The Phantom and the Fugitive: A cross-country cocaine caper
Detroit -- A federal grand jury is weighing charges in a case involving a fugitive and a $200,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom that's been leased, stolen, hidden and hunted by federal agents along a digital breadcrumb trail.
Interviews, data from a secret spy gadget and thousands of pages of court records offer insight into a celebrity-studded, true-crime caper starring a dream car, rapper Snoop Dogg and one slippery fugitive.
The fugitive disappeared 15 years ago and is wanted in three states for allegedly importing cocaine across the country, including Metro Detroit. The fugitive has outsmarted agents from the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Postal Inspection Service thanks to sneaky tactics, near misses and fake names.
"This case," said Peter Britton, a lawyer involved in the saga, "is about phantoms."
The Phantom saga started in California on Sept. 24, 2010.
That's when Audrey Cretser, 27, of Tarzana, Calif., leased a silver and black 2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom with suicide doors. The deal was for one year and $33,000.
The deal disintegrated almost immediately. On Oct. 24, 2010, a month into the lease, an insurance company said her driver's license was phony and canceled her policy.
Turns out Cretser is a phantom, too. Her birthday is bogus. So is her home address — it's a commercial intersection in Tarzana, Calif.
Five months passed and by February 2011, there was still no Phantom, still no "Audrey Cretser."
"This car," Oregon car leasing company owner Marty Kehoe said, "just disappeared."
High end, high risk
Kehoe, who owns the Phantom, specializes in high-end leases and high-risk clients, a segment he targeted in 2008 after traditional lenders disappeared amid the auto-industry meltdown.
The Phantom might have been missing, but the dream car wasn't exactly hiding. Or avoiding the spotlight.
In March 2011, six months after the Phantom allegedly disappeared, the Rolls-Royce sedan showed up at a 3,800-square-foot home in Diamond Bar, Calif., the hometown of legendary rapper Snoop Dogg.
The Phantom wasn't merely in Snoop Dogg's hometown. The Rolls-Royce sedan was at Snoop Dogg's home at 11:03 p.m. on March 25, 2011.
The next day, at 1:09 p.m. on March 26, 2011, the Phantom popped up less than an hour away along the Long Beach shoreline.
The dream car was parked next to the Queen Mary ocean liner and a giant dome that once housed the "Spruce Goose" airplane.
The Phantom was there at the same time people gathered in the dome to mourn the late rapper Nate Dogg.
Minutes after the memorial service on March 26, 2011, the Phantom traveled to Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Long Beach for Nate Dogg's funeral.
Snoop Dogg spoke at the memorial service, rode there in the Phantom and attended the funeral. News photographers shot pictures of the rapper and wife Shante Broadus alongside the Phantom, which disappeared again days later.
The hunt begins
Clues that explain the mystery surrounding a hot Phantom that carried one of the world's most famous rappers to a funeral are contained within a federal investigation in Detroit.
It's an investigation rooted in an earlier conspiracy, when an innovative drug dealer's world crumbled along the shoulder of Interstate 75, downriver from Detroit.
It was Feb. 15, 2000.
Just after 6:35 p.m., Taylor Police Officer Steven Schwein boarded a dark burgundy tour bus with big gold stripes stopped along I-75 near Eureka Road.
The bus had been sent to Detroit by Los Angeles drug dealer Roderick Henry, who owned a limousine company that catered to L.A. Lakers basketball stars.
In the late 1990s, Henry revolutionized the drug industry by sending concert tour buses on cross-country trips carrying large audio speakers packed full of cocaine. On return trips, the speakers were filled with cash.
"... after the first time or so," Assistant U.S. Attorney Wayne Pratt said, according to court records, "they didn't really bother with a band anymore ..."
Henry sent three concert speakers filled with more than 150 kilograms of cocaine to Detroit in February 2000. The FBI and Detroit Police moved in after the cocaine was sold and seized $3 million, including more than $1 million from the back of a pickup that left a bungalow near Eight Mile and Gratiot.
