There, on the horizon: a ship.
Dave Strather could see it through binoculars, the sails ghostly against the water. He was sitting on an exposed cliff overlooking the Pacific. It was dark, and the beach was deserted for fifty miles in both directions. This was the Lost Coast, a vast swath of rugged, uninhabited, magnificently forested Northern California, the kind of place that made you understand why people have always been drawn to the Golden State. Dave chose the spot for landfall precisely because it was so empty. He and his team needed secrecy.
The sailboat was laden with contraband: 4,000 pounds of Thai stick pot, the latest in marijuana commerce, a product as potent as it was valuable, which Dave and his crew—a team of smugglers called the Coronado Company—would unload and sell for millions of dollars. Once Dave made visual contact, his team got on the radios: “Offshore vessel, please identify.”
“This is Red Robin.”
Finally. Smuggling always involves waiting, but Red Robin—the code name for a ship called the Pai Nui—was months overdue, and Dave’s nerves were frayed. The Company, as its members called it, was already a successful and sophisticated operation, importing Mexican pot by the ton, hugging the coast in fishing boats from as far south as Sinaloa. But this was a new type of gig, crossing the Pacific in a double-masted ketch. There were more variables, more opportunities for error. The Pai Nui had run out of gas before it even reached the International Date Line. Then, under sail, she was becalmed in the Doldrums. And then she disappeared.
“Red Robin, come in,” Dave had said into his radio a thousand times, in a daily attempt to reach the boat. He set up a radio watch, 500 feet above the ocean, for a better line of sight. The beauty of single sideband radio was that you could communicate halfway around the world, coordinating, as the Company liked to do, with your fleet at designated hours on Zulu time. The problem with single sideband—besides that it wasn’t secure, and anyone could listen—was that there wasn’t much bandwidth. Dave and the others would eavesdrop on conversations in dozens of languages, hoping to hear the captain of the Pai Nui. Back in September, it was pleasant to be perched on a palisade covered in redwoods, taking in the panoramic view, drinking a beer, tweaking the dial, watching the ocean go from silver to teal to green to blue in the late afternoon. By late December, however, everyone was cold and jumpy. But now, just before Christmas, their ship had finally come in.
Dave and his team snapped into action. Everyone was practiced and drilled—that was the Company’s style. They were a tight, coordinated unit, most of them friends who grew up together in Coronado, a secluded little beach town on a peninsula off the coast of San Diego. A decade earlier, they had been classmates at Coronado High. Some of them were surfers and would bring small bales of pot across the border after surfing trips to Mexico. A half-decade later, the Coronado Company was the largest smuggling outfit on the West Coast, on its way to becoming a $100 million empire, one the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would later call the most sophisticated operation of its kind. “These kids were the best in the business,” James Conklin, a retired DEA special agent, says about the group he tracked for years. “They were ahead of their time. They operated almost like a military unit.”
The crux of the business was the off-load; the battle was won—or lost—on the beach. Everyone had their role. Dave ran field strategy. Harlan Fincher, who had a knack for equipment, was the logistics manager. Al Sweeney, a hobbyist photographer and silk-screener in high school, was the crack forger. Grease monkey Don Kidd was the chief mechanic. Allan Logie, a onetime motorcycle racer, was the flamboyant wheelman. Ed Otero, a great swimmer and athlete, provided muscle. Bob Lahodny, a handsome charmer whose 22-karat Baht chain signaled some mystical time spent in Thailand, had made the Company’s Asian supply connection. Lance Weber, who started the whole thing, was a fearless nut whom everyone called the Wizard on account of his thaumaturgical ways with engineering, especially the boat motors he rigged to run at smuggler speeds.
At the center of it all was Lou Villar. A former Spanish teacher, Lou had taught some of the guys back at Coronado High. Lance originally brought Lou along for his language abilities; it helped that he was a smooth talker. But when he got a look at all that money, Lou discovered an instinct for business. He organized the Company into a visionary outfit, with himself as the kingpin.
It was Lance’s idea to buy the DUKW, a 31-foot, six-wheeled, World War II–era amphibious landing craft that served as the audacious centerpiece of the operation, allowing the Company to drive right into the water and dock at sea with the sailboat. Lou had thought this was crazy—Oh sure, why not use zeppelins?—but after some research, Dave convinced Lou to approve the purchase of the 7.5-ton vehicle, which the crew had stashed in a barn near the tiny delta of Juan Creek.
Dave directed the boat south of the creek, where the beach, as expected, was deserted. (On the occasions when civilians wandered too close, they were intercepted by Dave, dressed as a park ranger, who told them that the area was the site of a wilderness-reclamation project and off-limits to civilians.) Lance went down the coast to Fort Bragg, 20 miles to the south, to get eyes on the local Coast Guard station. Company lookouts—code-named Nova for north and Saturn for south—took position out on the Pacific Coast Highway. At midnight everyone radioed in with a round of affirmatives. The coast, as they say, was clear. “Let’s get the Duck rolling,” Dave said over the comm.
With Ed and Don in the cockpit, the Duck pulled out of the barn, drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, and nosed into the water. They’d welded an additional wave shield to the bow so the Duck could break through the heavy California surf. Their compass turned out to be useless. But Ed, undaunted, plowed through the murky night—“nine feet up a black cat’s ass,” as Don put it—to meet the waiting ketch. They tied up, quickly transferred the load, and found their way back by aligning two lights Dave had set up onshore marking a safe passage. “Heading back,” he radioed Dave, who looked at his watch: So far, so good.
It was a funny thing to see the Duck rise from the darkness, shedding seawater like a real-life Nautilus—until it stopped rising. By now the tide had gone out, and the Duck, weighted down with Thai product, sank in the soft sand. The tide wouldn’t lift the vehicle for another six hours. By that time it would be broad daylight, and the Duck would be as conspicuous as a relic on Omaha Beach.
“Fuck,” Dave said over the radio. “We’re stuck.”
Ed hit the throttle and spun the wheels, sinking the Duck deeper into the sand. “Kill the engine!” someone yelled. Don got out, looked at the tires, and stood back. “Don’t panic,” he said. “I know exactly what to do.”
Don told Allan, who was on the beach, to get a couple of pickup trucks and a lot of rope. Like everyone else, he called the hirsute Allan “Fuzzy.” The two men were close, both a little wild, a couple of pranksters who got under Dave’s skin. But by God, they knew how machines worked. Now they assembled an elaborate pulley system connecting the pickups to the Duck’s winch. “Are you sure this is gonna work?” Dave asked.
Don didn’t flinch when the motors fired, and sure enough his ad hoc Archimedean apparatus enabled the Duck to lift itself out of the sand and back up to the road. It was a goddamn glorious sight. Cheers went up on the beach. Safely back in the barn, the Company hands unloaded the Duck’s fragrant cargo. It was a sweet reward to sample the supply; Don thought the faintly purple buds were thick and beautiful, the finest he’d ever smoked.
The cache was processed at the old general store next to the barn. It was the Company’s biggest haul to date: $8 million (about $33 million today). The Company had stepped up its game, bringing in better product with more sophisticated technique. The distributors would be pleased. By now they had been waiting a long time, too. Back in his cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel—as the ringleader, he rarely set foot near the beach himself—Lou had had a hell of a time keeping them calm. He was worried that the Company’s reputation would be ruined if the supply didn’t show. It was a relief to call the dealers and announce, “The Eagle has landed.”
The exchange with the dealers always happened fast. Like in the movies, the money would come in Halliburton briefcases. Unlike in the movies, the Company usually waited to count it. And count it. And count it. And count it. It took so long to count that much cash, they got bored. When all was said and done, the partners each made half a million off the operation. For his rescue of the Duck, Don got the MVP award, a new Company institution, which came with a $25,000 bonus. Everyone else got their wad and scattered to the winds—the sweet scent of their trade wafting from their clothes.
It was exhilarating, the money and the camaraderie. Company members saw themselves as hippie outlaws. There was no violence—they didn’t even carry guns—just the threat of the law, which bound them together. They were criminals, but they were also a family.
Afterward, Lou and Dave sat in Lou’s cabana, going through receipts, looking at ledgers, accounting for a very good year. Later, they burned the receipts and went out to a Beverly Hills restaurant to celebrate. “Here’s to everyone’s efforts,” Lou said as they hoisted champagne flutes. “Let’s do it again soon.”
Lou knew he wouldn’t stop until he reached the Pacific. He had left New York in his convertible on that modern-day westward migration, a midcentury Manifest Destiny, with the top down and the red metal-flake lacquer on his Corvette flashing in the sun. On the radio were Dick Dale and the Beach Boys, songs about girls, woodies, surfing. That’s where he was headed. He was 25 and looking to change his life.
Lou was born in Havana, Cuba, to a family of small-business owners. His mother brought him to New York City as a teenager, in 1954, and he liked it: the hustle, the gritty determination required to get ahead. Lou was smart-mouthed and got into more fights than he should have for a guy his size. Despite being small, however, he was a great athlete, and he held his own in the rough-and-tumble of Flatbush, Brooklyn.
After college, Lou studied law at Syracuse, but it was the early 1960s, and the California lifestyle was just dawning on America. Syracuse was awfully far from the beach, and when he heard about a job teaching Spanish at a high school in Coronado, he packed his bags.
Coronado was all Lou had hoped for, an easygoing beach town of 18,000 people, known for its handsome Victorian hotel, Navy base, and isolation. It was a funny mix, a sort of military Mayberry. Coronado was connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but it took so long to drive around that it might as well have been an island out in San Diego Bay. Lou loved the nonchalance that came with the geography. Everyone called it the Rock, or, playfully, Idiot Island: a place where people did their own thing.
At Coronado High, Lou quickly developed a strong rapport with the students. He was handsome and charming and cultivated a cool image. In addition to teaching Spanish, he coached swimming, water polo, and basketball. Lou liked to shoot hoops with his students after school; he was the kind of coach kids confided in. A lot of his students were Navy brats, raised in strict military families just as Vietnam was escalating. Lou had an ear for what the kids wanted to talk about. He was not much older than them, and he understood.
Lou’s father died when he was three, and his own high school basketball coach had helped fill the role; he knew everything that a coach could be. My boys, he called his players. But when the whistle blew, they knew it was time to work. Lou was a demanding coach, and his players loved him for it.
Among Lou’s Spanish students was Bob Lahodny, a popular kid with an easy smile, president of the class of ’68 two years in a row. Bob, a swim-team star, was a close friend of Ed Otero’s, class of ’72, another strong swimmer on the team. Ed’s nickname was Eddie the Otter, or sometimes just Otter. He was short and stocky, powerfully built, but he didn’t like practice and was difficult to control. Lou liked Ed and thought he could have been a great competitive swimmer, but he had no discipline.
Discipline was something you needed if you swam or played ball for Lou. He could be unforgiving even with his favorite players, like Harlan Fincher, the star center of the basketball team. Harlan was tall and friendly—he’d been named Best Personality and Best Sense of Humor in his senior year—and he liked Lou’s coaching. Lou thought the same of Harlan’s playing, until the day Harlan snuck off with some friends and a bottle of Chivas after school and showed up dead drunk for the last game of the season. Furious, Lou took Harlan off the floor. “When you play for me,” Lou told him, “you give me everything.” He didn’t speak to Harlan again for the rest of his time at Coronado High.
