The Sun Valley Athletic Club features two floors of gleaming weight and exercise machines, wood-floored aerobics rooms, a lap pool and massage rooms. Its windows frame views of Sun Valley’s ski runs.
There’s no outward sign that the busy club’s construction was paid for with garbage bags full of cash piled up from years of drug smuggling.
Now five people, including Ketchum resident John Parten, face sentencing on federal charges that include money laundering, drug smuggling and conspiracy.
It’s the only major international drug smuggling case ever prosecuted in Idaho.
Parten never had a legitimate job, according to court documents. But he lived a jetset life filled with surfing, skiing and high living around the world, paid for by shipments of Thai marijuana he helped bring to stealthy landings along the California coast.
Authorities say Parten got out of drug smuggling in the 1980s.
He invested his millions in legal businesses, including the athletic club (sold to legitimate owners in 1986), resort property in Fiji, a TV studio and home construction in California and Idaho.
But, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Monte Stiles, “it’s hard to go legit when all you’ve got is illegal money.”
‘Mellow quiet times’
When John Parten graduated from Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1969, marijuana was the popular drug.
Parten was a handsome, clean-cut boy who made the honor roll, played water polo and basketball.
He also began what would become a long and successful career in drug trafficking, authorities say.
By 1971, he had moved to South Africa, where court records suggest he was hiding out from the draft. There, he was “having mellow quiet times, surfing and enjoying the sun,” he said in a letter home. He expressed his disgust for “the whole draft trip,” and signed off, “Love/Peace/Om, John.”
It was a time when many Americans thought marijuana eventually would be legalized. Pot smugglers were the topic of popular songs.
“Back when all this started, there was a very different atmosphere in this country,” Stiles said. “A whole generation of people didn’t think this was a big deal.”
Parten rose quickly in the marijuana smuggling world, according to court records, but there’s little information about his early years. Tricia Fletcher, an Australian citizen, began living with him in late 1971.
One witness told authorities she met Parten when he and others made surfing movies in Indonesia in the 1970s, paid for by drug proceeds. In 1975, investigators say Parten was in Bangkok, Thailand, arranging a marijuana shipment. By that time, he and Tricia had a baby son.
In 1977, Parten bought his mother, Mary Lou, a $170,000 house in Laguna Beach, Calif. Mary Lou became a partner in a long list of corporations that Parten formed to manage his growing wealth. The corporations list such businesses as surfing tours, import/ export and furniture trading, but investigators found they were mere shells.
Marijuana smuggling was so profitable, authorities say Parten was able to finance a lavish lifestyle with only about one shipment a year.
Parten and Tricia split up in 1978. The next year, he married his current wife, Chiyo.
Sun Valley lifestyle
Throughout his smuggling years, Parten’s mother’s house was something of a base of operations. Witnesses said it was sometimes used as a “stash house” for freshly unloaded marijuana.
But Parten spent much of his time traveling the world. He surfed and skied. He and his mother formed a trust, and he formed partnerships and corporations in California, Idaho, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji and more. He bought homes and land.
In 1983, Parten and contractor Don Trabert built a duplex in Ketchum that would serve as Parten’s Sun Valley winter home.
“It is easy for people with millions of dollars to fit into the affluent lifestyle over there,” Stiles said. “They can afford the housing, they can afford the skiing.”
By the mid-1980s, authorities said Parten had stopped smuggling. Instead, he began to invest his millions into legitimate businesses. He and Chiyo had two children.
The $1.5 million Sun Valley Athletic Club was the largest business project. “It was built entirely with the proceeds of drug trafficking,” Stiles said.
Court records tell of people taking garbage bags and suitcases full of cash to bank after bank, in Idaho and in Southern California, getting cashier’s checks for less than $10,000 each. (Banks report transactions of more than $10,000 to the IRS.)
The checks were used for construction materials.
Parten and another smuggler, Rodney Pruitt, were the major investors. Trabert built the athletic club. In 1986, the club was sold to legitimate owners for $1.6 million.
Parten’s other investments included a television post-production studio in Southern California, which he started in 1985 and sold in 1990.
