Metabolife kiosk at Fashion Valley. Metabolife is a business that sells a diet drug containing the stimulant ephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine.
Cocaine and real estate often go together in San Diego, especially along the dusty strip of border land known as Otay Mesa. Some of the district's biggest land deals were financed by drug money. One of its most ambitious construction projects was a 1400-foot tunnel leading from Tijuana to the American side of the mesa, the better to smuggle coke with. Promoters of the mesa don't like to talk about coke, money laundering, and methamphetamine trading, but they have been a foundation of the mesa's prosperous economy.
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Take the case of Michael Blevins and the Ellis brothers, Michael and Joseph. Mike Ellis and Mike Blevins are partners in Metabolife, the controversial diet-drug maker. Joe Ellis is a Metabolife distributor. Back in October 1988, Blevins and Michael Ellis were also codefendants in a federal case charging them with conspiring to make and distribute methamphetamine from a rented house in Rancho Santa Fe.
From San Diego Busness Journal, February 29, 1988. Joe Ellis told the newspaper about his own dream for Otay Mesa.
Blevins was sentenced to three years in the federal lockup at Boron in the Mojave Desert. Mike Ellis got five years' probation. In 1995, a federal judge allowed them to resume working together, and the result was Metabolife, a business that sells a diet drug containing the stimulant ephedrine, a key ingredient of methamphetamine.
From San Diego Union-Tribune, September 4, 1999. Michael Ellis looks back.
Metabolife has been a generous campaign contributor to local politicians, including Republican congressman Brian Bilbray and county supervisor Ron Roberts, now a candidate for mayor of San Diego. The company has also paid enormous sums to sponsor the San Diego Padres, and given $50,000 to last year's campaign for a taxpayer-subsidized downtown baseball stadium.
But before they were busted in 1988 and subsequently began their lucrative careers in the herbal drug business, according to court records, Mike Blevins and Mike Ellis were doing real estate deals on Otay Mesa, along with Joseph Ellis, Mike's brother, a then-prominent Otay Mesa real estate broker who was president of an outfit called Solidus Property Systems. Federal prosecutors would later claim that the money Blevins invested on the mesa was tainted by cocaine.
The ties between the Ellis family and Blevins family, both from Chula Vista, run deep. "Michael Ellis and I have been best friends since 1967," Blevins wrote to federal Judge John Rhoades when Blevins was seeking clemency in November 1995. "But more than friends, Mike and I are brothers and always have been. His problems are my problems and my problems are his. I smile and he laughs. Mike and his wife have three children, and I feel like I have a family."
Divorce records show that Blevins's parents, Robert Lee Blevins and Joan Price, were married July 8, 1950, and were separated 18 years later on December 3, 1968. Michael Lee Blevins was born December 23, 1950. His friend Michael Ellis was born two years later, on January 18, 1953. Ellis's father was in the clothing business. Blevins's father Robert, according to federal allegations, was a dealer in illicit drugs.
By October 1983, when he filed for divorce from Joan, Robert Blevins was living on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, while Joan remained at the family home on King Street in Chula Vista. By then Robert, according to allegations in federal court records, was working alongside his son Michael dealing coke. In an affidavit filed in a 1989 seizure case the federal government filed against Blevins, IRS agent Thomas W. Fox said he was told by San Francisco police that "Robert Blevins, Mike Blevins's father, had been selling cocaine and methamphetamine for over 12 years."
Blevins would later say that it was his dysfunctional home life that cemented his relationship with the Ellis family.
"Mike's father and mother took me in and fed and clothed and sheltered me when I was 16," Blevins wrote in his letter to Judge Rhoades. "They provided me with the only family environment I have ever known in my life. These ties have never dissipated over the years. A consequence worse than prison was that I had to face Mike's father. Even after what I had done, Mike's father and mother continued to offer me their support. In spite of my objections, they sent money to me in prison because they wanted to be sure I had what I needed. The Ellises are my only family."