The social scene in Coronado in those days was typical of its time: greasers, lettermen, and—by the time Gidget was on television—surfers. The greasers wore black Converse, the lettermen wore white tennis shoes, and the surfers tended toward blue Top-Siders. Over time there were more and more Top-Siders as surfing took hold. Not far behind Gidget was the rest of the ’60s: hair, rock and roll, and drugs. Coronado was fertile ground for the changing times, full of military kids eager to rebel.
Alarmed by the influx of drugs, the city government set up a pilot project at the high school to keep students on the straight and narrow. It was called the “no-bust policy,” and one of its counselors was Lou Villar. His approach was simpatico; he’d spent plenty of evenings in his kids’ homes, watching disciplinarian fathers fume and military wives crawl on the floor after three martinis, and he sensed the hypocrisy. He knew the kids were just looking for an outlet and suggested alternatives. “Why smoke a joint,” he’d ask, “when there are so many other ways to have fun in life?” It was persuasion over punishment, and Lou was nothing if not persuasive—until he stopped believing the message.
Lou had always been the bohemian teacher, the one who pulled into the faculty lot in a red Corvette and shades. When the school banned sunglasses, he wore his prescription Ray-Bans in class anyhow. For the students of Coronado High, this was a sign of solidarity: Lou was going through the same changes they were, reflecting a culture that was advancing at a frantic pace. Imagine starting high school in 1964, how fast it was all moving between freshman and senior year: from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Tet Offensive, from the Voting Rights Act to the Watts Riots, from Help! to “The White Album.”
Like his students, Lou started growing his hair and learned to surf. It was humbling at first, eating saltwater a thousand times before he managed to get up on the board. But once Lou could feel the ocean lift him up and bring him to shore, he was hooked; there was energy in that ride. He started inviting “his boys,” and some girls, over for dinner. Together they all smoked their first joints. Everyone was scared, convinced they’d go crazy. Instead, smiles gradually spread around the room. They talked waves while the hi-fi played the Doors, whose front man, Jim Morrison, had lived in Coronado.
Soon, Lou was counseling his kids against following in their parents’ footsteps. “That’s not a career,” he would say, pointing at the ships moored off the Navy Yard. “That’s a war machine.” Lou thought it was pretty cool that one of his favorite Spanish students, Dave Strather, a talented musician, wanted to become a rock and roller. Lou started dating Kathy, a beautiful former cheerleader—voted Most Popular the same year she was in the homecoming court—who had graduated from Coronado High a couple of years earlier. She was seven years younger than Lou, but Lou himself was not yet 30. We’re just kids, he thought, and the kids are finally in charge.
It was just a matter of time before he quit teaching. Nobody wanted to be in the establishment anymore. In the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he traded his Corvette for a VW bus. During his last week in class, Lou brought in his turntable, wore his shades, and listened to Jethro Tull with his students.
The bridge was going up that summer. You could see the caissons rising out of the bay, spelling the end of the Rock as a de facto island. In August it opened to traffic. The two-mile feat of box-girder engineering arced gracefully across the bay, connecting Coronado to the rest of the world. The locals gathered on the Coronado side, waiting to watch those first cars roll across, knowing things would never be the same.
Lance Weber was never cut out for the Navy. He had joined after graduating from Coronado High mostly so he wouldn’t get shot at in Vietnam. His father, a Navy captain, wanted him to be an officer, but when Lance’s service was up, his parents had to accept that he was just another washed-out swabbie loafing around back on the Rock.
One thing the Navy did do for Lance, however, was teach him how to turn a wrench. After his stint as an engineer on a submarine, he could make anything work. Back in Coronado, he tricked out a VW microbus with a Porsche engine and built the island’s first low-rider bicycle by hand. “Here comes the Wizard,” people would say, watching Lance cruise the beach on his tuned-up rig, barefoot, shirtless, his long blond hair flowing behind him and a stoned smile on his face. Easy Rider had just come out, and leaning back on two wheels was maybe the coolest thing you could do. When people said Lance was a space cadet, that meant they thought he was a rad fucking guy.
That summer marked the first great marijuana supply shock in the United States, the consequence of booming stateside demand and a drought in Mexico. Prices spiked, encouraging creativity. There were mules caravanning the desert, planes flying low over the Arizona mountains, tires stuffed with green at the border. It was the dream of every pot smoker to get a “block,” or a kilo, keeping some and selling the rest. And for the stoned surfers on the beach in Coronado, there was an enormous arbitrage opportunity just a few miles south. The trick was figuring out how to get the stuff home.
It was Lance who came up with the idea of taking to the water. At the Long Bar in Tijuana, he got his hands on 25 pounds of pot and swam it north from the beach by the bullring of the Plaza Monumental de Tijuana. He washed up on the U.S. side, on a beach with no name, no facilities, not even a parking lot—a perfect terminus for illegal night swims. He did it again, and again. It was dangerous, being in the water at night with only the blinking radio-tower lights for guidance, but it was worth it: Each delivery netted five grand.
Soon, Lance had a little team of marijuana marines working with him, swimming as many bundles as they could get their hands on. They were misfits, guys who couldn’t get girlfriends in high school before Lance put pot and money in their hands, and now they looked to Lance as their eccentric leader. He got busted in 1971, but the few months he served in Lompoc made him Coronado’s first hippie outlaw hero, a local legend.
When Lance got back, Paul Acree, one of Lance’s misfits, introduced him to a new connection, and they strapped on their fins again. A few bales later, however, they came up with a better idea: a Zodiac, similar to the inflatable rubber crafts used by Navy SEALs. One run in the Zodiac was good for 100 pounds of grass. It was easy money.
Looking to expand the little operation, Paul brought in Ed Otero. Ed was the archetypal California boy: blond, square face, cleft chin, like a letterman who had traded his varsity jacket for the waves. He was a former lifeguard, strong on land—he was known around town for tearing phone books in half—and in the surf. They would call him the Otter for his facility in the water, his ability to break through nasty surf with bales in hand.
A division of labor emerged: Paul arranged supply, Lance piloted the Zodiac, and Otter swam. The only thing holding them back was the connection, their guy in Tijuana. They called him Joe the Mexican, and since none of them had taken Lou’s class, they couldn’t understand a word Joe said.
Lou was in dungarees, standing on a ladder with paintbrush in hand, when Lance rolled up on his low-rider bike.
“You speak Spanish, right?”
“Sí,” Lou said. “Naturalmente.” It was a rhetorical question.
“Then come down here,” Lance said. “I got an idea.”
“I don’t have time,” Lou said. “I have to finish painting this house.”
“I’ll make it worth your time,” Lance said. He would pay Lou fifty bucks, he explained, to go with him to Tijuana for dinner.
Fifty bucks sounded good to Lou. He was painting houses for money, living in a little cottage. Since quitting Coronado High, he had become a bona fide beachside Buddhist, surfing, reading Carlos Castaneda, pondering the evils of materialism, making candles, and meditating with a local guru named Bula. He’d run into his old student, Bob Lahodny, among Bula’s disciples. He had also reconnected with Dave Strather, who had recently returned to Coronado after spending a few years as a studio musician in San Francisco.
Life was simple, and Lou and Kathy were having a great time—until free love got the best of them. After four years together they had split up, driven apart by jealousy. There was nothing wrong with their relationship other than timing; 1971 was a bad time to be young, good-looking, stoned, and married. Now Lou spent his days painting houses and his free time at the beach. That was where he met Lance, out on a jetty where people went to watch the sunset.
Lance had gone to Coronado High but graduated before Lou’s time. They started hanging out around the Rock and roasted some pigs together. (Luaus were the thing then.) Lou loved that life. But he didn’t love being so broke. Traveling down to Tijuana and translating for Lance was the easiest fifty bucks he ever made—until Lance offered him a hundred the next week to do it again.
During the second meeting, Lou sensed an opportunity for his friends and negotiated a larger load for a better price from Joe the Mexican. Impressed, Lance offered Lou a cut of the next shipment.
When it was time for the pickup, Lou helped Lance, Paul, and Ed inflate the Zodiac and load it offshore by the little salt-eaten Rosarito beach shack where Joe the Mexican delivered the goods. Once they got it across the border, Lou’s share was $10,000. It was more money than he had earned in the past several years. He gave away his painting equipment and never looked back. Like everyone else, Lou had been smoking pot for giggles, but then came a moment of clarity, when he took that joint from behind his ear, sparked it up, and saw the future.
Gigs, they called them. Or scams. Or barbecues, since they would plan them while throwing steaks on the grill at sundown. Everyone would get the call—“Do you want to go to a barbecue?”—when it was time to mobilize. The missions were simple at first, with just the 12-foot Zodiac running a couple hundred pounds at a time from Rosarito to the Silver Strand beach on Coronado’s tiny isthmus. But the loads were getting bigger, and even Eddie the Otter had trouble hauling 50-pound bags through head-high waves. And everyone knew it was unwise seafaring, to say the least, to negotiate the coast in that little raft with no lights and no navigation.
Still, Lance was an adventurer; he would have made a great swashbuckler, Lou always thought, or a test pilot. When Lance reached the Silver Strand, he’d signal with a flashlight and run the Zodiac right up onto the sand—Burn up the motor, he’d say, we’ll buy a new one. They would off-load the bags, deflate the boat, and pack it all into the van. It would be over in five minutes, the most exciting five minutes they’d ever experienced: everyone holding their breath until the van was on the road, knowing as they drove away that they each had just made twice their parents’ annual salary.
At first there was one gig a month. Then it was one a week. Within a year, the crew was scaling up from the Zodiacs to a clandestine armada of speedboats, fishing boats, even a 40-foot cabin cruiser. Some of the money they made went back into the business. Lance bought a Chris-Craft called the Lee Max II and rebuilt the engine so he could carry serious weight at top speeds. They hired beach crews to expedite the off-load.
It was risky, bringing more people into the operation, but it was Coronado, and everyone knew each other. “If we take care of them,” Lance said, “they’ll take care of us.” And the partners could afford to be generous. Still in their twenties, they were walking around with $50,000 in their pockets, then $100,000, then a quarter of a million dollars. “Don’t you love it,” Lance once remarked, “when life goes from black and white to Technicolor?”
Lou walked into a bank, asked for the balance of his mother’s house, and paid it off in cash. Once, when he was buying first-class tickets to Hawaii for himself and his girlfriend, it dawned on him that he had enough money to hang out there and surf for the rest of his life. And he might have, had Ed and Lance not flown over personally to retrieve their partner. “Come on, Señor Villar!” Ed said. “There’s more money to be made!”
It got to be like clockwork, enough so that sometimes Lance’s and Lou’s girlfriends would tag along on the supply runs to Tijuana. It was about this time that Lance started calling Lou “Pops,” a nickname that caught on. “What do you think, Pops?” Lance asked one evening, drinking Coronas on the beach in Baja.
“I think we got a good thing going here,” Lou said. “Let’s not fuck it up.”