“These people are a different class of drug traffickers than we typically deal with here,” Stiles said. “They’re sophisticated, educated people that for the most part probably could have been successful in anything they got into.”
Hint of danger
The law never caught up with Parten through all his years of smuggling. Often, he moved from country to country when there was a hint of danger from the law.
Parten had a scare in the early 1980s. Tricia was on her way to visit him in Hawaii and pick up their son when she was arrested at the airport for possession of heroin. Parten was afraid she’d talk.
In 1984, Parten wrote a letter to his Los Angeles attorney saying, “I’m facing the reality that I might not be able to live in U.S.A. for years to come. People faced with longer jail sentences have given D.E.A. information about things I did over 5 years ago. Knowing my past, I expect it’ll be difficult to just pay taxes on my properties and expect to live unharassed in America and traveling about as I will always do.”
He said he might sell his Hawaii house and Sun Valley condo, although they were his “dream spots,” and move permanently to Fiji.
Court records show Parten still owns part of the Turquoise Harbor Resort in the Fiji islands, along with a villa and other property there. He also has an interest in a 500,000-acre ranch in Australia that includes 40 to 50 miles of beachfront, property in Hawaii and Ketchum, and bank accounts in Hong Kong and Singapore containing more than $1 million.
But things cooled and Parten eventually was able to return to a lifestyle that included winters skiing in Sun Valley.
He had been out of the smuggling business for nearly a decade when federal agents began watching him. His name had surfaced along with others in an investigation into drugs and money laundering in the Sun Valley area.
Investigators who conducted video surveillance on Parten in the winters of 1992 and 1993 reported that he and Chiyo “skied almost every day.” In 1993, Parten went on a snowboarding trip to Russia and a summer skiing vacation in South America.
But he was under the eye of federal investigators specializing in money laundering cases. They also were watching Trabert, Pruitt and former Parten smuggling partner Michael Kuntz. Pruitt had served time in prison in the late 1980s for drug smuggling.
“A number of these individuals have been investigated all over the country and the world, but Idaho is where they were brought to justice,” Stiles said.
The IRS, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs, and the Royal Hong Kong Police were among the agencies involved in the investigation.
In June of 1994, Parten was arrested on federal racketeering charges. His assets were seized, prompting a court fight just to free up enough to pay his attorney’s fees.
Federal prosecutors brought racketeering charges against Parten, his mother, Trabert, Pruitt and Kuntz. They said the years of drug trafficking followed by years of money laundering constituted a continuing criminal enterprise. That meant the five-year statute of limitations for drug smuggling didn’t matter.
All five pleaded guilty to reduced charges and agreed to forfeit millions in property and cash. Parten, Kuntz and Pruitt pleaded guilty to drug smuggling and money laundering; Trabert and Mary Lou to money laundering.
Parten’s wealth and far-flung holdings made the forfeitures extremely complicated, causing several delays in the sentencing. He spent nearly a year in jail, before being released, with supervision, to his Ketchum home last spring pending sentencing.
He’s now working to support his family, and declined to discuss his case.
“John is trying awful hard to live his life,” said Parten’s attorney, David Nevin. “He’s a person who was involved in these things many years ago, and stopped his involvement voluntarily.”
Nevin noted that Parten has been involved in “purely legitimate” business activities for years. “Now, to be drawn into these things, has been very difficult.”
Nevin declined to discuss the case before the sentencing. That’s likely to come in a few months in U.S. District Court in Boise.
All the defendants except Mary Lou face possible prison terms.
Because there’s no evidence large quantities of the drugs ever entered Idaho, the main mark the case will leave here will be in the high-quality construction the drug money financed in the Sun Valley area (most of which has long since passed into legitimate ownership), and the boost law enforcement will get when it receives a share of the forfeited wealth.
Stiles said the case also sends a message to money launderers that they won’t find Idaho a safe haven.
If Parten and the others hadn’t kept spending their illegally obtained money, they never would have been caught, he said.
“That was probably the fatal flaw in their plan. The money did ‘em in.”
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