Was John Z DeLorean a drug trafficker? The real story behind the $24 million cocaine deal conspiracy

The founder of the DeLorean Motor Company appeared in Los Angeles Federal Court for a conspiracy to engage in a $24 million cocaine deal on August 16, 1984


                            Was John Z DeLorean a drug trafficker? The real story behind the $24 million cocaine deal conspiracy
John Z DeLorean, his wife Cristina Ferrare and the famous DeLorean car (Getty Images)

On a hot day in August 1984, America set its eyes on the trial of the year: 58-year-old John Z DeLorean — founder of the DeLorean Motor Company who designed one of the swankiest, stylish cars in those days — appeared in Los Angeles Federal Court for conspiracy to engage in a $24 million cocaine deal to save his financially-fragile auto firm.

The trial began in mid-April and ended after four months of testimony. DeLorean and his wife, former model Cristina Ferrare, stood with each other hand-in-hand as long as the ordeal lasted. A jury of six men and six women unanimously took the final call after almost 30 hours of deliberation for charges of eight counts of drug trafficking. The verdict was announced: not guilty. 

But what was that the truth? Was DeLorean framed or was he really a drug trafficker?

Born on January 6, 1925, he was the oldest of four sons of Zachary and Kathryn DeLorean. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, he had Romanian and Hungarian roots. DeLorean's childhood brimmed with poverty and struggle as his father worked in a mill factory and was later employed as a union organizer and sporadically as a carpenter at the Ford Motor Company factory. Owing to his poor English skills and lack of education, he could never get a high salary job. Meanwhile, his mother worked at the Carboloy Products Division of General Electric to supplement the family's income.

John Z DeLorean (Getty Images)

John's father Zachary was known for his erratic rage and violence. Due to several such outrageous episodes, Kathryn took her sons to live with her sister in Los Angeles for almost a year. In 1942, John's parents parted ways and his father went on to become a solitary drug addict and moved into a boarding house.

Through his school and college, he excelled while studying industrial engineering. However, his studies were interrupted by World War II and he served three years in the US Army starting from 1943. In 1952, he joined Packard Motor Company at an estimated salary of $14,000 in those times, equivalent to $133,784 now. He rapidly rose at Packard and was soon hired at General Motors (GM) after he accepted a salary offer of $16,000 (equivalent to over $150,000), where he managed both the Pontiac and Chevrolet divisions before becoming a vice president in 1972.

His signature style and flashy lifestyle made him stand apart from the crowd and his ambitious attitude distinguished him in the auto industry. In 1975, he left GM to live his dream of building his own company that developed a high-performance, futuristic and economical sports car with "gull-wing" doors that opened upward. His eponymous dream car was officially the DMC-12 but people called it the DeLorean.

John DeLorean, his wife Christina Ferrare and the famous DeLorean car (Getty Images)

While DeLorean opened to much fanfare, lukewarm reviews from car critics soon downed its reputation. Thanks to the dwindling interest, more than half of approximately 7,000 DeLoreans cars were unsold and skyrocketing production costs led to a $175 million debt for DMC. Soon after, there was an internal investigation into the company's financial irregularities and the British government announced that the DeLorean Motor Company would have to shut shop on October 19, 1982. Coincidentally, that same day, an arrest warrant was released for DeLorean on drug trafficking charges.

According to several reports, confidential informant James Timothy Hoffman who was DeLorean's former neighbor tipped off the government about how he approached him to set up the cocaine deal. Much later, it was found out that FBI informant Hoffman had actually arranged the deal in order to get a reduced sentence for a 1981 federal cocaine trafficking charge. An in-depth investigation proved that Hoffman knew about DeLorean's financial troubles — especially how he needed $17 million "in a hurry" to prevent DMC's bankruptcy.

While DeLorean had accepted his deal then, his lawyers argued that the FBI and DEA had unfairly targeted and tried to trap him in the deal. His attorney Howard Weitzman said: "The message they want to send, and the message that has been sent to the country at large to all of our citizens, is that we won't tolerate the type of conduct the government involved in this particular incident."

John DeLorean (Getty Images)

Moreover, DeLorean's clean history and lack of criminal record helped him further. A witness named Carol Winkler, DeLorean's Administrative Assistant showed her call log which proved that the deal was sparked by Hoffman's call. 

DeLorean was finally acquitted on August 16, 1984, but by then DMC had already crashed and his reputation lost its luster. In the court, he said, "Hopefully, this terror that my family and I have gone through, this horror that we've gone through for almost two years now, won't have been wasted. Perhaps somehow we can get the laws changed and the codes of conduct changed so that this can't happen to other people. If that truly happens, then maybe all of this has been for a worthwhile and constructive purpose." Reports say that when asked if he would go back to the auto industry, DeLorean bitterly asked, "Would you buy a used car from me?"

A year later, on September 21, 1985, DeLorean was taken to court on charges he defrauded investors and committed tax evasion by diverting millions of dollars but was eventually acquitted of the charges. As he battled more than 40 legal cases, his dream car shot to stardom after it was featured in the film trilogy 'Back to the Future'. Nevertheless, he could never get back his name and fame. His plans to resurrect his company with plans for a new vehicle called the DMC2 tanked. In the year 1999, he declared bankruptcy, and at the age of 80, he died from a stroke on March 19, 2005.

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