When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration opened its office in the San Diego suburb of National City in 1973, it had just six field agents. The DEA was a brand-new agency, assembled from various other departments, including the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), a tautologically titled bureaucratic relic that was poorly equipped to fight the war on drugs that President Richard Nixon had declared in 1971.
The impetus for the drug war was a congressional report issued the same year stating that as much as 15 percent of U.S. soldiers serving in Vietnam—a conflict that put hundreds of thousands of Americans in close proximity to the Golden Triangle—had come back hooked on heroin. The same report said that half of the service smoked pot. Alongside other law-enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the FBI, the DEA was tasked with fighting what Nixon called “the new menace.”
Bobby Dunne was one of the first agents working out of the new office. He’d started his law-enforcement career in National City a dozen years earlier, as an animal-control officer. After working his way up through the ranks of the local police department, he’d become a federal narcotics agent in 1968 and spent several years working in Guadalajara, Mexico. Dunne was excited to be abroad but quickly realized that corruption in Mexico made his job nearly impossible. When he came back to the States, he asked to join the DEA’s San Diego office, because “the action,” as they called it, was at the border.
The new agency needed all the local savvy it could get. San Diego was a world apart from drug interdiction on the East Coast, where well-understood organized-crime syndicates brought heroin in through the ports. California was a new front, the Wild West. Newly arrived agents couldn’t believe it: In one 12-hour shift at San Ysidro, you’d get three or four hauls of 100 kilos. Dunne was the first officer to pull a full ton of pot out of a truck heading north.
Dunne was a field agent, and in San Diego the work lived up to the title. In other DEA offices, you went to work in a suit and tie and spent a lot of time at your desk. In San Diego, the agents were veterans of border details and dressed like vaqueros: boots, jeans, guayaberas, cowboy hats. They spoke Spanish, wore beards and mustaches, and spent the nights in Tijuana bars with informants and local cops. To get anywhere, you had to roll up your sleeves and go drinking down in Revolución, getting to know the people on both sides of the border trade.
None of that shoe-leather work, however, clued the DEA into the new homegrown smuggling organization right under their noses, on the other side of San Diego Bay. The DEA’s first tip about the Company came from a Coronado police officer who had heard through the grapevine about some local guys and a former teacher running bales of pot up the coast. The beach runs weren’t in Coronado proper and were beyond police jurisdiction, so the officer called the feds.
Dunne was intrigued. He was assigned to a special unit that worked closely with local police and other law enforcement, and he debriefed the Coronado officer. He arranged for the Coast Guard to run some exercises with Zodiacs and realized that the small crafts could cruise the coast without showing up on radar. Very clever, he thought. Then the DEA got wind of a boat called the Lee Max II, owned by a local kid named Lance Weber who had done time in Lompoc a couple years before for smuggling. There were reports of the Lee Max II on the water at 3 a.m., and Dunne doubted they were out fishing.
Once, following a late-night sighting of Lance’s boat, the DEA posted agents at regular intervals along the coast, hoping to catch the smugglers in action. They saw the boat motoring away from a lonely stretch of beach in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. Dunne and the other agents rushed to the scene and scoured the beach, but it was too late. All they found were footprints going up the dunes to a house overlooking the ocean.
Lately, Lou had been spending more time in North County. There was money up there, in Carlsbad, where he rented a house, and new hot spots like Del Mar and La Costa. One night, Lou met the owner of the Albatross, a nice seafood restaurant housed in an old church in Del Mar. He thought the place was groovy: good food, drinks, and music, and well attended by rich dopers. The owner of the restaurant was a big-time distributor himself.
Lou had come to recognize that smuggling was as much about personality as it was about know-how. To climb the ladder, you had to play it cool. Which is what he and the restaurant owner did, warily revealing their mutual interest, pulling their cards away from their vests to talk about how they might fit into each other’s business models.
“How much can you handle?” Lou asked.
“How much can you bring?” the owner replied.
The Albatross crowd offered Lou entrée to a new class of distributors, the kind of dealers who dressed well and belonged to racquet clubs. Lou began joining them for dinner, talking books, travel, and wine. They turned Lou on to a wine importer up in San Francisco, and he started ordering Bordeaux and white Burgundies. Refinement suited him. By now he had cut his hair and traded his hippie beads for silk shirts. When Lou suggested bringing in a ton, and the dealers said they’d pay cash on the barrelhead, he saw the horizon expanding before his eyes.
Lance delighted in the prospect of expanding their little navy. But carrying more weight meant more people on the beach—five, ten guys running bags up and down the sand—and they needed to tighten the screws on the organization. Lou started strategizing. He turned to his good friend and former student Dave Strather.
Dave’s band was still playing around town, and he had recently married a tall, good-looking hippie girl named Linda. But Lou knew he was struggling financially. “Are you interested in some profitable moonlighting?” Lou asked him one day.
Dave, a solid bodysurfer, handled himself well in the waves and started as a loader. But he was a gifted planner, and it wasn’t long before Lou gave him more managerial duties. Lou wanted a right-hand man, and Dave was a natural. He was a drummer, after all, used to keeping time, being the backbone. Even in his hippie days he was fastidious, shampooing his long hair every day (and belying his nickname, Dirty Dave). That hair was gone once Dave started running around with a clipboard and checklists, buying and storing equipment, running smuggling gigs like a stevedore superintendent.
That put Dave at odds with Ed, whose run-and-gun style had been central to the early days of the operation but was fast becoming obsolete. Ed was a beloved figure around Coronado, a fun guy, the life of every party. But he was impulsive. When Ed was a lifeguard, he liked to drive his truck down the sand at full speed—and that’s how he’d flipped it right into the water. Dave bristled when he would show up at a gig at the last minute and start bossing people around, imperiling Dave’s meticulous plans. Dave would appeal to Lou, who tried to promote Ed out of Dave’s hair. “You don’t want to be a grunt on the beach,” he told him. “You’re in management. Let Dave roll up his sleeves.”
That mostly worked, at least at the smuggling sites. Off the beach was another matter. Ed was young, wild, and flush—a dangerous combination in a small town. Here he was, no known job, celebrating one of the organization’s first big paydays at the Chart House down on the Embarcadero, cozying up to some girl with his hands full of cash. “Look what I got, baby,” Ed told her, laying out ten grand in bills. Lou would’ve jumped on the table to cover it up, but the whole place had seen it already. We need to cut these shenanigans, Lou told his colleagues. We’re gonna bring heat on ourselves.
What he didn’t know was that they already had. The DEA was onto Lance, watching him run the Lee Max II like a daredevil, at full speed on autopilot, ripping through the swells like a lunatic. And Lance was as flamboyant on land as he was cavalier in the cockpit. He knew he was known to the authorities, and he loved pushing his luck. “I like making the cops look bad,” he’d say. “It’s fun.”
Not to Lou, it wasn’t. One night after a gig in Carlsbad, they’d planned to meet at a coffee shop near Oceanside Harbor after the beach crew unloaded the shipment. Lou was sitting in his booth with a fork in a slice of cherry pie when he looked up and saw Lance drive past in his truck, pulling the Lee Max II on its trailer, two squad cars in tow. The cops tore the boat apart, right in front of the coffee shop, but found nothing. Lance relished his little victory—and then walked in to meet Lou. “Don’t even talk to me,” Lou said, jumping up to leave. “Just keep walking.”
It was the same night Special Agent Dunne found footsteps on the beach near Lou’s house. The DEA agents had followed Lance in his boat to the marina, but when the boat came out clean, the district attorney refused the DEA a search warrant for the house.
It was a close call. Lou didn’t realize how close when he moved to Solana Beach and relocated the entire smuggling outfit out of Coronado. It was the first time some of its members had lived anywhere besides the Rock. By then, everyone on the island knew what they were up to. They even had a name for their hometown smugglers: the Coronado Company.
The name stuck; Lou had misgivings about it, but it suited the group’s professional aspirations. By now they were evolving quickly. Lou turned out to be not just a natural leader, but also an organizational genius. The onetime anti-materialist candlemaker became a business visionary, laying out plans for the Company to dominate its market niche. As he had when he was a coach, Lou knew how to motivate people, establish mutual trust, and make the members of his squad believe in their abilities. Pops was now a father figure to a new kind of team. It was fun in those early days, he told his boys in the Company, but amateur hour is over.
The new organization left little room for Paul Acree. Paul was always his own worst enemy. He was cold and had a nasty gift of gab. He could be funny, but always at the expense of others. Paul had found the crew’s original line of supply in Tijuana, but Lou knew he wasn’t the right guy to make the bigger connections the operation needed to grow. You couldn’t look like a hood at the next level. His idea of business—give me the money, you get the pot—was oafish. Where was the salesmanship in that? Where was the finesse?
And lately, Paul had started sniffling and rubbing his nose. Nobody knew when exactly he had become an addict. Maybe it was when everyone got rich and he could suddenly get as much heroin and coke as he wanted. Once driven, he was coasting now, showing up at meetings with watery eyes. He looked terrible. He was Lance’s friend, but even Lance knew that you couldn’t trust a junkie. When the Company convened to vote Paul out, it was unanimous.
One of the Company’s Mexican contacts, known as Pepe de Mexicali, had told Lou about the time he had to get rid of an associate who had been caught with his fingers in the jar by taking him on a “one-way plane ride.” The Coronado Company’s style was more genteel than that; if you got fired, they just stopped calling you. With Paul, the partners decided, they would simply move away. They left him with $10,000. It wasn’t much in the way of hush money, especially for a guy who was speedballing, but that was the offer.
With Paul gone, Lou took on an even larger role within the Company, and he started to act the part. He conducted business from his new house in Solana Beach, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, with his malamute, Prince, at his feet. There he’d preside with his girlfriend, Kerrie Kavanaugh, a waitress he’d met at another tony spot in nearby Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Lou had left her a $100 tip one night, followed the next day by 20-dozen roses, along with a card bearing a poem he wrote. Kerrie thought the roses were a bit tacky—a nice little bouquet of handpicked wildflowers would have better suited a girl like her—but the poem was nice. She showed up at Lou’s house, where she found him sunbathing on the deck.
Lou had spent a few years floating between girls, but he saw immediately that Kerrie had a spark. She was smart, with a bright smile and an eager outlook on the world. Lou was older, wealthier, and more worldly than the boys who hit on her on the beach. He doted on her, gave her gifts and several cars, paid for her dance classes. Soon she moved from her beach trailer into Lou’s place. They would entertain the rest of the Company guys and their girlfriends there, drinking greyhounds until dinner and then smoking and doing lines while dancing to the Average White Band until three in the morning. The next day, they’d wake up and start all over again.
Lou initially told Kerrie he was an interior decorator, but she didn’t believe it for long; his place was well decorated, but she never saw a single catalog or bolt of fabric around. It wasn’t a surprise when Lou finally confessed that he was a drug kingpin, nor did it change how she felt about him. Kerrie was the kind of girl who watched the Watergate hearings from beginning to end. With her anti-establishment sympathies, Lou’s profession had a renegade appeal.