"It was like the bottom had dropped out," Pratt said.
The one who got away
After the concert speaker bust, Henry was charged with drug crimes, convicted in federal court in Detroit and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Six co-defendants joined him in prison. One man got away: Los Angeles resident Jerrell Hayworth, 50.
The bungalow near Eight Mile was a stash house used by Hayworth and others, empty except for $10,000 stacks of cash on the floor and a money counter in the kitchen, according to investigators.
Hayworth was driving behind the pickup when investigators seized $1 million, but he got away.
Known on the streets of Detroit as "Neeman," the feds say Hayworth and others received 50 kilos of cocaine hidden inside one of the concert speakers. Hayworth has been missing so long, the feds dropped charges in 2007, saying they had "exhausted all available leads."
On June 4, 2008, a year after the feds dropped charges — eight years after the tour bus bust in Detroit — U.S. Postal Service Inspector Norbert Jaworoski watched a man walk into a post office near Los Angeles International Airport.
The man dropped two large boxes into the mail slot — a move met with suspicion since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and walked outside to a tan Chrysler.
Jaworoski followed, scribbled down the license plate and pulled up the man's driver's license.
He was staring at Hayworth, the fugitive alleged drug dealer, who managed to get away, again.
Federal investigators soon learned they had indicted a phantom. Jerrell Hayworth was just an alias.
His real name is Mark Randall Jones, 50, of Los Angeles.
On June 18, 2008, the feds charged Jones and put a $50,000 bounty on his head.
That's because the two boxes Jones mailed from Los Angeles to Mississippi contained two kilos of cocaine. Now, federal agents just had to find him.
Federal agents fanned out across metropolitan Los Angeles and raided several homes tied to the fugitive, who owns a real-estate portfolio worth almost $10 million.
They found a Bentley, more than $500,000 in cash, 10 kilos of cocaine, a gun, a flatbed truck and another gun. But no Jones.
Catch and release
Nine months later, in March 2009, Patrick Austin — a trucker with a rap sheet and a GED — left his $1 million mansion near Los Angeles.
He was towing Nissan 350Z sports cars — one red, one black — inside a metal trailer, the kind that blocks GPS tracking devices from sending signals.
It was a problem-free trip until Austin hit Paw Paw on March 19, 2009. He was on his way back from Metro Detroit, investigators believe.
During a routine traffic stop along westbound Interstate 94, Michigan State Police troopers found secret hiding spots inside the sports cars and $1,004,804.
"I didn't know anything about no money," Austin told state police investigators.
Liar, investigators said.
The amount of cash and circumstances drew U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who helped interrogate the trucker.
"... you're the middleman. I know that, we all know that ...," an investigator told Austin. "... you're caught in the middle right now and we have to go through you to get to somebody. And if we have to take it out on you, oh, so be it."
Michigan State Police troopers kept the cash and the sports cars but let trucker Austin leave with his enclosed, metal trailer.
"The blind-mule defense," said Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford, "only works once."
In September 2010, a year after the Paw Paw bust, "Audrey Cretser" leased the silver-and-black 2006 Rolls-Royce Phantom.
She was a client of car broker Marc Laidler, 52, a former IndyCar racing team owner who also headed a Los Angeles customizing garage.
The garage, 310 Motoring, tricked out cars owned by Hollywood actors, pop stars and professional athletes such as boxer Floyd Mayweather.
Laidler's company customized Denzel Washington's 1979 Monte Carlo in "Training Day" and Eminem's "Rapmobile," and provided cars for Snoop Dogg's 2001 movie "The Wash."
Laidler was the man to see for wall-to-wall chinchilla, voice-activated vodka bars and back-seat stripper poles.
"Only thing I can't make a car do," Laidler once told an interviewer, "is fly."
