When Jason Ryan first began researching what would become his nonfiction debut, Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting that Launched the War on Drugs, he didn't intend to glorify the marijuana smugglers that called the Lowcountry home in the 1970s.
But he readily admits that he admires the men that became known as the gentlemen smugglers — not because of what they did for a living and certainly not because they broke the law. Simply put, Ryan, a former reporter for The State, is charmed by the can-do, devil-may-care attitudes of men like Barry Foy and Les Riley.
"They took risks. They rebelled against a conventional existence," Ryan says.
He adds, "I just admire that they didn't care about all the things that they were expected to do and that they hopped on boats and traveled the world and that there were a million reasons to think that they would get caught and couldn't pull off each caper that they did, but they did it anyway."
Both Foy and Riley were good ol' Southern boys who grew up in Columbia and attended college before dropping out. Eventually, they ended up in Key West when the Florida town was still a laid-back haven for outcasts and adventurers rather than the modern tourist destination popularized by Jimmy Buffett songs. It was there that Foy and Riley based their initial smuggling operations, which took them back and forth from Jamaica and Colombia on sailboats packed to the gills with bales of marijuana. The two men — each running their own operations with different crews — eventually returned home to South Carolina, settling on Hilton Head, and became two of the most successful drug traffickers of the time.
According to Ryan, these guys were nothing like their modern-day, post-drug war counterparts. "They were unique in that they were nonviolent and that they were also college educated. Typically, when you think of a drug criminal, you think of someone who is uneducated, thuggish, brutal, and these men were not that way at all. In fact, many of them, you might know them or meet them today and you would never suspect that this was in their past."
Over the course of Jackpot's rollicking story, Ryan manages to pack in one amusing tale after another: the day after a shipment, the crew stumbles upon a bale of marijuana accidentally left on the side of the road; they pilot a pot-filled sailboat that is taking on water all the way back from Jamaica; they hang out with fellow smugglers at 82 Queen (of which Foy was a part owner); they help U.S. forces during the invasion of Grenada, earning one trafficker, Bob "The Boss" Byers, the nickname rocket launcher.
Over the course of their escapades, Foy, Riley, and some of their fellow smugglers become millionaires.
"I didn't intend to glorify them in the book, and I'm not sure that I do. I try to play it straight and just present the facts and let people form their own opinions about what kind of people they are," Ryan says. "They are not lovable outlaws, but they aren't horrible people by any means."
Ultimately, Foy, Riley, and many of their comrades paid a very high price for their successful careers in the criminal underworld, thanks in part to the '80s-era war on drugs and an ambitious young federal prosecutor named Henry McMaster. "You have this bright, young lawyer, with potentially a bright political future, and he wants to make an impact, and so he goes after these people relentlessly."
Ryan adds, "He won't cut deals. He believes drug traffickers should be punished to the fullest extent of the law no matter if they are violent or not. And he starts making some enemies, both among the smugglers and within his own office. Some veteran prosecutors don't agree with the way he micromanages, and they see politics being mixed with his job, his obligations to bring these people to justice. He was very publicity conscious, and he put out a lot of press releases."
Ultimately, Ryan adds that even those who disagreed with McMaster's method admired the future S.C. attorney general for doing something that no one else had been able to accomplish: He caught them.
Today, Foy, Riley, and most of the others are out of jail. Ryan has conducted interviews with many of them, a task that required countless phone calls and frequent trips out of town. Many of the former traffickers were reluctant to talk. Others claimed that they intended to one day write a book about their experiences on their own. Some even wanted Ryan to pay them money. He rightfully refused.
"I did an interview in the childhood home of Paris Hilton in Palm Beach. I did interviews on shrimp boats. I did one at the Hooters in the Mall of America in Minneapolis," Ryan says.
And if traipsing across the country to interview the one-time cons sounds like a Herculean task, that's nothing compared to the endless boxes of court transcripts that Ryan had to sort through. Over the course of writing the book, he ended up reading thousands and thousands of pages.
"It's definitely an obsession. I think a healthy one," Ryan says. "When I started, I didn't have an idea of how long it would take. I don't think anyone does when they write their first book. It's much different than even a series or a long article for a newspaper. There's no payoff, and there's no feedback. You're going on blind faith that this will work out."
Ryan, who currently works at the College of Charleston, says he wants to write more books. He's particularly interested in tackling more tales about the underworld. "I am fascinated by crime, and the basic reason is that people take risks with consequences and yet they still take them. I'm not the most boring person, but I certainly think about consequences," he says.