In 1984, Joan Blevins suffered a debilitating stroke and had to be placed in a conservatorship under her daughter's care. Joan was "verbal but not conversant," according to court documents. "Her speech consists of gibberish." She was hospitalized at UCSD Medical Center, which in December 1984 filed suit against her to collect $21,595.63 in unpaid medical bills. She died five years later, in January 1989. By then, according to court records, Michael Blevins's drug-dealing career was well underway.
According to the allegations, Blevins's criminal history dated back to at least 1972, when he was 22 and already a prosperous San Diego dope dealer. In his affidavit, Fox relates that Jerry Bordeaux, "a former friend and business associate of Michael Blevins," said that between 1972 and 1975, Bordeaux "smuggled in excess of 4000 kilos of marijuana from Mexico into the United States on behalf of Jim Spencer of San Diego." Bordeaux said he met Blevins through Spencer, "who introduced Blevins as one of his three customers who were purchasing marijuana from him."
Fox said he had seen Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) records showing that "Michael Blevins and a George Mainas were arrested by the DEA in San Francisco in February/March 1975 on charges of distribution of cocaine and conspiracy to distribute cocaine. The records also reflected that during the DEA's undercover negotiations with Blevins, Blevins had indicated that he was capable of delivering five to ten pounds of cocaine and large quantities of marijuana through his source of supply, who was located in San Diego, California. Blevins added that the marijuana was brought into the United States from Mexico and that his marijuana trafficking represented a substantial amount of his income."
By the early 1980s, Fox said, Michael Blevins was hanging out with reputed Chicago mobster Sam Sarcinelli, who "headed a large-scale narcotics trafficking organization, which at its peak moved approximately 200 kilos of cocaine per month from the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area to distribution points that included Atlanta, New York City, Chicago, Denver, and the Los Angeles area, where Sarcinelli maintained one of his personal residences."
By then, Fox claimed Blevins told an informant "he was purchasing between 40 and 50 kilos of cocaine every six to eight weeks from Sarcinelli, in California. Sarcinelli subsequently confirmed this same volume of cocaine trafficking." On one occasion, the informant claimed, Blevins and two other big-time coke dealers "accompanied Sarcinelli from Executive Airport in Ft. Lauderdale to the Orange County airport in Santa Ana, California.
"Sarcinelli at this time owned two homes in or near Laguna Beach and also maintained two apartments in the same area." According to the informant, Fox said, "Blevins sold/distributed approximately 15 kilos of cocaine over a two-day period of time." The informant "believed that Sarcinelli obtained his cocaine from Macario at a cost of $49,000/kilo and distributed the same to Blevins at $55,000/kilo."
According to Fox's affidavit, an informant "related that he/she had been involved in narcotics transactions with both Michael Blevins and Robert Blevins (Michael's father), namely in the purchase of methamphetamine and the distribution of cocaine during the period 1976 through 1983." The informant added that "he/she acted as an agent for a client in 1983 who wanted someone to rip off a large quantity of cocaine from Michael Blevins and his partner, Jerry Bordeaux."
Bordeaux himself later described the incident to Fox, who reported, "One night during 1983/1984, three individuals whom he believed were Hells Angels forced their way into his house on Sweet William Court in Sonoma, at gunpoint, and after robbing him of an unspecified amount of cash, forced him to take them to Mike Blevins's residence, which at the time was located on Carriger Road in Sonoma.
"While still being held at gunpoint in the car by one of the bikers, Bordeaux said that he was able to observe the other two bikers exiting Blevins's home carrying one or two briefcases/suitcases, which were placed in the trunk of their car. The bikers then drove Bordeaux to a remote area between Vallejo and Novato, where they dropped him off."
Fox also described what he said was Blevins's first marriage.
"Rochelle Baba, a.k.a. Shelly Baba, met Michael Blevins in Sonoma during 1979, and after a few months of dating, they were married in Tijuana, Mexico. Baba did not believe the marriage in Mexico was legal in the eyes of the United States. Afterwards they lived in San Diego for approximately a year before moving to a home in Sonoma." According to Fox, "From the time she [Baba] first met Blevins through 1984, she did not know him to have been gainfully employed."