In September 2010, Laidler was working as an independent car broker for "Audrey Cretser," who wanted a Rolls-Royce Phantom. At the time, Laidler was semi-famous in Los Angeles and would soon pop up on the Justice Department's radar.
The superstar car broker reached out to luxury dealer M Car Co. in Portland, Ore.
Laidler funneled dozens of clients to the Oregon dealership over the years. He was trusted because of his stable of celebrity clients — so trusted, that M Car owner Marc Stromvig didn't check "Audrey Cretser's" background.
"Audrey Cretser" had cash, but no credit. So M Car Co. owner Marc Stromvig turned to the entrepreneur next door.
That entrepreneur was Kehoe, who leases high-end rides to high-risk credit clients. His clients are so high risk, Kehoe installs GPS tracking devices in every car.
"If something goes wrong," Kehoe told The News, "we go get the car."
Kehoe and his employees never met "Audrey Cretser" or talked to her on the phone but let her lease the Phantom for one year for $33,000.
She had good taste. Respected auto review website Edmunds praised the Rolls-Royce sedan, but warned the Phantom "might attract more attention than you want."
Laidler, the car broker, picked up the Phantom in North Hollywood on Sept. 24, 2010, Kehoe said.
"Audrey Cretser" needed the Phantom for a party that night, Kehoe recalls being told.
After her phony driver's license was revealed and her insurance policy canceled on Oct, 24, 2010, Kehoe tried to find her and the Phantom. The GPS device showed the sedan was in the Los Angeles area, Kehoe said, but the spy gadget was unreliable and silent for long stretches, a common problem due to underground garages, trees and enclosed metal trailers.
Laidler, the broker, was unable to reach his client, Kehoe said.
It was a story that Kehoe would soon doubt.
Search leads to Detroit
Kehoe says he spent several months hunting for the Phantom. Simultaneously, federal drug agents were hunting for Jones, the fugitive alleged drug dealer who got away.
The search led to Detroit on April 14, 2011.
DEA agents, listening on a wiretap, learned an unknown drug courier from Los Angeles was at Greektown Casino in Detroit.
Agents pulled the surveillance footage and spotted the alleged courier with two suitcases in a casino elevator.
The alleged courier got away the next day but DEA agents seized one suitcase that contained more than $110,000 cash and seven kilos of cocaine. Agents also learned the identity of the man inside the Greektown Casino elevator.
He was Carl Washington, a 46-year-old plumber and felon from Los Angeles.
With the new information, a DEA agent traveled to Los Angeles to find Washington — and new clues in the hunt for fugitive Mark Jones.
In Hollywood, the DEA agent tracked Carl Washington to a Los Angeles apartment and raided the place. She found Washington inside the apartment and two black pistols in an unlocked safe. The safe belonged to his roommate, Shaun Burman, Washington said.
The feds knew that name. It was another alias for Jones.
On April 28, 2011, two weeks after the Greektown Casino bust, Phantom owner Kehoe found his long-lost Rolls-Royce sedan.
The dream car was in an impound lot in Elkhart, Ind., east of South Bend.
"I thought 'Hallelujah, we'll go get the car,' " Kehoe told The News. "Well, not so easy."
The Phantom ended up in the impound lot after Indiana State Police Trooper Mick Dockery spotted a green Peterbilt semi-truck towing an enclosed metal trailer, the type that blocks GPS tracking devices from sending signals.
Dockery watched a 46-year-old trucker commit two moving violations and a colleague ran the California trucker's name through a database of international drug traffickers. He got a hit.
A familiar face
It was Austin, the California trucker busted a year earlier in Paw Paw.
Austin's voice cracked before Dockery lowered the ramp leading into the enclosed metal trailer so K9 partner "Hondo" could sniff around.
"Hondo" climbed inside the trailer and found a 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 and the Rolls-Royce Phantom. "Hondo" pointed his snout at the Phantom's trunk.
