Minnesotan now nation's top drug cop

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2010 - 10:49 PM

Michele Leonhart worked her way up through the ranks starting on the street.

WASHINGTON - It's been a long journey for Michele Leonhart, a Catholic school girl from St. Paul who grew up to bust some of Minnesota's most notorious drug dealers.

Once considered too short or too weak for police work, she made a name for herself helping take down legendary traffickers like Casey Ramirez, a south Florida drug kingpin during the cocaine-bingeing 1980s who all but adopted Princeton, Minn.

As an undercover agent in Minneapolis, Leonhart once bought LSD from American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Clyde Bellecourt, prompting him to complain upon his conviction that he had been "set up by the government."

In the waning hours of Congress Wednesday night, the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Leonhart as the first female Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent to rise through the ranks to become its administrator, making her the nation's No. 1 drug cop.

Appointed deputy administrator in 2003 by President George W. Bush, she got the nod from President Obama this year for the DEA's top job, making her the first career female agent to lead a federal law-enforcement agency.

In an interview Thursday, while visiting her mother in Minnesota for the holidays, Leonhart said she's dedicated to meeting the new challenges that the DEA faces, from disrupting and dismantling extremely violent Mexico-based drug cartels to defeating narco-terrorists operating in Afghanistan. "It is global," she said. "There are no boundaries."

Indeed, the DEA's franchise has expanded significantly since the days she worked the streets in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Domestically, Leonhart mentioned "doing all we can to reduce prescription drug abuse, our nation's fastest growing drug threat."

Leonhart's law enforcement career stems back to her childhood in St. Paul, where someone stole her blue Huffy bicycle with a white basket and pink streamers. She said she scoured her Selby Avenue neighborhood until she got it back.

It proved to be the first case in a career that has spanned 30 years.

'Mikey' and 'Alice'

She attended Lakewood Community College in White Bear Lake and Bemidji State University. Her first crack at real police work was in Baltimore, where she finished first in her rookie class and was given the nicknames "Mikey" and "Alice," as in Alice in Wonderland -- a play on her sheltered upbringing going to Catholic school in St. Paul.

"Going to the big city was taking a drive downtown St. Paul," Leonhart said. "Drugs was just nothing I had encountered, even in high school."

Once on the beat in Baltimore, she said, "it didn't take long to learn that almost every felony arrest I made had something to do with drugs."

As the top rookie in her DEA class in 1980, Leonhart got to pick her first post. She chose Minneapolis, where she became the field office's first female agent.

"I knew every time I took dope off the street it was in my own community," she said. "I have never regretted it."

The late Jim Braseth, a legendary DEA supervisor who mentored Leonhart in the Twin Cities, once praised her ability blend in the scruffy macho culture of the DEA, whose agents typically affect a less buttoned-down image than their counterparts in the FBI.

"If you could look in the dictionary for the definition of a federal drug agent," Braseth said, "you'd find Michele's picture."

It was Braseth who sent Leonhart up against Ramirez, a millionaire drug-dealer-turned-civic-philanthropist who paid for the high school football uniforms and the hockey arena in Princeton. The operation nearly fell through one day when Ramirez accidentally happened upon Leonhart in the federal building in Minneapolis. The undercover agent explained her presence by saying she was on federal probation.

Ramirez, caught running drugs between Colombia and Florida, eventually served 13 years in prison.

Bellecourt likewise went to prison after his conviction for selling 500 hits of LSD to undercover agents. One of the agents was Leonhart, who met with the Indian leader in a laundry room at Little Earth of United Tribes, a south Minneapolis housing development.

Leonhart's days in Minnesota were followed by DEA stints in St. Louis, San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Off the streets, she's worked as a supervisor and a recruiter. She became the first woman to lead a DEA field division as the Special Agent-in-Charge of the San Francisco office in 1997. She later commanded the Los Angeles field division.

She has been the DEA's acting administrator since 2007, after serving under Karen Tandy, a former federal prosecutor and the first woman to run the DEA. But while Tandy ascended through the Justice Department, Leonhart has the distinction of rising up from the street, where she carried guns and crossed wits with the criminal underworld.

Married with two sons, Leonhart is now the face of the nation's effort to combat drugs. "She's racked up an incredible number of firsts," said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who testified at Leonhart's confirmation hearing along with fellow Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. "This was a long time coming."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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