7 Adventures of the World's Biggest Pot Smuggler
Nowadays, America grows her own weed, and The Man eases up more and more on the pot industry every year. Last week we got the lowdown on the strange and sometimes dangerous world of legal marijuana in 2014, but if you want to know how we got here, you need to talk to somebody from back in the day. In the 1970s, there were no dispensaries in California, much less legal recreational shops. There was, however, Brian O'Dea and his merry band of pot smugglers.
We talked with Brian to find out just how he rose to become one of the continent's leading drug importers, and how it all went cock-bendingly wrong in the end. Here's what he had to say:
Sometimes the Biggest Dangers Aren't Cartels or Cops
Smuggling drugs is a dangerous profession. Nobody's going to be surprised by that. But back in my day, the drug game was substantially less murder-happy. That didn't make it less dangerous, though. Let me tell you about the time we made the stupid fucking decision to transport 16,000 pounds of weed via DC-6 ...
Ours was named "The Spruce Skynyrd." That was probably a sign.
The goal was to get our weed from Colombia, load it into this gigantic plane, and fly it back to the states, where it would turn -- as if by magic -- into $4 or $5 million. Back in the 1970s, that was basically all the money, anywhere, ever.
I bought the plane with two dudes from Chicago, but none of us could fly the damn thing. So we found a young man who had 2,000 hours of professional experience with a two-engine plane. Ours was a four-engine, and he said, "Oh, it's no different. I read the book." Not knowing fuck-all about planes, I assumed that made sense. After all, how could four engines be less reliable than two? (The answer is, there are twice as many chances for something to go cock-eyed.)
How complex could flying a commercial airplane really be?
So I volunteered to go with him and be the co-pilot, even though the only jobs I was qualified for were "drug smuggler," "drug user," and "band manager" (let's be honest -- that last one is really just the first two combined). We got an airstrip in Georgia, we took off, and halfway down we lost all our hydraulics. He asked me, "Would you rather crash in the U.S. or South America?" I said, "Nowhere, buddy." He said, "If you had to make a choice, though ..."
"And, hypothetically, if I had only packed one parachute ...?"
Turns out I preferred crashing in the U.S. There's just no place like home for a few thousand tons of metal to explode on top of you, y'know?
He turned around and told me to start pouring hydraulic fluid into the system, and hopefully there'd be enough pressure in the line to lower the landing gear. We'd been in the air for just over four hours at that point. In the dark, this kid found the runway just by closing the circle. No one was expecting us. I poured the hydraulics in and the gear stayed open. Mechanics came the next day and fixed it. We took off again. As crashes go, it was a little bit of all right.
This time we landed on a salt mine strip in Colombia. As we landed, we lost our steering and went off the runway and through a barbed wire fence into a cactus. Now this was a problem. We couldn't be lingering there, and yet we had a plane with no steering -- lingering was about all we could do. This was 1975, and it cost us $10,000 a day to bribe the military while we fixed the plane. It took a week.
Unfortunately, we didn't have to bribe the police or politicians, so we missed out on bundle pricing.
So we lifted off on a cactus field, but right away we blew an engine (it was an awful plane, are you getting that impression?) and the prop flew off. So now we had three engines and a plane with no steering. Captain Sonny Disposition figured he could make it with three engines (hell, he flew with two normally) and decided to give it a go.
Anyway, we totally crashed in the water and would've drowned if not for some friendly local fishermen. If this was a movie, it would be a slapstick comedy starring Seth Rogen, but this was drug smuggling back in the day.
Serious Money Inspires a Lot of Things (Not All of Them Good)
It turns out losing a $5 million payday wasn't as big a disaster as it could have been. I found out later that one of my partners had planned to cut me out entirely anyway. It's weird -- once money enters the equation, people go from "friends pulling together, operating on a shoestring budget" to stereotypical villains in an instant. But shitloads of money can do good things to people, too. Let me tell you about the Preacher: In the '70s, he was the King of Pot in Jamaica. He was the kind of guy who'd open up his house to you and then make you wait three days while he sat, locked in his room, doing tons of drugs, before he was ready to come out and make a deal.
It was a bargaining tactic. Three days sleeping on a fold-out couch will make anyone a motivated buyer.
When this guy decided to deal, though? He was brilliant. There's this long stretch of highway in Jamaica outside of Montego Bay. The Preacher had access to military-style jeeps and military-style uniforms for his men, and Jamaica didn't have "discouraging fake military operations" earmarked in that year's budget. So the Preacher would set up fake roadblocks along this highway and turn it into an airstrip whenever we needed one.
So you see, the Preacher had a method to his madness: It takes at least three straight days of heavy drug use to muster the kind of gargantuan balls you need to pull that stunt off.
Just When You Think You're Out ...