Austin didn't have the key and Indiana State Police troopers didn't want to get stuck with a damage bill. So they ordered a duplicate from Rolls-Royce headquarters in England and waited a week.
"I want to say they paid like $1,200 for the key to be flown in," said Michigan State Police Sgt. Jose Patino, who assisted investigators. "Just an absolute ridiculous amount."
After the key arrived, investigators opened the Phantom's trunk and found a suitcase. Inside the suitcase: 11 kilograms of cocaine.
Troopers found another 29 kilos in a secret compartment inside the Mercedes-Benz. In all, troopers found $4 million worth of cocaine, enough for 200,000 street-corner drug deals.
"(Austin) was caught red-handed," said Patino, who assisted Indiana investigators. "But he knew if he fingered the wrong guy, at the level he was involved in, we'd find him dead the next day."
Austin said he was delivering the Phantom to a buyer in Perrysburg, Ohio, a Toledo suburb located along a drug-smuggling corridor that leads to Detroit. Otherwise, the trucker kept his mouth shut.
Prosecutors charged him with two drug-related felonies and secured a conviction in October 2011. Austin is serving 40 years in prison.
"Most of my drug cases involve someone transporting or selling something the size of a softball," Austin's lawyer Adam Lenkowsky told The News. "This guy obviously had quite a lot more. I commend him, at least, for going all out."
Lease deal 'reeks'
After sending Austin to prison, Elkhart County Superior Judge George Biddlecome set the Phantom free.
There was no proof, the judge said, that Phantom owner Kehoe knew the Rolls-Royce was being used to haul cocaine, even if the lease deal stunk.
"... this entire transaction reeks of fraud ...," Biddlecome wrote, "however there is no evidence that any staff member of (Kehoe's company) was involved in that fraud."
The judge's order left Indiana prosecutors with Austin — the middleman — and data from the GPS tracking device, but not much else.
The kingpin who sent the trucker on a doomed cross-country trip was missing and the Phantom was bound for Oregon, back to its owner Kehoe.
Indiana prosecutors, however, were able to unmask "Audrey Cretser," the Phantom's phony client.
The photo on "Audrey Cretser's" fake ID also appeared on a bogus license for the owner of the Mercedes-Benz found inside trucker Austin's trailer. Her home address was a Los Angeles beauty salon — a property owned by one of superstar car broker Laidler's companies.
Phantom client "Audrey Cretser," meanwhile, was a face without a name until Indiana investigators talked to DEA agents.
A 'film' star
The face on the fake IDs belongs to former Hollywood actress Theana "Lia" Vasdekis.
"You should Google her," Austin's defense lawyer Elizabeth Bellin said during Austin's trial.
"She is a film star," Elkhart County Deputy Prosecutor Peter Britton added.
"I'm not a film star, by far. Please," Vasdekis told The News on Tuesday. "I did one little movie."
The 32-year-old reality-show casting agent and celebrity realtor appeared in the 2008 indie comedy "Extra Ordinary Barry."
Vasdekis didn't get top billing. She's near the bottom, just above Milo, the parrot.
"I didn't even get paid," said Vasdekis, who portrayed herself as an unwitting pawn in the real-life Phantom saga.
"I spoke to the DEA. They know what really happened," she said. "They know I never purchased any cars. I was never a part of it."
Feds swoop in
On Feb. 28, 2013, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade's team in Detroit — armed with a seizure warrant, data from the Phantom's hidden GPS tracking device and evidence gleaned during a wide-ranging drug conspiracy investigation — intercepted the Rolls-Royce sedan.
The warrant is sealed, but what investigators found raises questions about whether the Phantom was truly missing.
Feds follow clues
Clues that could explain why the feds seized the Phantom are sprinkled across about 3,500 lines of latitude and longitude coordinates from the Rolls-Royce sedan's GPS tracking device, which The News obtained.
