A Woman With Two Lives

Few people in Fayetteville, N.C., who met Laurie Hiett will soon forget her. Not the students in the Spanish course she taught at Westover High School, who remember when the moody wife of a U.S. Army colonel admitted in class to a history of smoking dope. Not Mike Fernandez, the jailed cocaine dealer who says Laurie hung out at his apartment during her lunch breaks. And certainly not a 25-year-old ex-stripper named Celeste Wilcox, who describes herself as Hiett's cocaine-snorting "partner in crime." Wilcox says Laurie needed to escape occasionally from the straitlaced world of nearby Fort Bragg, where her husband, James, was stationed for two years. Recalls Wilcox: "She taught me a lot about how to lead two lives."

Laurie Hiett's double life fell apart last summer when she was accused of sending more than 15 pounds of heroin from Colombia to New York City through the private mail service of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. She had moved to the Colombian capital in 1998 when her husband, Col. James C. Hiett, was named head of the embassy's 150-member U.S. Military Group, which trains Colombians in the finer points of drug interdiction. But the couple's Colombian chauffeur told U.S. investigators that, while the colonel was at work, Laurie Hiett asked the driver to help her score hard drugs in Bogota's trendy Zona Rosa district. Then, last May, a random search of cargo at Miami International Airport uncovered more than 2.5 pounds of drugs in a brown-paper package bearing Laurie Hiett's return address. Field tests originally identified the substance as cocaine, but it was later found to be heroin. Another shipment of heroin was intercepted later. U.S. authorities believe Hiett shipped six parcels in all, containing drugs with a street value of about $500,000.

New York City police arrested a Colombian national at an apartment in Queens where one of Hiett's packages had been delivered. Then U.S. Army investigators confronted her with the evidence. Last August, Hiett surrendered at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn to face charges of conspiracy to distribute drugs. She has denied the charges, claiming she sent the parcels, without knowing the contents, as a favor to the chauffeur, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, who dropped out of sight in Colombia after talking to U.S. investigators. Hiett is currently free on $150,000 bail; if convicted, the 36-year-old mother of two boys could face a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

An Army investigation cleared James Hiett, 47, of wrongdoing in the affair, and he was transferred out of Colombia at his own request. He declined to speak with NEWSWEEK, as did his wife. Her attorney, Paul Lazarus, says she "vehemently" denied the story told by Ayala. He noted that the chauffeur "is wanted by the authorities and seems to be a fugitive," and accused him of "attempting to shift blame from himself."

Hiett's arrest deeply embarrassed Washington. Colombia is already the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside the Middle East, and some U.S. officials have spoken of giving it $1.5 billion in military and civilian assistance over the next three years. Nearly all the money would go to the war on drugs in Colombia, which supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine and two thirds of the heroin consumed in the United States.

Apart from red faces at the fortresslike U.S. Embassy building in Bogota, the Hiett affair raises disturbing questions about the assignment of senior officials and their dependents to sensitive overseas missions. At a preliminary court hearing in August, Hiett's lawyer conceded she "has had a problem in the past." But her pre-Colombian activities did not disqualify James Hiett from a coveted assignment in the world's largest cocaine-producing country.

According to a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia and a former American military adviser there, Hiett's commanding officers knew about Laurie's purported drug usage and passed the information on to the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Curtis Kamman, who nonetheless OK'd the colonel's posting. "The Army said she had gone through [drug] rehab, and he approved Colonel Hiett on the grounds that she would not be the one working for the embassy," says the former U.S. ambassador. A spokesman for Kamman declined to comment. But the Pentagon's own security-clearance procedures have fallen short in recent years. Last August, the acting director of the Defense Security Service (DSS), which conducts the background checks, said "crucial changes" were needed in its procedures. According to newspaper accounts, DSS agents were instructed not to investigate possible drug or alcohol use by military personnel in the absence of "compelling" evidence.

Laurie Hiett, whose mother is Panamanian, met her future husband in Panama in the late 1980s, when he was assigned to the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in the Canal Zone. When they first moved to Fayetteville in 1990, Laurie felt out of place in the conservative Southern town. But she also knew what was expected. She dutifully hosted dinner parties for her husband's Army colleagues and kept a tidy home. "She'd tell me, 'The old man is back in town, I've got to go do my family thing'," recalls Mike Fernandez, 34, who is now serving a three-year prison sentence in North Carolina for cocaine dealing.

But people who knew her then say it was obvious that something was wrong with Laurie Hiett. They say her alleged drug habit made the slender, vivacious brunette look older than she really was. Teachers and parents of students at Fayetteville's Westover High School remember a skittish, flaky thirtysomething who was popular with some teens but made little eye contact with adults and could never sit still for long. "Even in class, she'd be pacing up and down, fidgeting, moving all the time," says a former security officer at the school. "I never saw her sit down."

Wayne Eggleston says his 16-year-old son, Christopher, talked about the Spanish teacher's public acknowledgment of past marijuana use. "She said she used to smoke pot, but it was OK because she was a [respectable] schoolteacher now," he recalls.

When her husband was away from home, friends say, Laurie would plunge into the seamy side of Fayetteville. One of her friends there was Celeste Wilcox, an admitted part-time hooker with pink-streaked hair who says she turned Laurie on to methamphetamines. Hiett's junior by 11 years, Wilcox recognized a kindred spirit from the moment the two first met in the fall of 1996. She recalls how they would sometimes pull all-nighters fueled by speed and rum-and-coke cocktails in the living room of the Hietts' two-story house while the colonel slept in the master bedroom. During one four-day binge at the Hiett home, Wilcox says, they did headstands while they snorted the drug and cleaned out each other's nostrils with Vaseline-daubed Q-Tips. "Our relationship was based on drugs, and it was pretty much every day," says Wilcox. "When you're a drug addict, you want a partner in crime, and she loved cocaine."

A change of scenery may have done little to alter Hiett's lifestyle. In Colombia, she worked on a couple of occasions as a substitute teacher at a private school. But a member of the school's parent-teacher board says her "hyper" personality and "negative" attitude turned off administrators, and she was not asked back. Outlandish behavior at receptions reportedly led the colonel to exile her from the diplomatic social scene. "She was a live wire," says an embassy colleague. "You see that sometimes in Army wives. Their husbands are pretty square guys, and the wives can be the yin to their yang."

Did James Hiett have any inkling about his wife's other life? An ex-boyfriend of Celeste Wilcox's, who says he used speed with Laurie, believes the colonel was genuinely clueless about his wife's secret habit. "We used to sit around and feel sorry for the guy because he had no idea," he says. "She was not your average colonel's wife, but he just saw that she was a happy, fun-loving person." Others aren't so sure. Wilcox claims Laurie once told her about forcing the colonel to watch her snort a line of cocaine. "He knew Laurie was a cokehead, he just looked the other way," she insists.

Mike Fernandez says that even at the height of her drug consumption, Hiett was always aware that her habit could ruin her husband's future. "She loved him," says the coke dealer, "and she was worried she would endanger his career." Her premonitions turned out to be right on the money. Today, the Hietts are living together in Virginia while the colonel plays out the string of a shattered career in a desk job at Fort Monroe. Laurie Hiett still awaits her formal indictment. Fernandez unwittingly foresaw her downfall in a joking aside during one of their last encounters. "I once told her, 'Hey, you're going to send me some dope [from Colombia], aren't you?' " he says with a grin. "She gave me that 'Are you stupid?' look." If Laurie Hiett is found guilty of conspiracy to distribute heroin, she will have many years in a jail cell to ask herself the same question.

A Woman With Two Lives | News