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Saturday, August 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Courier spots wanted man in commercial

Seattle Times staff reporter

A man believed to have been the East Coast distributor for Western Washington's largest-ever marijuana-smuggling ring has been arrested in Florida, ending a nine-year search for a shadowy character once known only as "Sonny" who agents say used to drop off suitcases stuffed with millions to pay for the drugs.

Irwin Kletter, 64, was picked up yesterday by U.S. marshals in Pompano Beach, three days after authorities in New York indicted him in a massive drug-smuggling ring. He's been wanted in Seattle since 1992 and has been living under an assumed name in Massachusetts, agents said.

He's also wanted by federal authorities in Denver.

Kletter's arrest begins the final chapter in Western Washington's pot-smuggling investigation, involving two brothers, Chris and William Shaffer. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett said the ring imported more than 66 tons of high-grade marijuana from Thailand in the late 1980s. A five-year investigation into the ring resulted in 47 convictions, including the Shaffers, Bartlett said.

Kletter, according to investigators and Bartlett, was introduced to the Shaffers as someone who could move large quantities of pot on the East Coast after the California market — where most of the drugs had gone — became saturated.

How he was eventually identified is a detective story in which Kletter, a would-be actor, was identified by a courier who saw him in a bit part in a television commercial.

Internal Revenue Service Agent Francis Dyer was working on a drug task force when the Shaffer drug ring was broken in the early 1990s. He said at that time all agents knew of Kletter was that there was a man in New York called Sonny who took more than 13 tons of marijuana on consignment, with a promise to pay the Shaffers out of the proceeds.

"So every month or so, a courier would go back and check into the Plaza Hotel there on Central Park West," Dyer said. "He'd call a pager number, and this guy Sonny would show up and drop off a briefcase."

More than $18 million in cash was delivered over four months, Dyer said.

Nobody knew anything more about him, except one of the couriers once had dinner with him and noted that Sonny had said he wanted to be an actor. After dinner that night, the courier spotted Sonny in the background of a television commercial for an artificial sweetener.

Two years later, that courier was arrested and told agents the story. Dyer said he was able to contact the president of the company, who put him in contact with its advertising agency.

"He was really upset," Dyer recalled. "He said, `You mean we've got a drug dealer advertising our product?' "

The courier was able to pick out Kletter, standing in the background of one of the commercials, dressed in an Amish costume. Agents identified him and raided his apartment in Manhattan and a beach house on Fire Island, but Kletter was out of town. He was indicted in 1992.

"He found out about the raids within hours and went to ground," Dyer said. "And didn't come up until now."

The Marshal's Office said Kletter was in possession of gems worth more than $50,000, artwork valued at $170,000 and stock certificates worth $75,000.

Mike Carter can be reached at 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

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