For his part, Lou saw himself as a new kind of CEO. He just wanted to excel at what he did. He was already a multimillionaire, as were his partners. They thought that was all the money in the world. They were wrong.
Lou and Dave were south of the border, in a Tijuana flophouse near the racetrack, surrounded by a dozen men with machine guns. They were drug-lord foot soldiers; you could tell from the chrome-plated pistols in their belts. No one moved. Dave and Lou waited. The seconds felt like hours.
They had gotten themselves into this situation on purpose, after deciding that the Company should do some supply-chain outreach. Dave had run across a guy they called Rick Pick who said he knew Roberto Beltrán. The Don. The head of the Sinaloa-based trafficking syndicate, one of the biggest drug dealers in the world. Lou and Rick met and sized each other up. Once they decided that they trusted each other, Lou said, “Introduce me to the Don.”
Thus began a series of false starts and frustrations. Late at night, Lou and Dave would get a call and rush to the appointed meeting place under the San Diego side of the Coronado Bridge, only to find nobody there. Finally, when the real call came to meet in Tijuana, Lou arrived two hours late on purpose. That’s the Mexican style of business, he thought. Mañana! Keeping them waiting, Lou reasoned, would show that they were equals.
But now, trapped deep inside the syndicate’s flophouse, they knew they were not equals. And Beltrán’s guys didn’t look happy. Dave was terrified. But Lou kept his game face. He was still wondering if the meeting was for real. “Are we going to see the Don?” he asked. Finally, the Don’s bodyguard, who went by the name El Guapo, led them into a small room. There, reclining on a king-size bed, was Beltrán.
Dave and Lou were surprised to see that the Don looked like a maharishi, or maybe a bum: scraggly hair, jeans, unshaven. When they walked in, he didn’t get up. It was a weird scene, standing at the foot of the bed, unsure of what to do. Dave thought they were dead. Especially when Lou decided to take a pillow and lay down on the bed, right next to Beltrán. Dave silently said a prayer.
One of the things Dave liked about Lou was his finesse. Dave’s own father was the executive officer of the Navy base on Coronado, a tyrant whose explosive temper kept him from ever becoming an admiral. He had trouble forming real relationships with anyone, including his son. Dave hated his father, and he admired Lou for being the opposite in every way. Dave thought he had an aristocratic bearing, an elegance that could charm people in any situation. But this situation was different. This was Roberto Beltrán. And he wasn’t smiling.
Lou and the Don were chatting softly, faces inches apart. Within a few minutes, Beltrán was grinning, then laughing. Lou’s instinct was right; the Don respected the wildly daring initiative of showing up like this, offering a new service to the syndicate. No one from the States had ever approached him. “What do you have to lose?” Lou told him.
Lou knew the Mexicans were sending half-tons north every way they could think of and losing a lot of it at the border. It was a model that made money—the supply that got through paid for the rest—but still, there was a lot of smuggler’s shrinkage. This is what Lou told Beltrán, in so many words: The Coronado Company can reduce your shrinkage. “Let’s do business,” the Don said.
The days of cabin cruisers were over. Lance hired a commercial fishing vessel and a sailor of fortune who went by the name Charlie Tuna. The boat arrived for pickup at an isolated beach on the Sea of Cortez. Beltrán’s bodyguard drove Dave and Lou; they were rumbling along the barely paved highway in the shadow of the Sierra Madre Occidental when they saw roadblocks flanked by soldiers on the road. The jig is up, Dave thought, but their caravan was waved right through. The men were from the Don’s security team, part of his service package as a supplier. Federales on the Don’s payroll guarded the beach operation.
Out on the water, Charlie Tuna maneuvered his boat through the beach mud, getting as close to shore as possible. The boat was loaded with hundreds of bales, passed from sand to canoe to Zodiac to deck, along with some cases of beer for the crew’s return trip. “See you in Malibu,” Charlie said over the radio.
Onshore, Lou shook hands with the Don. The whole deal was on credit. And now the Company owed the Sinaloa suppliers $3 million. It had never occurred to Lou what might happen if something went wrong. “Good luck!” Beltrán told Lou. “You’ve got some real cojones, you know?”
Fifteen tons, Dave thought, right on the goddamned beach? The Mexican job was an enormously challenging off-load, an order of magnitude bigger than their usual runs. Dave bought more sophisticated equipment and procured several houses to use as staging sites and covert entrepôts, including a rental right off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu.
That was where the team assembled. The company had added some new recruits, including Allan “Fuzzy” Logie, a surfer turned motorcycle racer. Fuzzy was amazed at the scale of the Company’s operation and quickly took a liking to Don Kidd, another trafficking tenderfoot recruited by Lance. Don hailed from Coronado—Lou had taught his brother Spanish—and he would have been class of ’69 if he had graduated instead of going to Vietnam. The Company had brought Don on as a gofer, but he quickly distinguished himself as a talented mechanic whose expertise would eventually elevate him to chief engineer.
The midnight chaos reminded Don of Vietnam, exciting but perilous. They were in plain view of the neighbors, whose lights were on. And they were out there on the water for hours, buzzing around in the Zodiacs, carrying everything by hand.
Luckily, it was overcast, and the reflected glow of the city gave them extra light. They got the job done, but it took forever. Fuzzy ran for eight hours straight. In the end, they managed to fit all 15 tons in three rented Ryder trucks. The next stop was the processing site. As the convoy pulled away from the beach, they drove right past a highway patrol cruiser on the shoulder with lights flashing. Fuzzy smiled as they passed; the officer was writing some poor bastard a speeding ticket while a truck packed with thousands of pounds of pot sailed by at 60 miles an hour.
At the warehouse, where Dave had organized an assembly-line-style repackaging system—every brick was weighed to the gram, bagged, marked with a sticker, and recorded—Lou showed up to inspect the wares. It was a job well done. When everyone got their cut, Fuzzy asked if he could get paid in weed. He had to settle for cash instead. “Well,” he told the others, “I hope I get invited to another barbecue.”
Lou, intent on impressing the Don, decided to deliver his money immediately, in person, without being asked. When Lou and Dave flew to Culiacán, Sinaloa, and, once again surrounded by machine guns, handed over duffel bags containing $3 million in cash—they had carried them on the plane and snuck through customs with swiped inspection tags—the Don smiled. “We owe you a party,” he said. That night, he feted them at a restaurant in Culiacán, where he and Lou arranged the next consignment: another 20 tons.
When they got the shipment into the safety of a warehouse in Santa Cruz, the load was ten feet high. Ed pulled out some blocks and arranged them into a chair, and they all took turns sitting on the throne of hard-packed kilos. The Coronado Company were now the biggest pot smugglers on the West Coast. What they had done, at their age—Lou, the oldest among them, was just 34, and most of the rest were in their mid-twenties—was without precedent. They were a bunch of young hippies sitting atop an empire.
People around Coronado told different stories about how exactly it was that Paul wound up talking to the DEA. Some said he just wanted to get back at the Company. Others said he was arrested trying to steal some navigation gear and, jonesing in jail, made a deal. Whichever it was, the moment Paul started talking was the moment that Dunne and the other agents discovered just what they were up against.
They were shocked at the Company’s scale. As far as they knew, smuggling on the West Coast was a haphazard business. And here was Paul telling them how the Company was landing thousands of kilos on a beach with SEAL-like precision not three miles from their office. They were operating at a level far beyond the DEA itself; the agency’s National City office, only a few years old, barely had the budget and personnel to cover San Diego County, much less go toe-to-toe with an organization like the Company.
Paul, meanwhile, had nothing to lose. His money was gone, but his drug habit wasn’t. All he had left was information. Paul might have been excommunicated from the Company, but he was still connected to Lance. Although Lance had moved away from Coronado with the rest of the partners, his girlfriend, Celeste, still lived on the Rock. When he was in town, he hung around with the old crowd, even Paul. Sensing opportunity, Dunne let Paul go, sending him out to gather more information.
Coronado was a natural rumor mill, and word got around quickly that Paul was snitching. But Lance was a chatterbox, and he couldn’t help himself from filling in Paul on the Company’s latest exploits anyway. Back in the DEA office, a picture began to come together. The agents heard about the organization’s humble beginnings, the deal with Roberto Beltrán that pushed the Company into the big time, and, the following year, a trip to Morocco.
That gig started with a meeting at a Black Angus Steakhouse in La Mesa and took them to the Canary Islands, Casablanca, and Tangiers. The idea had come from the younger brother of Lou’s ex-wife, Kathy. He had done some frontier surfing on the edge of the Sahara, the scene of some legendary perfect right breaks, and came back talking about hashish, the potent black tar of the Berbers. The Company found a new captain—Charlie Tuna’s friend, who (no joke) went by the name Danny Tuna—and a new ship, a 70-footer rigged for albacore fishing called the Finback. There were bumps along the way, like Danny running out of money and trying to sell his equipment to confused dockside Canary Islanders. Lance and Ed flew to Tenerife, where they found Danny, drunk, lost, and carousing with British girls on holiday. They got the Finback to Algeciras, at the Strait of Gibraltar, resupplied, and then steamed back in rough weather across the Atlantic and Caribbean.
It turned out that the Finback’s cargo wasn’t actually hash but rather kief, a less valuable precursor product. But the DEA agents understood the operational significance of the mission. These guys had crossed oceans and solved major logistical problems on the fly. No one in the office had ever seen anything like it.
It had been years since Lou had seen Bob Lahodny. Since the two crossed paths as earnest disciples of the meditation guru Bula on the beach in Coronado, the onetime class president and swim champ had gone abroad. He’d bought the Pai Nui, a handsome, teak-decked sailboat, and sailed around the South Pacific. He was in Bali when he fell in with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Like-minded expatriates from Southern California, the Laguna Beach–based group was known for proselytizing about the benefits of LSD—they were close associates of Timothy Leary and had once worked with the Weather Underground to help him flee the United States. They also ran a vast drug-smuggling network, manufacturing and distributing acid in the United States and running hashish from Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Brotherhood had connections in Thailand, too, and Bob brought them back to Coronado. “You guys can make the same money from two tons of Thai stick as 20 tons of Mexican pot,” Bob told his old pal Ed when he reappeared in the States.
Thai stick had enjoyed an aura of mystique ever since U.S. soldiers started coming back from Vietnam tours with batches of the extremely powerful varietal knotted around bamboo skewers. It had developed a reputation as the new marijuana gold standard; One Hit Shit, they called it. The DEA at the time believed it to be among the most profitable commodities in existence: a ton bought in Bangkok for $100,000 went for $3.5 million stateside. The hard part was getting it there. Unlike drugs flowing north from Latin America, Thai stick had to come in by boat. And boats happened to be the Company’s specialty.
Bob came on as a partner, bringing in his connections but steering clear of the operation. He was, in Lou’s words, a “good-time Charlie rather than a brass-tacks guy.” Still, the first shipment he brought back aboard that Pai Nui was a multimillion-dollar proof of concept of how Thai stick would revolutionize the Company. When Dave did the math, his eyes widened. The Company could earn more—far more—while being more discreet. It was a smuggler’s dream.