By then, Blevins was involved in real estate. Fox said he had built several houses and developed a storage-warehouse complex in Sonoma, all, federal prosecutors would later charge, with money tainted by his drug trade. "Blevins invested in excess of $1.2 million, all of which funds were in the form of currency, into real estate alone during the years 1982 through 1984," claimed Fox.
But Blevins's biggest real estate plays would come in San Diego, specifically on Otay Mesa.
In October 1985, Blevins became general partner of a limited partnership called Otay Mesa Industrial Group. Prosecutors would later allege that Blevins used $241,175 of the cash he had gleaned through drug dealing to put up his share of the down-payment on a 9.25-acre industrial parcel that the partnership purchased near the Otay Mesa border crossing.
According to a lawsuit filed in November 1989 by Mark H. Krighton, one of Blevins's limited partners in the deal, "Michael L. Blevins, Michael J. Ellis II, and Joseph M. Ellis, Jr. solicited and did induce plaintiff to invest in OMIG." Krighton went on to charge that neither Blevins nor the Ellis brothers were "licensed as investment advisors by the State of California and that by so advising plaintiff to invest in OMIG, defendants were unlawfully acting as investment advisors."
Krighton also claimed that neither Blevins nor the Ellis brothers "held a certificate as a broker-dealer" and thus were in violation of the law. The suit further alleged that as general partner, Blevins "failed to keep and maintain books and records for the partnership, failed to furnish or provide partnership financial statements and tax returns and reports, and failed to hold annual meetings of the partnership."
Krighton did not pursue his suit, and it was subsequently dropped. Interviewed by phone last week, Joe Ellis said that there was nothing to Krighton's allegations. "I was the real estate broker on the deal, that was the extent of my role. I didn't do anything else. As far as that lawsuit goes, I remember my attorney sent a letter and it was all over."
Joe Ellis was president of Solidus Property Systems, a real estate brokerage, property management, and development consulting outfit that for years has specialized in industrial property on the mesa. His brother Michael was vice president. Before that, Michael had been a cop in National City. Joe Ellis was also president of the Otay Mesa Property Owners association and vice president of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce. In an interview last week, Joe Ellis said that Solidus is "pretty dormant as far as real estate." Solidus, he said, now operates a Metabolife distributorship "just like the 40,000 other distributors in the world."
Back in 1988, though, Joe Ellis had a high profile on the mesa, working alongside then-county supervisor Brian Bilbray to set up the South County Economic Development Corporation because, Bilbray claimed, the City of San Diego was hindering growth on Otay. "The city of San Diego really doesn't have a handle on the problems in South Bay," Bilbray told the San Diego Business Journal in February 1988. "It is not only becoming a show of its own, it's becoming the only show in town."
That same month, Joe Ellis told the Business Journal about his own dream for the mesa. "Otay Mesa needs to develop so the manager can fly in, get a rental car, check into his hotel, and be only ten minutes from his San Diego or his Tijuana plant," Ellis said. "To make that happen, the city has to improve Brown Field, and we have to attract some top-class hotels and restaurants."
The Business Journal reported that Ellis and his company Solidus were pitching a new development called Empire Center, "a project that has been in the planning stages for the last year by Robinhood Homes Inc. of Chula Vista." Among the principal tenants of Empire Center was one Michael Lee Blevins
"Blevins Development, a San Francisco company that sources say soon will relocate here," wrote the Business Journal, "plans to build a 1.5 million-square-foot commercial center, to be called International Corporate Centre, within Robinhood Homes' Empire Centre. The multi-tower office project will be built on a parcel at the northwest corner of La Media and Airway Road, south of Brown Field.
"The first phase of Blevins's International Corporate Centre will include a 351,000-square-foot high-rise costing $34 million in 1988 dollars. Construction could start on the first building within 36 months, Ellis said.
