Developer’s Past Clouds Ski Village Florida Partner, Soured On Project, Files Suit After Learning Of Drug-Related Time In Prison

Thomas Lane’s life has taken him from the drug-infested ports of Panama to Silver Mountain Ski Resort’s snow-capped peaks.

News of the journey - including time spent in federal prison for drug smuggling and money laundering - is now tarnishing a Kellogg ski development.

An investor in an alpine village project here is suing Lane, saying the New Hampshire man failed to disclose his criminal past. Lane was released from prison in January 1996 after pleading guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to import cocaine from Latin America.

One of Lane’s partners in the Kellogg venture, James Leimbach of Florida, filed the suit against his former best friend earlier this year. In the lawsuit, Leimbach accuses Lane of misappropriating funds, misrepresenting facts about Silverhorn Alpine Village and breaching an investment contract, according to documents filed in 1st District Court in Wallace.

Progress on the 140-acre, mixed-use development planned under the ski hill’s gondola has slowed since Lane was imprisoned. Six years after he first announced plans for the village, it has received only preliminary approval from the city.

Lane said the delays have nothing to do with his past.

“I walked a straight line on all my business ventures,” Lane said. “There isn’t anything, not a penny, out of line.”

In a recent interview, Leimbach said he began scrutinizing the Silverhorn development last year after reading newspaper accounts of Lane’s involvement in a drug smuggling ring.

Stories from a Grand Rapids, Mich., newspaper depict Lane as a central figure in a group that smuggled more than 9,000 pounds of cocaine between Mexico and Southern California from mid-1990 to November 1991. The cocaine reportedly was worth $100 million.

“There was no question in my mind I’m getting the heck out of this project,” Leimbach said of his reaction when he first saw those articles. He said Lane told him only that he was in trouble for introducing two people.

Federal court documents show Lane pleaded guilty in July 1992 to conspiracy to import cocaine and money laundering. He served 21 months in federal prison for the crimes.

Lane said reports of his involvement in the drug smuggling operation discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in November 1991 have been exaggerated. He insists he is guilty only of introducing two men, both of whom later were convicted of smuggling cocaine into the United States. He denies participating in the drug smuggling operation.

“You have to know the whole story about why I did it,” Lane said. “I’m not excusing it. It was an error in judgment.”

Lane, 62, said he planned an early retirement in Panama in the early 1980s after amassing wealth in real estate development. There, his PanAmerican International Travel Society began organizing rafting, sailing and scuba diving trips for U.S. servicemen. Lane said his business interests soon began to grow and he found himself “riding a little high on the social scale in Panama.”

By the time Lane left Panama in 1988, he sailed for Tampa with a new Panamanian wife and family. He spent Christmas with Leimbach, whom he had met during a presentation about a scuba diving trip, and moved his family to Michigan after the holidays.

Lane settled with his wife and two adopted children in Manistee, Mich., without credit cards, bank accounts or a mortgage, he said. He paid cash for two cars, formed a handful of corporations, bought hundreds of acres of land and kept an office in Washington, D.C., for consulting work.

“I was in great shape financially,” Lane said. The cash, his new Latin family and an office in Washington, D.C., “fit the (U.S. government’s) prime example of someone that was making money in ill-gotten gains.”

By 1989, Lane said he had been awarded a contract to build powerboats for the Panamanian government. The boats were to be paid for by the U.S. government, which was helping Panama rebuild its navy following the U.S. invasion of that country in 1989. The speedy vessels were to intercept drug smugglers, Lane said.

Before beginning the project, Lane said he sought permission from Colombian drug lords because “the last guy working on drug-interdiction boats got assassinated.”

Lane said he was granted permission to build the boats and subsequently “owed a favor” to the drug lords in return.

That favor was called in by a man whom Lane said he had met a year earlier. Lane declined the man’s request to smuggle drugs into the U.S., but agreed to introduce him to someone else who would.

On Nov. 7, 1991, several months after that introduction, the U.S. Coast Guard seized 700 pounds of a suspected 2-ton shipment of cocaine from a sinking boat off the coast of Mexico, said Bruce Smith, assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Lane’s case in San Diego. Its two occupants, Arthur John Young of San Diego and Freydy Sanchoyerto of Hialeah, Fla., were the two men Lane had introduced.

