She goes 'mano a mano' with drug lords

The assassin's beeper code was 007.

Hired by the head of a large Colombia cocaine organization, his job was to kill a drug courier who'd abandoned his car - with a million dollars in the trunk. The courier was worried the police were watching him.

They were.

At the time, Bridget Brennan led an elite unit in the office of New York's Special Narcotics Prosecutor. She and her colleagues were listening over the wiretapped cell phones of the Colombian dealers and their American help.

They heard when word came down that the dealers had kidnapped the courier and taken him to an abandoned stash house in Queens. Then, from Colombia, they heard the order "send him to heaven." 007 began his work and Ms. Brennan ordered the police to do theirs.

"They'd just used a stiletto to cut the buttons off his shirt, and our cops banged down the door and rescued him," she says, smiling. "There's not going to be much more of a compelling case than that."

The kind of cool decisiveness Brennan displayed under such pressures has helped win her the respect of local cops and federal drug-enforcement officials around the nation. It's also gotten her a job she'd never imagined having when she grew up, red-haired and blue-eyed in wholesome Wisconsin: New York's Special Narcotics Prosecutor.

Appointed a year ago, she now heads the only office in the US dedicated solely to investigating and prosecuting drug offenses.

With a $12 million annual budget and a staff of more than 200, she leads a team whose work takes it from the street-level dealers in Washington Heights to sophisticated undercover operations that span around the globe.

"It sounds corny, but you really do have the ability to do right in this job. Everything's in your corner and you can make the appropriate decisions," she said in a recent interview in her wood- paneled Manhattan office.

Dedicated to the job

The first woman ever appointed to the post, Brennan is dedicated to beating the traffickers at their own game - one that has become much more sophisticated with the advent of the global telecommunications revolution. The small and medium-size traffickers of today, moreover, have become more inventive since the breakup of big cartels that once ruled the cocaine trade.

But at the same, Brennan is working to increase alternatives to prison for low-level offenders who are also drug addicts. And her colleagues say she's got the leadership skills and determination to accomplish both.

"She's a good effective partner, a good team player who has the ability to quickly see the big picture and develop strategies that will target the highest level of drug trafficker," says John Rice, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in New York.

The story of Brennan's rise to New York's top drug enforcer is an unlikely one. Raised in a big Irish family in Milwaukee - she has 10 brothers and sisters - she started a career as a TV journalist after graduating from the University of Wisconsin. She loved reporting and the analytical skills needed to write a balanced story. But she didn't like the career track, "crawling your way" from small to medium-size markets.

Brennan went to law school looking for a shortcut. She thought she'd develop a specialty and then go back to reporting. But just before she graduated, a professor left her a post-it note on the board. He wondered if she'd be interested in a job in New York as an assistant district attorney.

It had never occurred to her. She'd never even been in New York. But her professor, Frank Tuerkheimer from the University of Wisconsin Law School, thought she was smart enough and tough enough for Manhattan. "In my trial advocacy class, Bridget gave a closing argument that was so good, I felt bad for the student who was opposing her," he says.

Brennan decided to go for the interview. She loved the energy of the place, the "bodegas and the delis" all thrown together. She also wanted the challenge. She was offered the job on the spot and she took it. That was 1983.

She was soon working on murder cases, and there learned the true destructiveness of the drug trade. "Sixty percent of the homicides were drug-related. Whether it was because someone was high on crack and killed someone else, or it was a deal gone bad, drugs were at the core."

Battling dealers' ingenuity

That set her on her current path, where the evolving ingenuity of the drug traffickers continues to challenge her. For instance, dealers no longer flashed their cash, which had made them easy to identify. The head of the Calich organization who tried to kill the courier had ordered people living in the cartel's stash houses to conduct themselves like any other Americans - even though they were storing hundreds of kilos of cocaine.

"That means subscribing to TV Guide, washing the car on the weekend, mowing the lawn once a week," says Brennan.

The global telecommunications network also gives traffickers new tools, from cell phones that can easily be changed to Internet access. The sophistication level has increased so much, Brennan says, that law-enforcement officials searching the traffickers' homes in Colombia have found copies of her office's court requests for wiretaps.

That keeps Brennan busy enough. But she's also got an infant son, a young daughter, and a husband. Now, with the crime rate and drug use both falling, she feels "more optimistic than I've ever felt." While the traffickers have more resources available to them than ever before, "so do we. We're attacking both the supply and the demand now."

And the head of the Calich group, the one who hired 007? He was caught, pleaded guilty, and is serving 27 years to life.

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