By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As the agents pieced together their case, it became clear that Ralston was hiding her husband's ill-gotten assets. Moreover, they became convinced she was trying to continue his business--a theory they developed after they began to kneel on the co-conspirators whom Pofahl had given up.
One dealer, for example, admitted that he sold 127,000 tablets in early 1989 on Pofahl's behalf. Since Pofahl was in jail, the dealer said he met Ralston instead and gave her the $218,930 he made off the sale. He also claimed Ralston gave him a receipt for the money and berated him for not getting a better price for the pills.
In 1990, the investigators put the pinch on Ralston, searching her home two more times, freezing her assets, and interviewing her newfound friends in L.A. At any point in this process, Ralston could have given them what they wanted--the money, plus her cooperation. Instead, she ran.
"Desperate people do desperate things," she says.
Namely, Ralston says she spent $500 to buy a new identity from a man who operated out of a one-room office located behind a "Mail Boxes R Us" store in Sherman Oaks, California. Using a fake driver's license, birth certificate, and Social Security number, Ralston reinvented herself as Alex Rossell and moved to Florida.
"I felt like, OK, if I step out of the picture, then, after everything is done, there's nothing that says I can't step back into the picture," Ralston says.
The plan worked, but life in Florida soon got boring. After a while, it dawned on Ralston that staying underground meant never being able to contact her parents and friends. Ralston went back to L.A. On March 26, 1991, she was arrested.
"I was kind of relieved," Ralston recalls, "because I thought, now maybe the madness will end, not realizing my nightmare was just about ready to begin."
Indeed. Ralston was shipped to Waco where she became one of 16 codefendants, including Pofahl and Key, in what prosecutors then called the biggest ecstasy distribution case in the country's history. Instead of pleading guilty, as did most of the other defendants, Ralston exercised her right to a trial by jury. It was a decision for which she paid dearly.
"I was really cocky back then," Ralston says, "because I didn't know about conspiracy."
To this day, attorney Strauss says if Ralston had been truthful about her actions and cooperated with him, he would have never prosecuted her. But when presented with the scenario of putting her on trial, Strauss decided to take her the distance: Under the sweeping federal conspiracy laws, he prosecuted her as a kingpin--on equal footing with Pofahl and Key.
"The evidence showed that, after her husband's arrest, she made several attempts to keep the conspiracy active and ongoing," Strauss says. "In addition to Amy's efforts to collect the ill-gotten gains that were stored in various places, she made efforts to solicit people to smuggle additional quantities of MDMA from Guatemala and retrieve quantities of MDMA that were [already] stored in the U.S. so they could be distributed."
Strauss had no problem proving his case. At the trial's conclusion, the jury found Ralston guilty of money laundering and conspiring to import and distribute ecstasy. Under federal sentencing rules, Ralston was handed a mandatory minimum sentence of 24 years in prison--the longest of any of the defendants.
Down in San Antonio, Strauss says he has no regrets about his decision to send Ralston packing.
"I've never believed Amy was treated unfairly. Amy did what she did and got punished for it," Strauss says. "She is no hero. She is no role model. I don't want my daughter to be anything like her."
Pretty in Pink
In 1999, things were looking bleak for Ralston. By then, she had launched an extensive effort to have her conviction overturned and later softened, but the courts flatly rejected her arguments. That's when Ralston finally figured out how to work the system--not the legal system, but the media and victim's rights system.
From her prison cell, Ralston managed to attract the support of several activist organizations, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums. To them, Ralston's case stood out as a classic example of how federal sentencing laws unfairly imprison low-level drug offenders while letting kingpins off easy. The group took on Amy as part of its quest to expose the injustices of the federal penal system.
"Amy was one of thousands who contacted us about her case," says FAMM spokeswoman Monica Pratt. "Some of the facts of her case clearly showed that Amy was the sort of offender who deserved some time, but not 24 years. While we do use cases like Amy's to put a human face on the laws, it's not so much about the cases as it is about the laws themselves."
The mandatory minimum sentences, which Congress hastily enacted in the midst of the Reagan Administration's drug war, have long been recognized as problematic. Most federal judges oppose the laws, because they strip them of their power to use discretion. In drug cases like Ralston's, for example, judges are required to mete out punishment using a strict mathematical formula that multiplies guilt by quantity with little regard to the circumstances behind an offender's behavior.