By now, the Company had earned a begrudging respect from its pursuers; the DEA agents in National City regarded Lou and his crew as smart businessmen and tactical geniuses. But Dunne had an idea about how to tighten the screws on their investigation. A veteran agent, he was one of the few people in his office who knew how to write up a conspiracy case. The tactic was mostly unknown in the DEA at the time, but it was a legal tool that would allow for deeper investigative powers and bigger indictments.
Once Dunne and the other agents learned the full magnitude of the Company’s activities, they started laying the groundwork for the case. Using the information that Paul had fed them, the agents began piecing together the facts of a conspiracy. By the spring of 1976, as the Company was contemplating its leap into the Thai trade, Dunne had enough to convince the U.S. attorney in San Diego to convene a grand jury.
Now the DEA’s investigation had a name. Operation CorCo was in full swing.
“You nearly clipped Bambi!”
Fuzzy pulled up alongside Dave in fourth gear. They were straddling a pair of enduros, off-road motorcycles they’d brought up to the redwoods, where Fuzzy was teaching Dave how to ride. Dave was getting the hang of it, opening up the throttle on the open forest roads, taking in the hum and rattle and the prismatic sun filtering through the canopy. He hadn’t noticed a spotted fawn grazing on the shoulder. Fuzzy saw Dave’s tire brush its bushy white tail. “You’re lucky to be alive!” he said, grinning.
The two had been up there for weeks, cruising the backcountry of the Lost Coast, looking for even more remote loading sites after the success of the Pai Nui. Finding the right spot was an art. Dave constantly studied maps, scoping out prospective landing sites as far north as Alaska. But the empty beaches of the Lost Coast, many of them accessible only by old unpaved logging trails, had the advantage of being conveniently close to San Francisco.
The nimble, long-range enduros, their reach extended by gas cans stashed in the woods, were the best way to negotiate the difficult terrain of one of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. The whole territory was a refuge of dropouts and outlaws: Hells Angels, ex-cons, hippie communes. But the forest was vast enough to swallow all of them, and Dave and Fuzzy would be alone with the trees for hours.
One day, they bumped their way down a road that followed the coastal bluffs of the Sinkyone Wilderness to a small cove. They stopped their bikes, scanning the terrain from above. The cove faced south and kept the roiling Pacific at bay. There was a nice break, but Fuzzy knew there’d be no time for surfing. Dave looked at the map. The cove was marked as Bear Harbor. In the late 19th century it had been used for loading lumber onto ships, but the wharf was long gone. “This is just what we’re looking for,” Dave said.
Sometimes Lou’s story was that he was a trust-funder. Sometimes he was the son of a Texas wildcatter. Once he was mistaken for a member of Kiss, and he let that story linger. Whoever he was, Lou owned it. “I’m in oil,” he’d say. “And if you ask any more questions, I’ll ask you to leave.”
If you wore money well, Lou thought, you could be whoever you wanted. You could live for months at a time at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Waldorf Astoria in New York, paying $1,500 a night in cash. Maybe you were a movie producer or a chief surgeon somewhere. No one asked questions; the money made you invisible.
Lou made the drug business look like any other business. He would rendezvous with his distributors on tennis courts in Palm Springs, meet in the open, change from a coat and tie into tennis whites, let the other guy win the set, shake hands, and make the deal. There were no rough edges. Nobody in the Company wanted to be a gangster. They wanted to fit in, to live the good life.
Lou had long since traded his VW bus for a Ferrari. In the trunk, he carried a valise full of “fun tickets,” $100 bills to satisfy any whim. He and Ed and Bob bought palatial homes, acquired a taste for antiques. Bob and Ed, who had climbed Machu Picchu together, added Mesoamerican touches to their Asian aesthetic. Lou’s tastes ran toward the eclectic; among other things, he had bought a carved opium bed from China. He would jet to Paris on the Concorde and spend the weekend buying $5,000 worth of shoes. He spent $15,000 on a fake passport under the name Peter Grant, bought a Mercedes as James Benson, shopped at Wilkes Bashford as Richard Malone. This was the name Lou was known by in La Costa and in Lake Tahoe, where the Company liked to vacation. One day, Lou surprised Kerrie with tickets to Jamaica, where they lived for a month on a remote lagoon, disconnected from everything, just snorkeling and reading. It was there, at Dragon Bay, that Kerrie discovered that she was falling in love with him.
In 1976, Lou had bought a place in Tahoe for himself and Kerrie. Dave and Linda moved there as well, to a condo nearby. Dave felt like he was coming into his own in the Company. Lou trusted Dave’s judgment without question, and Dave respected the vision that had gotten them this far. He treated Lou like an adoptive father, and Lou, who had no kids of his own, treated Dave like a favored son. Dave still wasn’t a partner, but he had moved beyond beach master to something like a general manager, with final word on operational decisions.
Tahoe became a refuge for the Company, a place where the couples hung out together and received a steady stream of guests. Lou bought a beautiful vintage Chris-Craft boat called the Rich and Dirty for waterskiing, and he’d spend all day blasting Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on the eight-track while Kerrie carved a slalom wake behind him. At night, Kerrie would fish for deepwater mackinaw trout and stuff it whole for dinner. Kerrie had grown close to Bob and loved how Ed lived big and laughed all the time. The same style that had caused problems on the beach made Ed the life of the party, the kind of guy who’d walk into a room bellowing, clapping along as Dave and Bob played stoned duets on the piano.
Sometimes they’d invite their investors to the lake, guys Lou brought in to spread the risk. Lou was good at intuiting potential partners. Some of them were already trade insiders, but others were straight: bond brokers and lawyers and other pedigreed people who couldn’t resist the 2- or sometimes 3-to-1 return Lou was offering. The Company had its own accountant, buying properties on its behalf, creating shell companies with names like Mo Ching Trading Co., Tow Tow Ltd., and Ku Won Investment Co., Ltd.
Another frequent guest in Lake Tahoe was Phil DeMassa, a San Diego area criminal defense attorney. Lou had met DeMassa a few years earlier, at one of the birthday bashes Ed liked to throw for himself. DeMassa was known in the drug trade as a high-priced but effective attorney. He was a litigator who liked the fight, worked long hours, and was successful at keeping the government at bay. Lou wanted that kind of firepower and gave DeMassa $300,000 in cash to come aboard. Just don’t deal in anything white, DeMassa advised Lou, and he’d take care of the rest.
There, above the electric blue lake, a thought dawned on Lou: Money is energy. A frictionless medium for amplifying your will. Once, Lou asked Kerrie to come and stand with him in front of $2 million that he had arranged in $10,000 stacks. “Can’t you feel it?” he said, looking at the bundles. With the cash it had on hand, the Company could do whatever its principals dreamt up—“buy the road,” as Ed liked to put it.
On a practical level, that was Ed’s job. His rough style turned out to be good for the dirty work required to run a multinational criminal enterprise: paying off local officials, buying boats in seedy foreign ports, vetting sellers abroad. Others thought those assignments were dangerous, but Ed saw them as adventures. His passport—under the name Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr.—filled with stamps from India, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Senegal, the Seychelles, and the Panama Canal Zone.
Expansion plans were under way closer to home, too. Word from buyers was that the East Coast was dying for smoke. Switching geography, the Company figured, would help throw off the heat, too. Dave had studied his maps and praised the gods of fractal geometry for giving distant Maine as many miles of coast as California. He purchased a beach house on Dennison Point in Cutler, overlooking Little Machias Bay; an equipment house outside the small town of Freedom; and a communication house near Skowhegan. Across the globe, Ed attended to the maritime details: cargo-ship certifications, port clearances, tonnage certificates. Soon the shipment, seven tons of Thai stick, was on the move.
By now the Company had perfected a cell structure, flexible but tightly organized, bonded by friendship and mutual trust. Company guys lived around the country, under assumed names, and communicated by 800 numbers with answering services, where they’d leave coded messages with callback numbers to pay phones. Everyone always had a bag of quarters. Dave was an early adopter of beepers and used techniques from a class at the Bornstein School of Memory Training to encrypt key numbers onto a chart that crew members could stick to the backs of their watches. You’d get a message—“Burma Christmas”—and know who to call back. With this system the Company could disappear for months at a time and then reemerge at the ready.
Heading up the Maine operation with Dave was Harlan Fincher, the Coronado High basketball team’s former center. Harlan had gone off to school on an athletic scholarship and then returned to Coronado to work as a printer. Since his drunken appearance at the last game of his varsity career, Harlan hadn’t heard from Lou—until, one day at work, he received a call out of the blue. “Hi, Harlan,” a familiar voice said, “long time.”
It was Harlan’s job to transform into reality the elaborate schemes that Dave had dreamed up for the Maine operation. The project had many technical hurdles. The house on Dennison Point sat near the edge of a cliff, looking out over the waters where the first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought. The beach below the cliff was a serious bone patch—rocks everywhere, some the size of VWs—and the tides were huge and fast-changing. This wasn’t like back home in Coronado, with 300 yards of flat sand.
It was Don who came up with the solution: installing a yarder, a five-ton piece of industrial logging equipment, in the house’s garage. The yarder would lower trucks by cable straight down the face of the cliff so they could negotiate the rocks out to the dock the Company had built at the water’s edge. The trucks would be loaded and driven back to the palisade, then winched back up the cliff face and into the garage. It was outrageous but clever, an improvised mechanical marvel.
The rest of the gear was stored in a 19th-century barn, beneath a giant sleigh of similar vintage hanging in the rafters. For months the team worked there, tending to mission preparations. Fuzzy tested the outboards and doused the spark-plug cylinders in starting fluid. (You didn’t want to be out there in the dark pulling cords.) He altered the gravity feeds Dave had bought to move the bales, using his arc welder to make them adjustable.
Elsewhere in the barn were the new Maravias, 35-foot-long Kevlar barges they had bought for towing the pot back from the mother ship. Dave had them custom made; he told the Maravia sales agent that they would be used to transport cattle across the Rhine. Where Dave came up with that, he didn’t know. It was the kind of cover story that just rolled off his tongue by now, the instinctive cloak-and-dagger of a life built on anonymous P.O. boxes and money orders and answering services and forged identities.
The fake IDs were Al Sweeney’s department. Dave brought him in because he remembered from high school that Al could point a camera and print well. Al was the science-club type: quiet, smart, focused. He’d meet with Company guys at the San Francisco Hyatt, carrying a turquoise garment bag that doubled as the backdrop for the California ID photo, which he could reproduce within 48 hours. Even after the DMV instituted a new band of invisible ink, a supposedly unbreakable security measure, Al figured out how to duplicate it.
In addition to being the Company’s master forger, Al had been a ham-radio hobbyist in high school, and with Company money he created a totally secure communications system, installing military-grade crystals in their radios so they could transmit on protected channels. In Maine, he was stationed at the communication house, 110 miles from Machias in Skowhegan, to operate the 60-foot antenna they’d installed to stay in touch with the ship. A lot of juice ran to that 5,000-watt tower; when you turned it on, the lights would dim, the room would hum, and you’d get warm standing next to it, waiting for word to come that the mother ship, code-named Cowboy, was nearing Little Machias Bay.