"Subsequent phases of 295,000 square feet each will be built in 1998 and 2003 or sooner, depending on industrial development in the region. As the commercial office market picks up on Otay Mesa, Blevins will build a 222,000-square-foot parking structure that will provide 1120 parking spaces, Ellis said.
"Blevins Development President Mike Blevins was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment."
In an interview last week, Joe Ellis said he was "only the real estate broker" for Empire Centre. "I didn't have anything to do with the planning." As for Blevins, Joe Ellis says he never knew anything about his alleged drug-trafficking during any of their business dealings. After the federal government moved to seize the Otay Mesa Industrial Group's 9.25 acres, Ellis said, he thought it was "for back taxes."
In any case, Blevins's high-flying career as a king of Otay Mesa real estate was about to hit the rocks.
"On or about June 30, 1988, an anonymous caller advised that Mike Blevins, who is believed to have been involved with Colombian cocaine traffickers, has recently moved to San Diego from the San Francisco area and is currently living with Mike Ellis in a condominium in La Jolla, California," FBI agent Peter Shepp wrote in a request for a search warrant dated October 27, 1988. "Mike Ellis is an employee of Solidus Enterprises, a real estate firm in San Diego, California."
Shepp went on to relate Blevins's criminal record and then described how agents had been tailing Michael Ellis and Blevins around North County, watching them conduct clandestine meetings in restaurant parking lots with people Shepp said were known methamphetamine connections.
"On October 17, 1988, Ellis was observed by FBI agents arriving at 17150 Los Morros, Rancho Santa Fe, accompanied by a white female with dark hair subsequently identified as Monica I. Gonzalez. On October 27, 1988, Monica I. Gonzalez was interviewed and revealed she had known Ellis for the past two years and during this past year they have been dating steadily.
"During February or March 1988, she accompanied Ellis to Sausalito, California, to help him move his childhood friend, Michael Blevins, to San Diego, where Blevins now resides with Ellis.
"Initially, Gonzalez was reluctant to discuss her knowledge of Blevins's background, but finally she admitted knowing he had been involved with cocaine in the past. She also advised she had seen Blevins carrying a Halburton suitcase, which Ellis told her was full of Blevins's money.
"She stated she noticed a chemical smell in the backyard of the residence like that of bleach and several citrus trees in this yard were observed to be dying."
Gonzalez later denied telling the agents that Ellis had said the Halburton suitcase was full of money, but that night, the FBI swooped down on the house and busted Blevins and Ellis on charges of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. The agents said they found lab equipment and chemicals that were capable of manufacturing 50 pounds of meth. During a search of an apartment at 8178 Avenida Navidad in San Diego, which Blevins and Ellis had rented in February 1988, according to Fox, an address book was found with phone numbers for drug figures including that of Chicago mobster Sam Sarcinelli.
Once behind bars, Blevins began to cooperate with the feds. "Mr. Blevins has been very cooperative with law enforcement since his first arrest," wrote U.S. Marshal James. J. Molinari in a November 1995 pitch for clemency on Blevins's behalf. "I came in contact with Blevins in 1989 while commanding the Narcotics Division of the San Francisco Police Department. Mr. Blevins provided information and assistance that led to the dismantling of a major drug trafficking network operating in the San Francisco Bay Area."
Despite his cooperation, Blevins was forced to part with his interest in the Otay Mesa property. After a long legal battle, the federal government agreed to take $52,000 from the remaining partners in exchange for giving up its seizure case.
On August 22, 1990, not long after seeing his son arrested on methamphetamine charges and having to post the family's Bonita house as security to make his son's $100,000 bail, Joseph Mike Ellis, Sr., died of cancer. According to his death certificate, he was born 69 years earlier in Lebanon and had been a merchant of men's apparel. He was survived by his wife Carmen.
On February 14, 1998, records show, Blevins was married to Irene Antoinette Miller, a radio-time saleswoman. On their marriage license, Blevins listed his occupation as "Business Owner, Nutritional Supplements." Their wedding, conducted at Blevins's Bonita home by Chris Meredith, a spiritualist minister from Escondido, was witnessed by Michael J. Ellis.