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High Style

This couple earned millions as interior decorators for Colombia’s biggest drug lord. Now they’re being tried for money laundering, in a controversial case that has civil libertarians livid. Who’s next, John Gotti’s tailor?

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The knock on the door at Alexander Blarek and Frank Pellecchia’s home came at 7:30 in the morning. Inside, the two men were just awaking in their upstairs bedroom, where picture windows framed the spectacular backdrop of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. For sixteen years, Blarek, 56, and Pellecchia, 49, had been lovers and partners in a thriving interior-design business. Success seemed to roll at them, like the swells of the Pacific, in great waves of cash. They owned an Italianate villa just five doors away from the home of actor Robin Williams in the elite Sea Cliff neighborhood, where the tree-lined streets wind along the cliffs above San Francisco Bay. Their home was a portfolio of their professional taste: the Biedermeier secretary table on the Bakhtiari rug, a Botero perched near a baby grand piano. In the garage shone their prize possessions -- three top-of-the-line Harley Davidsons, parked alongside their 1985 Mercedes. To their millionaire neighbors, Blarek and Pellecchia seemed like a couple of nice guys, generous and community-spirited.

But last June, there was the knock on the door. As Pellecchia threw on a pair of jeans and went out, shirtless, to answer, he had no idea that an indictment issued by a U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn was about to shatter the world that he and his partner had so assiduously created.

A San Francisco police officer ordered Pellecchia to step outside: “There’s been a robbery in the neighborhood, and we’d like to ask you a few questions.” he said. Pellecchia walked through the garage, and straight into a police trap: a swat team of six DEA agents and a squad of 30 other agents from the SFPD, the IRS, Customs, and even the local Marine unit were arrayed just beyond the gate. The normally quiet street outside was packed with more than a dozen police cars, vans, and unmarked vehicles, all there for him and for Blarek. Within seconds, Pellecchia was handcuffed and pushed inside a patrol car. He watched as the DEA agents, wielding pistols and shotguns and wearing bulletproof vests, stormed into their home and found Blarek in his bathrobe in the kitchen.

Blarek was ordered to get on his knees, handcuffed, and taken outside to another police cruiser. First Pellecchia, then Blarek was brought back into the house to change into street clothes. Local television-news cameras were soon swarming the scene. Inside, a search team tore the place apart with the help of a drug-sniffing dog. They found no narcotics and not a single weapon but thousands of dollars in cash, and the keys to many safe-deposit boxes.

By three that afternoon, the shell-shocked interior decorators would find themselves in a San Francisco courtroom being booked for money laundering. They were, according to a 29-page indictment issued by the Federal Grand Jury for the Eastern District in New York, the personal decorators for one of Colombia’s most notorious drug lords. From 1979 to 1996, Blarek and Pellecchia’s main client was the now-deceased José Santacruz Londoño, one of three men who ran the Cali cartel, which once supplied 80 percent of the cocaine coming into the United States. Their interior-design business was accused of laundering more than $10 million worth of drug profits -- money generated by Santacruz’s U.S. cocaine sales.

Suddenly Blarek and Pellecchia, without a misdemeanor between them, found themselves accused of collusion with Colombian drug traffickers. The government -- in a nearly unprecedented interpretation of money-laundering statutes -- is arguing that the two men are guilty simply for spending a drug dealer’s money.

Two characters less likely to be in league with a drug lord could not have been invented. The Brooklyn-bred Pellecchia is the more gregarious of the couple: Friendly and loquacious, with short-cropped black hair and a bushy moustache, he seems like a genial maître d’ at a fine Italian restaurant. The blue-eyed, rugged Blarek (he sometimes goes by the name Anthony Alexander II) is more reticent. Friends say both men are real-estate and antiques junkies -- but that’s about as far as their addictions go. Neither of them drinks or smokes. Their idea of pleasure is making periodic expeditions on their Harleys up the Pacific coast, and they occasionally frequented gay motorcycle bars in San Francisco. No more. Both men were detained for five weeks in solitary confinement -- “for their own protection” -- at the Alameda Detention Center, then confined for another three weeks at the Metropolitan Corrections Center in Brooklyn until finally being released on $11 million bail in mid-August. Their trial, which opens on February 2 in Brooklyn Federal Court, puts Blarek and Pellecchia at the center of a case in which the brutal Colombian drug trade intersects with the rarefied world of interior design.


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