The data shows that within days of "Audrey Cretser" leasing the car, the Phantom showed up outside a home in a prestigious Los Angeles neighborhood at 10:31 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2010.
The 3,900-square-foot, $988,000 ranch with marble floors and gourmet kitchen and sparkling backyard pool is the last known address of Jones, the fugitive alleged drug dealer.
The GPS data also shows a pattern emerging weeks after the Phantom disappeared. The car was showing up at addresses used by Laidler, the broker whose phony client leased it.
Two months into the lease, in November 2010, the Phantom made two mysterious trips to Perrysburg, Ohio, according to sporadic GPS records. The Rolls-Royce sedan was there the same time as trucker Patrick Austin, according to hotel and GPS records obtained by The News.
Before and after both Ohio trips, the Phantom was parked at an upscale townhouse complex in West Los Angeles.
The gated complex has 20 townhouses but only one owned by a superstar car broker involved in the Phantom deal.
Laidler paid $375,000 for a three-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot Mediterranean-style townhouse inside the complex in 2001.
Laidler's townhouse is headquarters for an array of businesses, including a real-estate investment firm, according to California business records.
The real-estate investment firm had at least two partners: Laidler and Snoop Dogg's wife Shante Broadus, who was photographed on March 26, 2011, at Nate Dogg's memorial service stepping out of the allegedly missing Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Snoop Dogg's publicists did not respond to messages seeking comment.
And at 4:05 p.m. on Jan. 3, 2011, the Phantom was at a Los Angeles duplex. Laidler's mother owns the duplex and used it to secure her son's bond after he was charged with a federal crime in 2000.
By fall 2012, the Justice Department had twin investigations. One was focused on finding the kingpin who sent trucker Austin and the Phantom on a doomed drug trek. The second: finding Jones, the fugitive alleged drug dealer.
The investigations dovetailed in an obscure financial document obtained by The News.
On March 13, 2011, a month before Austin was arrested in Indiana with the Phantom and $4 million worth of cocaine, the trucker filed a financing document in Washington state listing three vehicles as collateral in a business deal.
The document shows Austin as one party in the deal. The other party: Jones, who at the time had been a fugitive for 11 years.
The filing is a window into Jones' many aliases.
The document lists his address as a condo on the east side of a white building near downtown Los Angeles. His alter ego, Jerrell Hayworth, owned the unit next door.
Feds focus on Laidler
Meanwhile, DEA agents investigating the Phantom's disappearance started learning more about Laidler, the celebrity car customizer who brokered the Rolls-Royce lease.
They learned that in 2007, Laidler was involved in a company with New York City hip hop mogul James "Jimmy Henchman" Rosemond. The company was based out of Laidler's townhouse.
In 2011, four years after the company was created, Rosemond became the target of a DEA drug-trafficking investigation.
While Laidler was not a defendant in the case, which ended with Rosemond being sentenced to life in prison, a witness told agents that Laidler gave the hip hop mogul the idea to ship drugs cross-country hidden in cars hauled on trailers, according to a DEA investigative report.
Probe heats up
The investigation gained momentum in September 2012, when the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit started slapping grand-jury subpoenas on people involved in the Phantom lease.
Stromvig, the Oregon car dealer, got one demanding Phantom lease records. So did Kehoe, the Phantom owner.
Kehoe's photo appears on what employees who have testified in front of the grand jury called the government's "conspiracy chart."
"I'm as pure as the driven snow," Kehoe told The News. "That might be a double entendre."
U.S. Attorney McQuade won't talk about the grand jury investigation. The DEA and U.S. Postal Inspection Service declined comment.
M Car Co. owner Stromvig says questions about how the dream car ended up in the drug world lead to superstar broker Laidler.
"Who brought us the deal, who handled the paperwork, who collected the money from the client, who picked up the car from the dealership? Laidler," Stromvig told The News. "I asked him straight up: are you a drug dealer? Did you sell (the Phantom) to a drug dealer? He said 'no.' "
In July 2013, with the federal grand jury and a manhunt underway, federal agents arrested the fugitive's girlfriend, Loreal Chan, 38, in Los Angeles.