Through my lawyer, I met this guy named Bill Schaefer who was living in the Hollywood Hills. You had to walk sideways in the house because every corridor and room had boxes. I said, "What's this?"
He ripped open a box, and it was all Thai pot. This was the man with the connection. So from time to time I helped him offload, if only to clear up the poor fella's house. Besides, at that time I'd gathered up 30 tons of dinosaur bone. No, that's not a euphemism for cocaine (although it totally should be). I had come up with this idea to embed a tiny piece of dino bone in LEXAN plastic pyramids and send them out to National Geographic subscribers who were willing to pay. Bill, the pot connect, was also my dino bone connect. Bill is what you'd call a multitasker. I wanted out of the pot business, and this was a chance to go legit.
Around this time, a "friend" I'd known growing up found out about my connections. I didn't really trust the guy, but he claimed he had a line on this incredible private port we could use to smuggle our stuff. I didn't want to introduce him to Bill because I didn't feel good about the guy. But he kept bugging me about it, and finally I arranged the meet. Yes, high-stakes drug-smuggling decisions are made the same way a douchebag at the bar gets dates: blind, irritating persistence.
The "Care to see my 30-ton dinosaur bone?" line works in either scenario.
Luckily, it was an incredible private port, the perfect offload point for a smuggling operation. So we got back to LA and asked ourselves ... can we do this? Turns out: Yes, we could. So we did.
It Is Generally Not a Good Idea to "Prank" the Feds
We bought a 100-foot tender vessel. Used for transporting fish, it was three hulls deep and capable of packing tons of pot. What we did next was obvious: We packed it full of herring and transported it to a processing facility. You're probably thinking we have some attention deficit problems by now. But that move established our boat's legitimacy and helped load it down with some good, honest fish-stink to offset the slightly less honest impending pot-stink.
A vehicle just doesn't feel like it's yours until it smells like dead mackerel and a shit-ton of weed.
So some months later we went to Thailand, and through a Thai senator we brokered a deal with the Vietnamese army to buy 76 tons of pot. (Isn't this how everybody buys weed?) Long story short: We sailed it back, made a few fishy deals, and wound up with a lot of money. We moved hundreds of millions of dollars in weed, and things went swimmingly, right up until the DEA caught on. We'd just finished dropping off 50 tons of pot in Alaska and loading it onto a little fleet of boats hidden in this fjord, covered in chopped-down trees to disguise them from the air. We flew the captains down from Alaska to Washington so we could plan out the next stage of the operation. Oh hey there, Shit! Have you met Fan? You guys will get along famously.
Up until this point, all we had were police scanners. But those wouldn't key us into the ATF, CIA, FBI, and DEA frequencies. The day before we had flown in a guy with a spectrum analyzer that could pick out the federal frequencies. So he reprogrammed our scanners. As I was driving to the meet-up point in my big brown antennae-covered Suburban, I heard something crackle over the radio.
"We've got them, they're in a Suburban."
This is why a good smuggler's tools of the trade always includes a set clean of underwear.
You don't know how to properly "freak out" until you've heard the federal frequencies gossiping about your car. After six hours of driving, I got to Spokane and called our safe house. I told her "I've been followed," and she said, "Yeah, you're the fourth today. Call back in two hours." So I did, and a meeting was arranged in an outpost by a little country store. While we were prepping for the meeting, Bill called his lawyer in LA, and that lawyer got us in touch with a former DEA agent who was now a private detective. He found out that they only knew about the harbor we planned to offload at. Nothing else.
We phoned a friend of ours and got another great big boat. I owned a small trucking company that mainly transported timber. It was legit, and it existed for just this sort of situation. The trucks drove up to our old boats, took the weed, and delivered it to the new one. We knew we couldn't drop the stuff off at our original port, so we decided to take it to Bellingham, Washington, and just balls our way through this whole mess.
At this point our balls were feeling large enough to bounce away on if we needed to make a quick exit.
We wound up unloading 50 tons of weed in broad daylight, all disguised as fish. Old sailors were hanging around the wharfs, watching, so we even accidentally dropped and busted a box of real fish off the conveyor belt to sell the story. And that's why you always carry a box of fish, kids.
Next we pulled our old boats in Alaska out of hiding. The radios lit up within an hour. The DEA waited for our now-empty boats at the docks. And while they were doing that, we were unloading 50 tons of pot into Bellingham. Our decoy fleet docked, and all hell broke loose. The DEA came from the sea and the air and found ... fresh coffee and doughnuts waiting for them on board. There was not a joint, not a cigarette paper, not so much as an errant can of Schlitz to be found. The feds did not find it funny.
It is kind of funny, though.
Don't Sample the Damn Product
There were 110 people around the world working on this pot exchange, and our one single fucking requirement was that nobody involved do any cocaine. Our captain had a problem with this. Eventually I confronted him. He refused to stop doing coke, so we said, "You go down to your brother's place in Florida, get out of here, and when this is done we'll pay you."