He adds, "I will think about all the reasons why this is not a good idea, and what will go wrong, and I won't do something for that reason. And I guess that's the main thing I do admire about them. That despite all that, they still did it."
While Ryan appreciates Foy and Riley for their fearlessness, the first-time author ignores his own. After all, in 2007 Ryan quit his job at The State to follow a crazy-ass dream, to write a book about drug smugglers. But with Jackpot hitting the shelves this week after four years of research, Jason Ryan is selling himself short. He took a risk, and it looks like it paid off. Jackpot is a rip-roaring good read.
To some they were folk heroes, bringing in pot by the boatload. To others they were scoundrels and incorrigible outlaws. Whatever one's opinion, there was no denying South Carolina's "gentlemen smugglers" knew how to move marijuana, sailing ton after ton of the stuff into the Palmetto State from Jamaica, Colombia, and Lebanon. In the late 1970s, while other Americans fretted about the country's future, the gentlemen smugglers charged full steam ahead with their illicit and lucrative ventures, enjoying the many fruits of the pot-trafficking trade.
In July 1979, President Jimmy Carter holed up at Camp David for 10 days and invited a smattering of American leaders and citizens to meet with him and share their opinions on the state of American life. Carter was preparing to address the nation about America's energy woes, but, after listening to the sampling of constituents and some of his advisors, he decided to deliver a broader message. For the last decade, the country had slogged through Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and fuel shortages. These crises had taken a toll, Carter concluded, and the United States was suffering from a "crisis of confidence."
"It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will," Carter said in a televised address from the Oval Office. "We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation ... In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns."
The remarks became known as Carter's "malaise speech." Though his criticisms had broad application, they seem particularly insightful when applied to the case of South Carolina's "gentlemen" marijuana smugglers. Indeed, the smugglers' hedonism and avarice exemplified what Carter considered the very worst habits of modern Americans. They favored easy money. Family harmony was tenuous in the face of frequent substance abuse and cheating. Their community was loose knit, composed of a transient privileged class that moved between resort islands and beachfront towns. They worshipped money and were poster boys for conspicuous consumption, parading around in Gullwing Mercedes and Rolex watches.
The gentlemen smugglers were the epitome of an overindulgent lifestyle, and they were spreading it to whomever wanted to purchase an ounce. At least that's one perspective. They saw it differently; they exemplified true American spirit, courage, and capitalism by trafficking a natural substance on the verge of legalization, or at least widespread decriminalization. If they didn't pay their taxes, so what? Nobody got hurt.
Had any of the gentlemen smugglers appraised Carter's speech — an unlikely scenario, given their general disinterest in politics — they may have agreed wholeheartedly with his comments regarding America's diminishing value of hard work. As young men, each of the smugglers had toiled at jobs they found unfulfilling. Barry "Flash" Foy worked as a mason in Columbia, and Les Riley as a lifeguard in Myrtle Beach. Their friend Lee Harvey was a mechanic in Virginia, and fellow kingpin Bob "The Boss" Byers assembled furniture and delivered soda. In each of their cases, their earnings were entirely inadequate for their oversize expectations of life, a week's worth of wages easily dwarfed by earnings from a few small pot sales among friends. The smugglers saw little promise in the vocations that awaited them, following in the footsteps of their parents to become bankers, business executives, barbers, mailmen, or carpenters. There was simply no match for the excitement and income a night of smuggling could provide. As Byers told his hired hands while unloading 21,000 pounds of particularly potent and pricey pot near Hilton Head Island in 1981, "Remember, every bale is a BMW."
Such quick riches cemented any disaffection smugglers might have had with traditional work. Barry "Ice Cream" Toombs said he saved every paycheck he collected during the 16 months he spent in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner. Boredom defined much of his military service, with the exception being the occasional fire fight. His heart raced during those chaotic moments in which he dodged bullets and pulled a trigger, killing strangers he barely saw.
He made additional cash by volunteering for extra guard duty. Still, it didn't amount to much. When he was honorably discharged at 21, he left with the conviction that collecting a regular paycheck doesn't get you too far. "Working hard doesn't necessarily mean you have money," says Toombs. "And saving well doesn't mean you have money."
Drug smuggling, of course, did make him money, which enabled him to pursue his own passions on his own terms, without having to clock in. "Money is only freedom," says Toombs. "It's nothing else."