Her arrest and court records make clear the U.S. Attorney's Office is targeting Jones in a drug trafficking and money-laundering investigation.
The records also hint at how former actress Lia Vasdekis's photo ended up on the fake ID used to lease the Phantom.
Federal agents arrested Chan on July 12, 2013, so they could question her about Jones. Investigators also wanted to question Chan about drug trafficking, money laundering and cash flowing through her accounts.
Jones, who is referred to as "Target 1" in a court filing, allegedly gave his girlfriend $2,500 so she could start an event-planning company with a partner. The business partner? Vasdekis, the former Hollywood actress.
Vasdekis knew Jones, the fugitive, by the nickname "J," but says she didn't know superstar broker Marc Laidler, was never his client and never saw the Phantom.
"I'm a good girl," Vasdekis said. "I was naïve to everything."
Vasdekis said she testified in front of the federal grand jury in Detroit "two or three years ago. They were asking me about how much money I saw (Chan and Jones) with," she said. "I saw her with money. Cash, you know?"
Vasdekis suspects Chan provided the picture that ended up on the fake ID used to lease the Phantom.
"Honestly, like, she had pictures of me around her house," Vasdekis said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is expected to file criminal charges soon related to the Jones investigation. The only thing the U.S. Attorney's Office will say publicly is the Phantom facilitated a drug conspiracy involving several people including Jones' roommate, Carl Washington, the alleged courier caught on camera at Greektown Casino.
It is unclear if Laidler will be charged with a crime. He declined comment following a brief phone conversation Tuesday.
Phantom owner Kehoe was upset to learn from The News that the Rolls-Royce sedan routinely appeared at car broker Laidler's townhouse complex and was parked outside fugitive Jones' home.
"All of this tells me something I didn't want to hear, and that's that Laidler is up to this to his eyeballs," Kehoe said. "Why in the hell hasn't the DEA arrested Laidler? Now, I can understand a little more why they don't want to give me the car back, but nothing connects me to the dirtbags."
It's also unclear whether Kehoe will reclaim the Rolls-Royce sedan. In January, a federal judge said Kehoe cannot try to get his car back until after Carl Washington, the alleged drug courier from the Greektown Casino elevator, stands trial on drug charges in federal court in August.
"Did I know the drug dealers? No. Do I have secret bank accounts? No. The joke that I'm a bad guy is enormous," Kehoe said. "I want this made clear: we have cooperated and offered the U.S. Attorney's Office anything and everything. I don't know bad guys. I've never used drugs. My friends are senators, congressmen and prime ministers. I am a white-bread, country club, Republican..."
Grains of sand
Kehoe has spent three years and more than $100,000 trying to reclaim the Rolls-Royce sedan, which is depreciating every day in a government impound lot in Indianapolis, Ind. Kehoe has pressed Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Cares for proof he knew, or should have known, the Phantom was being used to haul drugs.
"I said 'give me one grain of sand. One grain of sand why you should keep it,'" Kehoe said. "I will send him the keys and a bouquet of flowers. He said 'we will be getting to that.'"
On Sept. 1, less than four months after publication of "The Phantom & the Fugitive," Mark Jones was arrested near Los Angeles.
Jones, 50, was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and members of a Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office task force while dropping off clothes at a dry cleaner’s.
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About this report
Federal courts reporter Robert Snell interviewed more than a dozen people and reviewed thousands of pages of records from state and federal courts in Michigan, Indiana, California and Oregon for this report on "The Phantom and the Fugitive." Snell also obtained data from a GPS tracking device hidden inside the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
Using an online mapping program, Snell was able to plot the Phantom's movements across the country in the months leading up to April 2011, when the Rolls-Royce dream car was found in Indiana with a secret in the trunk.