Brendan I. Koerner
Alfred Anaya was a genius at installing secret compartments in cars. If they were used to smuggle drugs without his knowledge, he figured that wasn’t his problem. He was wrong.
Illustration: Paul Pope
Alfred Anaya took pride in his generous service guarantee. Though his stereo installation business, Valley Custom Audio Fanatics, was just a one-man operation based out of his San Fernando, California, home, he offered all of his clients a lifetime warranty: If there was ever any problem with his handiwork, he would fix it for the cost of parts alone—no questions asked.
Anaya’s customers typically took advantage of this deal when their fiendishly loud subwoofers blew out or their fiberglass speaker boxes developed hairline cracks. But in late January 2009, a man whom Anaya knew only as Esteban called for help with a more exotic product: a hidden compartment that Anaya had installed in his Ford F-150 pickup truck. Over the years, these secret stash spots—or traps, as they’re known in automotive slang—have become a popular luxury item among the wealthy and shady alike. This particular compartment was located behind the truck’s backseat, which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle’s electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.
Esteban said the seat was no longer responding to the switch combination and that no amount of jiggling could make it budge. He pleaded with Anaya to take a look.
Anaya was unsettled by this request, for he had suspicions about the nature of Esteban’s work. There is nothing intrinsically illegal about building traps, which are commonly used to hide everything from pricey jewelry to legal handguns. But the activity runs afoul of California law if an installer knows for certain that his compartment will be used to transport drugs. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. Anaya thus thought it wise to deviate from his standard no-questions-asked policy before agreeing to honor his warranty. “There’s nothing in there I shouldn’t know about, is there?” he asked. Esteban assured him that he needn’t worry.
Esteban drove the F-150 to Anaya’s modest ranch-style house and parked by the back porch. A friend of his, who introduced himself as Cesar, followed right behind in a black Honda Ridgeline truck. The 37-year-old Anaya, a boyishly handsome man whose neck and arms are covered with tattoos of dice and Japanese art, tested the switches that controlled the truck’s trap. He heard the hydraulics whirr to life, but the seat stayed firmly in place. He would have to use brute force.
Anaya punched a precise hole through the upholstery with his 24-volt Makita drill, probing for the screws that anchored the seat to the hydraulics. After a few moments he heard a loud pop as the drill seemed to puncture something soft. When he finally managed to remove the backseat, he saw what he had hit: a wad of cash about 4 inches thick. The whole compartment was overflowing with such bundles, several of which spilled onto the truck’s floor. Esteban had jammed the trap by stuffing it with too much cash—over $800,000 in total.
Anaya stumbled back from the truck’s cab, livid. “Get it out of here,” he growled at Esteban. “I don’t want to know about this. I don’t want any problems.”
Esteban Magallon Maldanado and Cesar Bonilla Montiel scrambled to haul armfuls of money from the F-150 to the Ridgeline’s trunk. They wanted to stay in Anaya’s good graces, because men with his skills are extremely valuable in the narcotics trade. To distribute product from wholesalers to retailers, drug-trafficking organizations need vehicles equipped with well-disguised traps so that loads aren’t routinely seized while in transit. The word in the California underworld was that no one built more elegant traps than Anaya, a perfectionist who made sure his hiding spots were invisible to even the most expert eyes. Maldanado and Montiel, key players in a smuggling ring that was sending large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine to the Midwest, were eager to use his services again.
Once all of the money had been moved to the Ridgeline, Anaya, now feeling calmer, agreed to fix the F-150’s trap for $1,500—a third of what he had originally charged to install it. He even offered to improve the compartment by adding another switch—the one that reclined the driver’s seat—to the unlocking sequence.
A grateful Maldanado then asked Anaya if he could install a trap in the Ridgeline too. The Honda truck already had one, but it was the work of a rank amateur—just a crude hole sawed into the base of the trunk. Maldanado wanted an electronic trap like the F-150’s, and he offered to leave a cash deposit so Anaya could buy the necessary hydraulics.
Anaya, who was deeply in debt to numerous creditors, decided to accept the job. He hadn’t totally forgiven Maldanado for failing to warn him about the money jammed in the trap, but he figured that he was still adhering to the letter of the law. The fact was that he hadn’t seen any drugs, and there had been no discussion of how Maldanado had earned his small fortune. Given those circumstances, Anaya assumed that he was immune from legal trouble in connection with his meticulous creations. He was, after all, just an installer.