Cowboy finally arrived in October, negotiating Maine’s difficult inlets at night, guided by the two main towers of the Navy’s submarine communications center, just across Little Machias Bay. The crew motored the Zodiacs out to meet the ship in smuggler’s blackout, beneath a moonless sky.
They dropped chem lights in milk bottles as buoys to mark the way back. The man in the bow of each Zodiac held up a piece of aluminum so the mother ship could pick them up on radar. The crews wore thick black wetsuits; the Zodiac pilots had hockey helmets rigged with radio headsets. They looked ridiculous with six-inch antennae sticking up from their heads, but that’s what Harlan improvised so they could work hands-free. From the beach, Dave monitored their progress with a Starlight night-vision scope he’d seen in the pages of Soldier of Fortune.
The operation went off without a hitch: After traveling 10,000 miles, the Thai stick breezed through the final stretch, from the boat to the beach and up the cliff. It was another flawless operation. And it felt great. While the load was being sorted in the equipment house, Ed brought the investors in for inspection. The equipment was packed and stored, and the stash was loaded into a Dodge van. A Company detachment, all of them dressed in deliverymen’s Dickies, drove down the Eastern Seaboard, the van and a chase car a mile apart, dropping off boxes marked “Generators” in the wee hours. It was $20 million worth of product in all. It seemed just right when Steve Miller came on the van’s radio one night, singing “Take the Money and Run.”
In a suite at the Waldorf Astoria, the partners divided the spoils. One of the investors, Bruce Tanaka, had a lead on some Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9s, which were semi-street-legal and had to be imported from Europe via an underground dealer. Tanaka was taking orders. As a reward for a job well done, Lou and Ed each bought one of the luxury sedans, in complementary colors.
The victory celebration, as usual, was epic. In an age of excess—the idealism of the ’60s had long since given way to the indulgence of the ’70s—the Company could afford to be more excessive than most. “Why settle for a glass of champagne,” Lou would say, “when you can have a magnum?” It was vivid living, surrounded by friends, seeing your champagne flute filled as soon as it was empty, unless you followed Pops’s lead, draining your glass and throwing it into the fireplace. Toasting big, stumbling out to the limos at dawn with a girl on your arm—it felt like you were going to live forever. It’s what Ed meant when he and Al stood looking out at the ocean one day, toward ports east, and he said, “You know what? It’s just freeway all the way.”
Lou was on the slopes in Vail, Colorado, when he learned about the indictment: eight counts in San Diego’s district court, naming him, Ed, Lance, Bob, and 22 others. The DEA’s Operation CorCo had convinced the grand jury. The indictment hadn’t been unsealed yet, but Phil DeMassa’s office had gotten wind of it early. “The bloom is off the rose,” DeMassa said, after a call came in from his office. Lou frowned, planted his poles, and kept skiing.
Lou figured that if the authorities knew where they were, they’d have been arrested already. He was right—the DEA had no leads on Company members’ whereabouts, and the agents in San Diego lacked the resources to go after fugitives, especially if those fugitives had deep pockets. The agency could gin up indictments, but it lacked what agents called “habeas grabus,” the capacity to make big arrests.
Lou and Dave arranged to meet DeMassa at the Mark Hopkins hotel in San Francisco. As DeMassa walked down Sutter Street, they watched from the eighth floor through binoculars to make sure he wasn’t being followed, then led him through a back entrance into the hotel. “As your attorney, I advise you to turn yourself in,” DeMassa said once they were safely in the room. Then he grinned. “Now, with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.”
Using carefully worded hypotheticals, DeMassa briefed the Company on how to survive as fugitives. He told them to protect their cash and documents in sealed envelopes addressed to him, so they would be shielded by attorney-client privilege and could be opened only with a warrant. He parsed the charges, the felonies and misdemeanors. The three of them agreed that the principals should stay on the run and that some others might surrender and strategically cooperate so as to get light sentences but not give up the goods.
This was a new idea, doing time for the Company. But things were different now, more complicated. Lou would have to turn on the coach charm and tell his team that sacrifice was necessary. The rest of the indictees would show up in court, en masse, on the day the indictment was unsealed. “We can get slaps on the wrist for the underlings,” DeMassa promised. Then he told Lou that he’d spent his latest $300,000 payment already. Lou sent him on his way with another fifty grand in cash.
Hiding in plain sight, the Company’s principals went further upscale, relocating to Santa Barbara. Bob, who was already hanging out with his Brotherhood of Eternal Love friends up there, moved into a huge Spanish-style hacienda. Out back was a tennis court, where he and Lou would have fierce five-hour matches. Ed bought a house near Bob, and both of them took up polo, stabling 20 ponies apiece at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Ed wasn’t great at the game—still the bull in the china shop—but Bob had real finesse. Lou thought he looked beautiful in the saddle.
Bob’s friends called him “Light Show” Lahodny on account of his love of the glamorous life, and he was living up to his nickname in Santa Barbara. People took notice of his good looks and smile; he was Kennedy-esque, they thought, like a ’70s-style, feel-good Bobby. Maybe that was what the members of the local Chamber of Commerce were thinking when they asked him to run for a newly opened state Assembly seat. He politely declined—a wise decision for a drug smuggler living under a false name.
On his visits to Santa Barbara, DeMassa protested half-heartedly about all the public revelry. But the truth was that he was fond of Bob and Ed and liked going to those parties, too. All of them did. Still, it was a dangerous game, being that high profile. Ed was probably the most conspicuous. He couldn’t reinvent himself as a patrician the way Bob and Lou had. The more money he had, the more he looked like a criminal. It was a matter of style: The Company guys all called Ed “the Kid,” because he called everyone else “kid,” as in, “Hey, kid, how about some more wine over here?”—the kind of demeanor that got plenty of second looks at the Polo Club. In many ways, Ed was in fact a big kid, always looking for fun and excitement, and when Lou gave him a Ferrari one Christmas, surprising Ed by leading him, eyes closed, to a baby blue convertible with a big red bow on it, Ed smiled and said: “Damn, kid! You shouldn’t have.” Now Lou agreed that he probably shouldn’t have, watching Ed clock 100 miles per hour down Shoreline Drive or pull drunk donuts in the parking lot of Santa Barbara’s ritziest joint, appropriately called Talk of the Town.
But Ed earned his keep. He ran point on the Thai supply chain, which Lou considered a lion’s den. It was Ed who traveled overseas, connecting with growers, cutting out the middlemen and increasing the Company’s profits—the kind of profits that made it possible to throw money at DeMassa, hold the feds at bay, and keep the Company machine running smoothly, moving product, while the partners played with their ponies. The bigger problem for the Company partners was not in Santa Barbara at all.
Lance claimed that it was his decision to leave the Company. The other partners were under the impression that they’d fired him. He had become too much of a liability, they thought; his showboating had gotten out of control. He may have cut his hair short, but he was still the same old Lance, standing out rather than blending in, opening suitcases full of money wherever he went. Lance’s other nickname was Ensign Hero: the Navy washout who thought he was invincible. In Tahoe, after the indictment came down and they were all on the lam, Lance would be out on the lake, testing the high-powered cigarette boats he’d built, getting yelled at over a police helicopter loudspeaker for speeding.
The real trouble with Lance was his leaking. “We know you’re talking to Paul Acree,” Ed told Lance one day. Lou remembered the day Lance showed up on his bike, like some kind of stoned angel, asking him to get off the ladder and go to Mexico. There would be no Company if not for Lance, he knew. But now he and Bob and Ed had no choice but to buy him out.
They eventually settled on an “exit package” of $400,000. In the spring of 1978, DeMassa met Lance in the parking structure of the Orange County Courthouse, where they chatted briefly. “Stay out of trouble,” DeMassa told him. As he was leaving, he pointed to a briefcase he’d set between them. “Oh,” he said, “I think this is yours.” When he opened the briefcase, Lance felt jilted. It contained $180,000: half the agreed amount, less DeMassa’s “transaction fee.”
Part of the reason everyone moved to Santa Barbara was to ditch Lance. But Lance wouldn’t go away that easily. He had more to lose than Paul. He was named in the indictment along with everyone else. He was a fugitive like them, but he was on his own. Out in the cold, his only value to anyone was what he knew.
Success, Dave knew, was a fragile thing. So many parts of a smuggling operation could go wrong, it was necessary to have not just a Plan B but also a Plan C and a Plan D. Still, even the best risk manager could never make the risk go away entirely.
The first sign of trouble with the latest gig occurred right at the beginning, when Danny Tuna, after being contracted by the Company to bring five tons of hash back from Pakistan, vanished. Danny was a drinker, and he’d gone on a bender and disappeared. Enter Plan B: Ed flew to Singapore, bought a 130-foot boat called the Tusker, under the auspices of a shell company called Ocean Survey and Studies, Limited (based, naturally, in Beverly Hills), and hired a new captain, Jerry Samsel. The Company had never worked with Samsel before. None of the members of his crew were regulars. And not long after the Tusker left Pakistan bound for Maine, they stopped hearing from him.
Back in Maine, Al Sweeney listened for the Tusker during their radio appointments but heard nothing but static. Dave was confused. He had supplied the Tusker’s crew with the usual coded Mylar charts to give encrypted positions and provided them with several radio systems: single sideband, VHF, UHF, and CB. What Dave didn’t know was that Samsel had turned paranoid and ordered a total radio blackout. This was in September. The Tusker wasn’t due for 10 weeks. All the Company could do was wait.
Tensions were high. Fuzzy and Harlan were at each other’s throats. Dave was so frantic one night that Fuzzy slipped opium into his joint to calm him down. And quiet, shy Al was coming undone, getting edgier each day and claiming that he could hear messages from the missing ship coming through the static. Then, one day in October, the feds appeared.
Dave saw them first. Andy, a new hired hand, had picked him up at the airport in Bangor, Maine, and they were driving to the house atop the cliff in Machias when a man sitting in a car by the side of the road did a double take, flipped a U-turn, and started following them. One of the neighbors, it turned out, was a retired cop, and he had grown suspicious about the house’s occupants. He reported the address to the police, who suspected smuggling and contacted the DEA. A title check revealed a mysterious buyer whose only listed address was a P.O. box in Boston. The DEA didn’t know they had stumbled on the Coronado Company fugitives from California. But local agents had been mobilized, and now they were behind Dave and Andy. Dave took a deep breath and stepped on the gas.
The truck Dave was driving happened to be one that Fuzzy had enhanced with lift kits for ground clearance and a “down and dirty” switch that turned off the brake lights and head- and taillights—a feature that came in handy for evasive driving in the backwoods of Maine. At one hairpin turn, Dave slowed, told Andy to take the wheel, jumped out of the truck, and rolled into the woods. The agents sped past. Dave hiked for nine miles to a pay phone, where he called for Fuzzy to pick him up.
Andy was arrested, the Company’s first casualty in action. Dave made it back to the equipment house near Freedom, which remained safe. But the Tusker’s silence had now become a much more serious problem. The Company house was made—and the boat, oblivious and somewhere out on the ocean, was headed right for it.
