Desert Sun
Number 196
March 21, 1985,
front page

Crime probes tied to Nichols associates

Indian advisor's colleagues factor
in numerous criminal investigations

By John Hussar
Desert Sun Special Projects Editor

A puzzling murder in San Francisco three years ago put investigators on a bizarre trail of drugs, high-tech research and other murders that led to business associates of Cabazon Indian consultant John Philip Nichols.

San Francisco homicide detectives say Nichols is not a suspect in their unsolved murder case, but that he is a pivitol player in an unfolding mystery that has baffled state investigators and police detectives.

The complex story surrounding the 60-year-old Nichols is shrouded in twisted subplots of supposed CIA involvement and large-scale drug traficking, and the principal players seem like sly characters usually found in dime-store spy-thrillers.

Since he first became the Cabazons' consultant in 1979, Nichols has been interviewed by the FBI, San Francisco Police Department, and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department in connection with a number of cases. Most are unsolved.

Investigators told the Desert Sun this week that Nichols is associated with several people currently under investigation by federal and state authorities in connection with murder and racketeering cases.

A central figure is Michael Riconosciuto, touted as a high-tech electronics whiz, who is the subject of a racketeering probe by the FBI.

The Desert Sun has learned that Riconosciuto, 37, who served a drug-related prison sentence in 1979, was to be the research director of a high-tech firm called Sertic, a joint venture between he, Nichols and Paul Morasca, the man found dead in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1982.

That business partnership, presumably to produce night vision equipment and satellite dishes for television reception, also was part of Nichols' plans to form the now-defunct Cabazon Arms Co. on the Cabazon reservation on the outskirts of Indio, according to numerous sources.

San Francisco Police Homicide Inspector Edward Erdelatz said Wednesday that Riconosciuto discovered the 32-year-old Morasca's decomposed body. But instead of notifying police, Riconosciuto drove to Nichols' house in Indio to say that their business partner was dead.

Nichols then called Los Angeles attorney Harlan Braun, who notifide San Francisco police of the murder, according to Erdelatz.

The investigator said Morasca's death may be drug-related. "Our investigation shows that a large amount of money in foreign banks and drugs may have something to do with his death," Erdelatz said in a telephone interview. "He may have had information that people wanted."

While Nichols is not considered a suspect in the case, investigators remain puzzled why Riconosciuto would report Morasca's death to Nichols, instead of going to the police.

"He (Nichols) has been questioned many times," Erdelatz said, but so far he has not shed any light on the Morasca murder.

Riconosciuto, believed to be living in the Seattle area, is also not a suspect, Erdelatz said. Numerous attempts to contact Riconosciuto this week have been unsuccessful.

Riconosciuto is, however, the subject of a Racketeering Influence and Corrupted Organization (RICO) probe by the FBI, a bureau spokesman in San Francisco confirmed this week. He would not elaborate on specifics of the investigation.

Another in the cast of characters is Philip Arthur Thompson, a 39-year-old convict serving two consecutive life terms for robbery-kidnapping. He's been described by some law enforcement officials as a college-educated criminal genius.

Thompson is a suspect in the Morasca murder, Erdelatz said, although he has not been charged. He is serving life sentences in the state Deuel Vocational Institution, a medium-security prison near Tracy, Calif., for robbery-kidnapping convictions stemming from a holdup of a United Parcel Service driver.

Thompson's role as a Nichols associate is not completely clear.

Thompson was introduced by Nichols to "help Riconosciuto," Erdelatz explained. "Beyond that, we don't know what Thompson's association with Nichols is."

According to police reports obtained by The Desert Sun, Thompson was to "recover certain scientific property used by Riconosciuto for both legitimate and illicit purposes. Thompson's job was allegedly to detroy the illicit material."

Riconosciuto's expertise as a research scientist may have been put to use in one of Nichols' most ambitious money-making plans for the Cabazon Indians — a weapons manufacturing plant that was to attract lucritive government contracts and big money for Cabazon coffers.

Peter Zokosky, a former partner in the company, said Nichols formed the Cabazon Arms Co. to manufacture weapons in a joint venture with Wackenhut Services, an international security company based in Florida.

The company's brochure said its executives are ex-FBI and CIA agents, as well as former law enforcement officials.

Several years ago, Zokosky said, Nichols arranged for a demonstration of night vision equipment at Lake Cahuilla near La Quinta for four military leaders, presumably from Central America.

Zokosky, a retired armaments executive who was present at the demonstration, said one observer was reportedly Eden Pastora, also known as Commander Zero, an anti-Sandinista rebel leader from Nicaragua.

"The deal for the scopes apparently never went through," said Zokosky. He said he quit his partnership with Nichols after preparing an audit that uncovered alleged skimming from the Cabazon's bingo parlor and casino operation.

Nichols' joint venture with Wackenhut also never fully got off the ground.

Wackenhut President Bob Frye said, "We severed our relations with the tribe over a year ago." Frye refused to discuss his relationship with Nichols: "I know what John's problem is, I don't want to comment."

Nichols also figures in an ongoing FBI probe of the Cabazons' card casino near Indio and its possible connection with organized crime figures, according to a high-level law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

An FBI spokesman in Los Angeles said there is not current investigation involving Nichols. But FBI spokesman John Holford in San Francisco would say only that Nichols "has been intereviewed by our agents" in connection with investigations he would not disclose.

Nichols was accused last fall by former Cabazon security chief James Hughes of "ordering a hit" on Fred Alvarez, a former Cabazon security officer, and two other. Alverez was murdered in 1981.

Before his death, Alvarez claimed he had evidence of skimming at the Cabazon cardroom and was planning to take information to an attorney. Alvarez and two friends were found shot once in the back of the head gangland-style.

At the request of Alvarez's sister, Linda Streeter, Gov. George Deukmejian ordered a state Department of Justice investigation into the triple slaying. The Sheriff's Department also is investigating.

"We have no evidence to corroborate what Hughes claimed," Frank Brock, a Department of Justice special agent, said Wednesday. "The case is active, but we really don't have any definite leads or specific suspects."

Nichols has refused to be interviewed, Brock said. The agent added that the possibility of a grand jury investigation into the triple slaying "is being pondered."

The FBI was also probing allegations that Nichols was involved with a coal swindle involving a Utah company exporting "millions of dollars of coal" to Sweden. A law enforcement official, who requested that his name not be used, confirmed that the investigation was made several years ago, "but nothing apparently came of it."