on Capitol Hill. Among many U.S. lawmakers, they were known as terrorists, more likely to murder Nicaraguans than liberate them. The U.S. Congress fought the Reagan administration's requests to fund the contras and then, in 1984, banned any U.S. military aid for the rebels. Two years later, a federal investigation known as Iran-contra revealed that the Reagan administration had illegally sneaked around the ban, selling weapons to Iran for cash it transferred to the Nicaraguan contras.
There was also evidence the contras were selling drugs in the U.S. to finance their operations. Among others, Lister would later claim that he helped in the fund-raising. He hooked up with Danilo Blandon, a drug-dealing Nicaraguan exile then living in Los Angeles. According to voluminous law-enforcement documents, Blandon and Lister established a vast cocaine network throughout California. The network was especially strong in South Central. Blandon would later testify that Lister's job was money laundering and security. Lister kept Blandon well-stocked with surveillance gear and high-tech weapons: Mack 10s, police scanners, Uzis, even grenade launchers. Blandon said he passed the equipment on to his South-Central LA connection, "Freeway" Ricky Ross. Using Lister's gear to avoid police detection, Ross emerged as the region's most notorious cocaine trafficker. He would later recall that one of his favorite entertainments was to use his police scanners to eavesdrop on cops raiding rival drug rings—while he and his buddies counted the cash from their latest deal.