“Listen, listen,” Al kept saying, handing Dave the radio headset. “They’re talking to us.” Dave heard only squelching, but Al was writing down positions. Fuzzy thought he was going batty. Yet Al was so convinced that sometimes Dave thought he could hear voices, too, off in the distance. Someone was saying something, but you couldn’t understand what. It was spooky, watching Al every night, listening intently, eyes closed, recording the advance of a ghost ship.
Al’s wireless séances didn’t convince Ed, who decided on a daring Plan C: He would go find the Tusker himself, from the sky. He traveled to South Africa, chartered a plane, and began flying a grid pattern over the Atlantic to intercept the Tusker before she steamed into a trap. He spent hours over the ocean, passing back and forth and scanning the surface, ready with a series of messages he’d drop to the ship if he spotted her. It was a desperate measure, but if he could direct the Tusker to an alternate site, disaster would be averted.
The plane never spotted the Tusker, because the boat was already north of Ed’s search area. The miscalculation was not Ed’s fault. Dave had told the ship’s captain he should under no circumstances arrive before Christmas, but Samsel had ignored him and was, in fact, making great time. The Tusker appeared in Little Machias Bay two weeks early, anchored in the private cove by the house, and sent a party ashore. Samsel had left his antenna up in the weather and it had frozen off; now that he wanted to break radio silence, he couldn’t. Two crew members knocked on the Company house door and were confused when no one answered.
The feds were on alert when Dave mobilized Harlan and another hired hand, nicknamed Rabbit, for Plan D: an amphibious intercept. Harlan and Rabbit fired up a Zodiac and approached the cove from the sea. There was the Tusker: a sitting duck, just 50 yards offshore. Harlan radioed an emergency call to Dave, boarded the Tusker, and told the captain to make a break for it. As he and Rabbit sped away in the Zodiac, Harlan could see the blue lights of the Coast Guard boats behind them.
Harlan beached the Zodiac, and he and Rabbit scrambled ashore. They grabbed their emergency kits, which were issued to every Company employee: backpacks stocked with a compass, rations, matches, gloves, some Pemmican beef jerky, and other supplies. What they needed now were the burlap leggings. They had been furnished at the suggestion of a wilderness expert and tracker who worked for the Company out west. If there’s a manhunt, he’d said, the police will have dogs, and burlap on your legs will hide the scent. Harlan sat down on the beach, pulled on two burlap sacks, and ran into the forest.
When Dave stopped hearing from Harlan, he radioed the equipment house, where Fuzzy answered. Dave then sent Fuzzy and another scout to the house—a classic tactical mistake in the fog of war. On their second visit to the house, Fuzzy was pulled over. As the police approached the car, he tore up his fake ID and slipped the pieces into the driver’s-side door panel.
The Tusker didn’t get far before it was boarded by the Coast Guard. At first glance, the guardsmen found nothing. The hash was in a cargo hold only accessible from the exterior of the ship; it was December in the North Atlantic, and the Tusker was so thickly iced over that they missed the hatch cover. The guardsmen instructed the Tusker to follow them into port, then pulled away in their own vessel. En route, the Tusker’s crew axed off the ice, opened the hatch, and started throwing the cargo of sealed cylindrical containers overboard. Arriving at port ahead of the Tusker, the guardsmen were confronted by irate DEA agents and, realizing their mistake, raced back to the Tusker in time to see the crew on the deck pitching the hash into the sea.
The entire crew was taken into custody, as were Rabbit and Harlan, whose burlap leggings did not save them. They all called DeMassa, who called Lou, who authorized $50,000 in defense and hush money for everyone: five grand apiece. Dave avoided capture, left Maine, and reconvened with Lou. Together they worked damage control. It was a heavy blow to the Company, but not a fatal one. The DEA had only arrested the help. They didn’t realize Harlan had a supervisory role, but even if they had, Harlan would never have talked. Five arrests and no one had a thing on them but some sextants, a matchbook from the Ambassador Hotel in Singapore, and Dave’s mysterious little Bornstein School charts. But the fishermen of Little Machias Bay were pulling high-quality hash from their nets for days.
The code of silence stuck. Fuzzy and Harlan took the fall, pleading guilty to small counts in the indictment. Still, the Company was less than happy. Several million dollars’ worth of product had been tossed from the Tusker. While no one had rolled over on the Company, the seams of the operation had been exposed. And for the first time in its decade of operation, the Company found itself with a management-labor divide.
It hadn’t gone unnoticed that since the indictment had come down, the Company partners had been riding polo ponies and sauntering around Santa Barbara in white V-neck sweaters while their employees went underground. When the Tusker operation fell apart, the partners were a thousand miles away. Lou was safely ensconced at the house he’d bought in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort. Now that it was all over, even Dave was having doubts. For God’s sake, he thought, I jumped from a car at 20 miles per hour. I watched my friends get arrested.
“Listen, Lou,” Dave said one night over dinner. “It might be time for me to quit. I can’t do this anymore.” The desperado life was starting to wear on him, he said. They’d been fugitives for more than a year. It was enough to make Dave paranoid, always looking in rearview mirrors and store-window reflections. He was gone more than he was home and often couldn’t call his wife, Linda, for weeks at a time. After the indictment came down, the couple had moved to Denver—a city they’d chosen at random—and now Linda was lonesome. She couldn’t see her family. To call his own mother, Dave had to use codes and pay phones. Relations with his sister were even more difficult: She was an assistant district attorney in San Diego, and Dave had to hide his whole life from her.
“I hear you, Dave,” Lou said. “I feel it myself.” Kerrie, too, had become frustrated with their lives, he said, especially once she and Lou moved to Hilton Head. But “the Company needs you,” Lou went on. “I need you. Without you, the Company is nothing.”
So Dave stayed. The money was too good, the work still thrilled, and Dave still wanted to make Pops proud. He liked excelling at something. In spite of everything, he still thought of himself as a Company man.
Intercepting the Tusker had been a lucky break for the DEA. The agency didn’t even realize that they’d stumbled across the same smugglers named in an existing indictment on the West Coast. It was hard for the agency to coordinate nationally, and the CorCo case had lost its office champion when Bobby Dunne transferred from San Diego to Boise, Idaho.
Then a special agent named James Conklin picked up the case. Like Lou, Conklin had come west for his own piece of the good life under the sun. The Detroit-raised son of an FBI agent, Conklin had earned a philosophy degree from St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York and then gone to Vietnam, where he served two tours as a Marine Corps captain. The America he came home to in 1969 wasn’t the same one he’d left four years earlier. He worked a couple of regular jobs, but after being in a war zone, the deskbound life felt limp. He sat there thinking: Is this as good as it gets?
As Nixon’s war on drugs escalated it grew less metaphorical, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was actively recruiting military officers fresh from Vietnam. In 1973, when the agency was absorbed into the new DEA, there was a need for staff in San Diego, the new epicenter of border trafficking. Conklin, recently married, was tired of living in New York—the weather, the cost, the chaos. The following year, he and his wife loaded their things into a U-Haul.
By the time Conklin came across the Operation CorCo file in 1978, the case was cold. Despite Dunne’s work and the resulting indictment, the DEA brass had taken little interest in the Coronado Company. They wanted heroin busts. Or maybe coke, which was just starting to make a beachhead. Pot was small potatoes: “Kiddie dope,” they called it. Hell, Conklin figured, half the prosecutors smoked it themselves.
Reviewing the dormant CorCo file, Conklin realized that the sheer scale of the Coronado Company put it in the top tier of smuggling operations. He told his bosses about the tonnage, the tens of millions the smugglers had made. That got the pencil pushers interested, and the San Diego office authorized Conklin to go after the Company partners.
Conklin knew what he was up against. The Company’s leaders were smart, the DEA had run out of leads, and the agency was still poorly funded, working out of derelict federal buildings and borrowing boats from the Coast Guard for naval busts. When Conklin started, his unit had just four cars: two American Motors Javelins, a seized purple Plymouth convertible, and a seized Riviera with bullet holes in it. New agents got guns but no holsters; they wrapped their .38 Specials in rubber bands so they wouldn’t slip out of their waistbands. As late as 1979, when the Company was landing $7 million shipments of Thai stick, there wasn’t a single DEA interdiction agent north of Los Angeles on the West Coast.
But the DEA crew was finding its legs, slowly but surely. The agents were dedicated—married to the job, their ex-wives would say—and they were used to being in the trenches. And the government, Conklin knew, had time on its side. A trafficker, after all, was really just another kind of addict. They couldn’t stop. They loved the rush. The great smugglers could change the odds for a time, but like a blackjack player in a casino, their long-term prospects were dim. The only way to beat the house was by taking your winnings out the door—but smugglers left their chips on the felt. And even the best operation had a lowest common denominator. Somewhere, someone was eventually bound to do something stupid.
Lance tried to go legit. After parting ways with the Company, he hung around Lake Tahoe, working on developing the ultrafast cigarette boats he hoped to sell. He claimed to have serious interest from the military and potential clients in the Persian Gulf. But his boats—long, thin hydroplanes tricked out with such powerful engines, you could see daylight beneath the hull at top speed—were too fast to be good for anything: fishing, waterskiing, even smuggling. The only buyer for Lance’s boat would have been James Bond, and even Bond wouldn’t want a 30-foot rooster tail flying out the back. He told Fuzzy, with whom he was living at the time, that he was thinking about going to Switzerland. He could hide his money there, hit the autobahn, chase blondes.
Lance felt himself inching further and further out on a limb. Though he remembered Lou’s story, the one from Pepe de Mexicali about pushing troublesome associates out of a plane, he knew that the Company wasn’t his real problem—prison was. He had a bad time in Lompoc after his 1969 bust, being a small, pretty blond and all. He vowed he was never going back there.
Dave was at 5,000 feet, riding shotgun in a Cessna four-seater, looking down at the vast green wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula, near Seattle. At the controls sat Hugo Butz, a Vietnam chopper pilot turned bush flier who was game for smuggling sorties and aerial surveillance. He had connected Dave with two pals, a pilot and a mechanic with the Air National Guard at nearby Fort Lewis for the Company’s most audacious plan yet: off-loading 10 tons of Thai stick in one of the U.S. military’s own helicopters.
The John L. Winter was another fishing boat the Company contracted for a trans-Pacific smuggling run. The guardsmen were going to “borrow” one of Fort Lewis’s double-rotor Chinooks to lift the load off the deck of the ship in one swift action. There’d be no beach exposure at all. The whole operation would take only a few minutes. Then the ship would be gone, the stash would be deposited in the woods at a secluded clearing, and the Chinook would return to base.
That’s what they were reconnoitering in Butz’s plane now, a nice spot where the Chinook could set down its cargo not far from protected waters. They were all the way at the tip of the peninsula, over the Makah Indian reservation, a nearly unpopulated landscape of forest and salmon streams. From the air, they picked out a cove near Neah Bay: totally isolated, the last stop on the peninsula, and a mile from a flat patch of land clear-cut by loggers. They had found their landing zone.
Lou and Kerrie were spending most of their time in Hilton Head, tanning and playing tennis on the custom clay court at Lou’s beachfront estate. But the game was getting old for her, as was the isolated luxury of Hilton Head. She didn’t want to live like a rich retiree on the lam. It got to you after a while, serving guests with a smile while calling yourself by a fake name. After years living double lives, their only real friends were other people in the Company. In Tahoe or Santa Barbara, at least everyone was together and you could be yourself.