Interventions were much more low pressure at the time.
My co-smugglers figured $50,000 would be enough to bribe the guy. I didn't think it was enough and worried he'd make noise, but I got outvoted. He took that bag with $50,000 and went directly to the DEA's Seattle office. He put that money on the table and said, "I can tell you where there's more of that," and for the next 11 months, the DEA watched us. That's how they got wise to our smuggling operation in the first place. Dang: Only a cokehead would think 50 grand for "chilling out" is a bad deal.
The feds didn't stop chasing us just because we outsmarted them that one time. That tends to make them mad, actually. But I wound up rich, and since I had a bunch of money and not enough brains, I pulled myself out of the business and decided to celebrate with ... cocaine. I bought an entire kilogram for myself. Three days later, I had a heart attack on the floor of my friend's house. When you start buying personal-use coke by the kilogram, there's really no other way it's going to end.
The Hammer Comes Down (but Helps Birth the Legal Weed Industry)
I started to volunteer at the hospital where I got sober and wound up leading the volunteer efforts. I had found a place in Santa Barbara's recovering addict community. So I was lying in bed one morning, feeling good about my clean and sober life, just thinking about this methadone addict who came in the night before ... and there came a knock on my door.
It was the only time anyone has ever prayed for it to be Jehovah's Witnesses.
I knew they were cops. I just knew it. You always know: Cops must knock differently. Sure enough, I rolled over, looked through my mini-blinds, and saw a man's hand ... holding a gun. So I got up, put on my bathrobe, and opened the door. I saw two men with badges and guns. One said: "Are you Brian O'Dea?"
I said: "Fuck, I wish I wasn't, but I am."
"May we come in?"
"You've got the gun."
And in they came.
"So, you know why we're here?"
I said, "No, I don't."
That's the only decent answer to that question, by the way. What if they were just really aggressively selling tickets to the policeman's ball, and you suddenly started blubbering about all of your many felonies?
"Did I say $45? I meant $4,500. How many can I put you down for?"
"Listen, wise guy, we know what you do. This isn't about change or rehabilitation. We're here to crush your life. Do the right thing."
"The right thing is calling my lawyer."
"We're coming after him next."
The DEA busted most of us smugglers at the same time, effectively cutting off the supply of weed from Southeast Asia. That's one of the reasons the American pot-growing industry is so big now. I still have friends in prison, who will die there, for transporting a drug that's now almost legal. Imagine sitting in Terminal Island doing 75 years for conspiracy to bring in marijuana, then you open up the paper and read the news about Colorado and Washington.
Sometimes the Law Is More Dangerous Than the Crime
The DEA wanted my cooperation. Since I was working in rehab, they figured I'd go for it. There were 55 guys indicted. Fifty-three of them talked; my chief engineer and I were the other two. He asked me, "Are you telling them anything?" I said, "Nope." He said, "I'm not either." I asked, "What can you tell them they don't know?" He replied, "I didn't get into this business to talk."
"Bullshit? Yeah. Gossip? A little. Talk? Nope."
Eventually they even arrested Steve Swanson, the former DEA detective that tipped us off. They got him for aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise. A lot of the guys testified against him in Florida. When Steve was charged, he asked for a 15-minute recess. He went outside and stood in front of a truck and killed himself. The people who testified probably didn't feel great about that. I don't believe in giving stitches to snitches, but sometimes a life of guilt is fair.
I do feel for all of them. Why didn't I talk? Because not talking was the easiest thing for me to do. The guys who cooperated did it because it was the easiest thing for them to do. Human nature is lazy: Everyone generally does the easiest thing. Besides, I knew I'd be OK eventually. I had a huge group of friends who were members of the sober community in Santa Barbara. They started a letter-writing campaign on my behalf, targeting everybody from the president and vice president down to the attorney general and my congressman. Eventually the DA realized I probably couldn't have garnered this sort of support if I was a hardened criminal possessed by the Reefer Devil.
Although, it being the '70s, we did have pretty similar wardrobes.
Since I didn't cooperate, I got 10 to 12 years and a $1 million fine, but the DA wrote to the parole board and helped me get transferred to a prison in Canada, where I could get paroled a little earlier. I have regrets, of course. Nobody's saying we were saints. But in the whole time I was smuggling pot, I never saw a gun until those DEA agents knocked on my door. And no one died bringing that weed to America until the law came down on Steve.
Robert Evans's first book A Brief History of Vice is available for pre-order now. It's filled with guides to recreating ancient drug-fueled debauchery!
Related Reading: Cracked's spoke to a bunch of people with unique lives, including a rehabilitated terrorist. We spoke with an undercover agent who used his wiles to fight drug cartels and this whole bunch of drug dealers for balance. Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
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