If the gentlemen smugglers owned too many things, it was easy to understand why. When you're an exceptionally good smuggler, you're rewarded with excessive amounts of cumbersome cash. Your net worth can double, triple, quadruple, or more in one night. Money can quickly become a nuisance, though, one that many people are glad to help you resolve.
You can do two things with money: save it or spend it. Saving was harder for the smugglers, requiring trips to overseas banks and hours of bill counting, or, alternatively, finding secluded spaces, such as a spare bedroom closet, to store it. The closet, though, could fill up quickly, and it wasn't the safest place to store hundreds of thousands of dollars. Foy was robbed once at his Hilton Head beach house, $10,000 or so snatched from a concealed closet safe he had left open. It was spare change to the kingpin, but it could have bought him a car.
Those who opted for sticking profits in foreign bank accounts or safe deposit boxes were running similar risks, counting on their frequently drug-addled brains to recall where they stashed their cash. It was easier for them to buy things, remembering where they parked their Mercedes or where they docked a sailboat. Spending was a requirement, too, for keeping up appearances in a violence-free underworld where power needed to be projected more often than proved. Edisto Island resident Skip Sanders says he'd try to keep up with Jimmy Connors, comparing the tennis star's winning purses at tournaments to the money Sanders made leasing his grandmother's riverfront property a night at a time to assorted kingpins. Another smuggler, upon locking his keys in his convertible, used a pocketknife to cut open the car's cloth top and retrieve them instead of walking back into his apartment building and riding an elevator up to retrieve a set of spare keys. He'd rather replace the top than waste time.
The smugglers bought fur coats, cashmere clothing, and thick gold chains, otherwise known as Mr. T starter kits, after the heavily gilded member of the A-Team. They ordered the most expensive bottles of wine and champagne when dining out, but not necessarily the best. Sometimes they dined in, ordering one of everything off room service menus. One smuggler was said to have taken a date aboard the Concorde jet to Paris for dinner, then jetted back home that same night, just because they could. As a rule, Riley only flew first class, reasoning that you meet more interesting people that way.
Harvey earned the nickname "Lee Lear," given his penchant for traveling aboard a private Lear jet. Harvey patronized the charter services of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based pilot Harvey Hop, and the aviator's newly formed business Hop-A-Jet, allegedly persuading Hop to perform barrel rolls in his aircraft. One wonders if Hop ultimately appreciated the irony of flying Harvey and his band of fellow millionaire marijuana smugglers in the same aircraft he used to transport celebrities that included Nancy Reagan. The future First Lady and Harvey, who very well may have sat in the same Lear jet seat, had opposite agendas in life. While Reagan would seek to decrease Americans' drug use with her "Just Say No" campaign, Harvey brought in drugs by the boatload, organizing a handful of deals at a time. It was Harvey who stepped into a Las Vegas hotel room one day, lamenting the latest news to friend and co-conspirator Bob "Willie the Hog" Bauer.
"Hey Willie, I've got a problem. I just read in the paper today high school kids are smoking less marijuana," said Harvey. "We got to get those numbers up, it's bad for the market share."
Beyond Carter's claims that rampant materialism was poisoning America's soul, the perils of runaway consumption included attachment to objects. For freewheeling smugglers, forever looking over their shoulders and trying to stay three steps ahead of authorities, attachment could be problematic. If you bought a home, you've created a paper trail and public record, as well as a place where the neighbors will recognize you. If you bought a boat or plane, you're responsible for its maintenance, storage, and registration, which also creates a paper trail. With almost all things, including women, it was better to use it once and leave it behind. Not that anyone listened, but a smuggler named Diamond Jim once said, "If it fucks, flies, or floats, rent it."
Rent women they did, though they preferred high-end prostitutes as opposed to streetwalkers. The gentlemen smugglers referred to women as whores so often, one cannot be certain when that meant there was formal exchange of money for sex and when they enjoyed the company of loose women looking for a more causal receipt of excitement and drugs. When the smugglers did turn to prostitutes, they did it because they were sex crazed, not sex starved. None of the men had much trouble getting a date or a regular girlfriend, though they might have trouble keeping them from heartbreak due to infidelities. Some smugglers flew in call girls by seaplane and invited them aboard chartered yachts, where, for example, they nicknamed the stateroom the "Briar Patch." The girls pranced around the boat in bikinis, enjoying unlimited amounts of drugs while coquettishly cooing to the men, "Ooh, don't throw us in the Briar Patch."
They were thrown in the Briar Patch, and they got pricked.
Excerpt provided with permission of Lyons Press, Guilford CT. © 2011 by Jason Ryan