Before jumping from the boat - the Swiftsure - Young and Sanchoyerto doused the vessel with gasoline and set it on fire, Smith said. Coast Guard crew members seized as much cocaine as they could from the boat before it sank, but much of the shipment was lost with the vessel, Smith said.

“As soon as they broke through the (deck’s) surface they started pulling up bricks of cocaine,” Smith said.

Lane was arrested two weeks later. A federal grand jury indicted Lane on charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute on board a vessel, conspiracy to import cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and attempted importation of cocaine.

Lane said he told agents he knew Young and Sanchoyerto, but knew nothing about the cocaine

U.S. District Court Judge William B. Enright dismissed the four charges against Lane without prejudice in March 1992, meaning they could be refiled, according to court records. Lane was indicted a second time on drug smuggling charges and said he hesitantly accepted an offer in July 1992 to plead guilty to conspiracy to import cocaine and money laundering.

“We reached an agreement that I would go to work for (the government) and they would cut me some slack,” said Lane, who added that the second indictment “was still not accurate, but it was closer to the truth.”

His admission to federal agents that he had introduced Young and Sanchoyerto made it difficult to fight the conspiracy charge, Lane said. The plea arrangement, the details of which remain sealed, gave Lane an opportunity to make amends for the introduction, he said.

“I was (a co-conspirator) because by my own admission I had introduced John to Jose and Jose to John,” Lane said. “I said, ‘What can I do to make up for it?’ And, I had a self-interest, too. I didn’t want to go to jail.”

Federal agents alleged Lane’s role in the drug smuggling operation went beyond an introduction and a single botched shipment of cocaine.

They suspected two other ships slipped undetected into the United States, said Smith, the assistant U.S. attorney. One to two tons of cocaine were believed to have been unloaded in Southern California during each of the trips, he said.

“His involvement is far greater than just introducing people,” Smith said.

The money laundering charge resulted because Lane handled the finances for the trips, Smith said. Lane also maintained the boats, outfitted them, planned the route and arranged for people to be paid, he said.

Smith declined to provide further details about the case, citing a court-ordered seal on much of the information, but said the money laundering charge “tends to give a better, more accurate picture of what he did wrong.”

Lane dismissed the allegations as the “prosecutorial mentality” of a frustrated attorney.

“They never proved it,” Lane said. “That’s where we ended up with the plea agreement. I wasn’t a smuggler. I wasn’t any of those things.”

Since his release from prison, Lane said his attempts to move forward with his business interests have been plagued by Leimbach’s “campaign” to besmirch his name.

Another lawsuit filed in New Hampshire by Leimbach and two other partners, Paul Mowatt and Winifred McGarry, over an apartment complex there also alleges wrongdoing by Lane. Misappropriation of company funds is among the allegations.

Mowatt said he also found out about Lane’s drug convictions from newspaper articles and decided to file the lawsuit.

“When he left for prison he said he was going overseas to build boats for the Costa Rican government to chase drug runners,” Mowatt said. “How ironic.”

Lane has filed counterclaims in the Idaho and New Hampshire suits. Allegations in the counterclaims include defamation.

“I have had my day in court,” Lane said. “I served my time.”

Lane said he has told his business associates about his past. Most have appreciated his honesty and have not been affected by the criminal convictions, he said.

“I’d rather tell the truth to everybody, put my cards on the table and say, ‘Here I am, let’s play from there,”’ Lane said.

He said John Laboe, his attorney in the New Hampshire suit, could provide letters that show Lane has disclosed his criminal troubles and prove Leimbach has embarked on a defamation campaign. Laboe refused comment.

Leimbach said he no longer trusts the man who served as the best man at his 1993 wedding and wants out of business with him. He is seeking $184,000 in special damages for breach of contract and the cost of dissolving the partnership, $80,000 in restitution, and additional damages from Lane, Silverhorn Associates, Silverhorn Associates Inc., Silverhorn Alpine Village Inc., and PanAmerican International Travel Society, according to documents filed in Idaho’s 1st District Court.

“My foibles shouldn’t be penalizing what’s good for the community and the company both,” Lane said.

, DataTimes

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