But Lou thought the Company social scene was dangerous. He was in Hilton Head to lay low, away from the conspicuous frolicking in Santa Barbara. He wasn’t exactly out of sight, either, ensconced in a mansion and all, but at least he was keeping quiet. Kerrie had gotten heavy into coke. Ed and Bob were partying hard, too. They were bored with their polo ponies; powder was the only thing that approximated the rush of smuggling.
Lou would indulge a few lines socially, or stick a hot knife into a ball of opium he kept around, inhaling the smoke off the blade to mellow out after a bad day. But he wasn’t the addictive type, and he thought the danger with drugs was getting caught up in the lifestyle. You wound up hanging out with weirdos. And that was how you brought attention to yourself.
For Kerrie, the luster of living with Lou was gone. She felt the years going by; nearing 30, she was thinking about children, a family, a career. In Hilton Head, it hit her hard: This would never be a normal life. Lou was more anxious now, more absorbed in the business. He kept more secrets, and Kerrie started catching him in lies. Maybe they were small ones, but they told a larger story: Once you leave the truth behind, it’s hard to find it again.
When the end came, they didn’t talk much about it. One day, she just packed her things and told him she was going back to La Costa to work as an aerobics instructor.
It was a surprise and yet not surprising. Lou was, in fact, making plans to get out of the business altogether, hiding away money and planning a move to the Bahamas. The islands were beautiful and ran on a dollar economy—a safe haven for illicit cash. They could live like they had in Jamaica. But that feeling had faded, he knew. Five years together and the two of them had never bickered or argued or said an unkind thing to one another. When she left, Kerrie looked back at that beautiful palmetto-ringed house, the only one on that stretch of beach, and knew she’d never see it again.
Lou was too busy to be heartbroken—or at least that was what he told himself. Between the Company’s ongoing legal mess, managing personnel, and planning for the next operation, there was plenty to do. It was getting expensive, keeping the Company together. DeMassa kept asking for more and more money—fifty grand here, forty-five there. It was some consolation that at least Dave could still be counted on.
“Helicopters?” Lou asked, going through the plans for the Neah Bay gig.
“It’s a great idea,” Dave replied. “If it works.”
But Dave was more paranoid than ever. He was having trouble keeping track of the double, triple, quadruple life he was living. Sometimes when he was asked for his name at a sales counter, he would forget who he was supposed to be. Lou tried to talk Dave through it, but he, too, had close calls. On one trip to San Francisco, he left his clutch full of fake IDs in a hotel lobby. When he was summoned by security, he pretended to be a businessman on a gay tryst to explain it.
On top of it all, Dave now had a family to look after; it was a hassle to arrange for his daughter to share his real name instead of his fugitive alias. Dave was torn between his loyalty to the Company and to his family. He felt like the little Dutch boy, plugging holes in the dike. How do you hold back the sea, he wondered, when you run out of fingers?
Back in Hilton Head, Lou worried, too. He drank his Bordeaux, looking out at the ocean that, every so often, rose up in a storm and took everything with it. Lou recalled how it was when they started back in Coronado. We were all just normal people, he thought. Friends on the Rock, their lives unwritten. He could remember that feeling of promise, when they were young and there wasn’t yet time for tragedy.
When Conklin’s DEA task force busted the low-level street dealer, they quickly realized they had a guy who didn’t want to go to prison. While in custody, the dealer happened to mention crossing paths with “a big-timer up in Santa Barbara.” That big-timer was Ed Otero.
The dealer was reluctant to talk, and Conklin worked him gently. Conklin was as straight as they come—he had never even tried marijuana—but he didn’t judge people. Plenty of his friends smoked pot, and when he went to parties they’d joke with him, call him “the narc.” He had no interest in locking up every street dealer. It made him an outlier in the take-no-prisoners milieu of the DEA, but it also made him good at cultivating informants. “This is a way out for you,” Conklin told the dealer. “You can go back to a regular life and never worry about seeing me again.”
In exchange for leniency, the dealer provided an address. It was the first concrete lead the DEA had gotten on the Company members’ whereabouts. When Conklin’s team checked out the place, it was empty, but a visit to the local post office showed that the mail was forwarded to someone named Bambi Merryweather—Bob’s girlfriend and Lou’s secretary, although Conklin didn’t know it. Conklin ran her name through the DEA’s database and got a hit out of an agency office in Virginia. The local office, Conklin discovered, was already working some information on a suspected drug dealer in Hilton Head, and Bambi Merryweather was mentioned in the file as well. Two building contractors in Hilton Head, Mike and Jerry Agnor, had reported that a man whose mansion they were renovating was a drug smuggler. They didn’t know his real name, but they called him Mr. Thai Pot and mentioned that he had a secretary named Bambi. The name was too unusual to be a coincidence.
Conklin flew the Agnor brothers to San Diego. He had been assembling a book of the entire Thai smuggling scene, from suppliers to traffickers to distributors, and filling it with pictures of the insular, elusive network. He asked the Agnors to flip through it. They immediately picked out Lou Villar.
At Neah Bay, the receiving crew was in place, stashing 500-gallon tanks of aviation fuel at the LZ for the helo, setting up Dave’s custom cargo cage, and bringing in a semi-trailer truck to move the pot. By now more of the regulars were gone. Don had left by mutual agreement; he had managed to save up some money from the gigs to invest in his VW shop in Oregon. The crew was full of new faces: locals, friends of friends. It made Dave nervous, what with all the heat on the Company.
After losing Al Sweeney, Dave hired a guy Harlan knew who worked for a contractor that made surveillance equipment for the CIA. Dave’s paranoia had led to all kinds of purchases, like a voice stress analyzer and audio scramblers, the latter of which became standard issue for Company partners. But now he requested something new: a bug.
One of the new guys on the crew was disappearing alone, every night, at the same time. One night Dave followed him; he was going to a pay phone. Dave planted the bug in the booth’s mouthpiece and began listening in. The mysterious transmissions, he discovered, were just sweet nothings to the guy’s girlfriend.
Dave was relieved, but the bug was still a nifty toy, and he thought he’d have a little fun with it. He planted it under the kitchen table at the Company’s equipment house. Over several days, he listened to the crew chatting, and then casually surprised people in conversation by mentioning bits of what he’d heard. One night Dave came into the kitchen where everyone was assembled, wearing headphones and a big grin. “Gotcha!” Dave said, reaching under the table and pulling out the bug. “Cute, right?”
Harlan didn’t think so. The Company was built on trust, and the very idea of eavesdropping was a slippery slope. He didn’t see Dave’s stunt as a practical joke. What he saw was a bad omen.
No one likes digging through the trash, but you’d be surprised what people throw away. In addition to naming Lou, the Agnor brothers had helped Conklin connect the Company to a San Diego accountant named Andy Willis. Conklin got a search warrant and began accompanying the local garbage crew to Willis’s office, getting up early, riding the side of the truck, and dabbling in waste management.
Willis, it turned out, would’ve benefited from a paper shredder. In his garbage, Conklin found an epistolary trail connecting Willis to Lou, mostly operating under aliases. Soon Conklin had uncovered a whole network of pseudonymous assets, like Bob’s partnership in an oil well in Arcadia Parish, Louisiana, and the bank accounts of the Mo Ching Trading Co., which happened to own coastal properties in sparsely populated areas. “We got gold,” Conklin told his partner Larry McKinney.
As the CorCo case grew more complicated, more agents were brought in to help follow the money, including an expert on loan from the Internal Revenue Service. Thus was formed the financial-asset removal team—acronym: FART—which Conklin hoped would pick up the income trail and fill in the blanks. They began to piece together the Company’s financials, assembling the asset case by showing unclaimed income through expenditure on houses, cars, and other luxury line items. The last time Lou filed a tax return, he was a teacher in Coronado making $7,000 a year. Bob was still filing, as a drywall installer with a $10,000 annual income. He had spent nearly three times that much on tack for his polo ponies in one year alone.
But Conklin couldn’t just start arresting people. Even when he presented his superiors with documentation supporting his estimate that Lou, based on the value of his houses alone, was worth $6 million, it wasn’t enough. The Justice Department wanted more evidence. Conklin was miffed but patient. He and his team had been on Operation CorCo for years now, and, truth be told, they were having a blast. Conklin liked matching wits with the Company. They were worthy adversaries, guys who’d be good at anything, he thought. It just so happened they were really good crooks.
The Company had timed its Neah Bay gig for late summer, when the Pacific Northwest’s legendary gloom usually breaks. But when the John L. Winter arrived on August 23, the coast of the Olympic Peninsula was still shrouded in dense fog. Helicopters couldn’t fly in those conditions at night, and waiting for the fog to lift was a problem. The ship’s captain came onshore; he and his crew didn’t want to wait around out there to get plucked by the Coast Guard. The pilot pointed out that joyriding a military helicopter was tough to reschedule. Dave was pissed—at them, at himself, at the weather. His supremely elegant plan had been spoiled by an unseasonable dew point.
So for the first time in years, Lou showed up on-site. He met the chopper crew at the Tumwater Inn south of Olympia, turned on the charm, and managed to convince the pilot to attempt an even riskier daytime operation. It helped that Lou sweetened the deal, and noted that the pilots were already implicated. If one of them went down, they all went down.
On the day the weather finally turned perfect, however, the Chinook was a no-show. Another helicopter at Fort Lewis had been damaged on takeoff that morning, and the rest were grounded. Or at least that was what the pilot said; Dave suspected he just chickened out. He cursed the smuggling gods and went back to the drawing board.
The Company fetched its classic beach equipment—the Zodiacs, barges, gravity feeds, 4x4 pickups—and hired some locals from the Makah reservation to assist with their fishing boats. By now tempers were short. Offshore, the John L. Winter’s crew was jittery. As the days passed at Neah Bay, there was plenty of time for anxious speculation. Bringing in the Indians at the last minute was a risky move. They were charging $150,000, an exorbitant fee—the kind of deal you strike only in an emergency—and were wild at the wheel, unable or unwilling to get their ships into proper position. On the night the off-load finally commenced, Fuzzy could hear everyone arguing on the radio, blabbering back and forth for hours. It was the opposite of the streamlined command structure the Company was known for.
It was a bad start, hours late, already past midnight. Earlier on the beach, Fuzzy watched tiny waves lap at his feet, but his surfer’s instinct told him—from the mist, the sense of the atmosphere—that these waters would rise. By the time they started work, eight-footers were crashing on the rocks. Fuzzy fought his way out with a Zodiac and one of the Maravia barges, and docked at sea with the John L. Winter. The Indians met him there in their boats. It was raining, and the swells made work difficult, but together they managed to transfer six tons of Thai stick off the ship and onto the barge. Luckily, the high tide allowed a small vessel to shoot the mouth of the tiny Soo River, which emptied into the ocean near Neah Bay, so the Indians started ferrying the stash, 500 pounds at a time, into the shelter of the river.
Dave was positioned on a hill, watching through his night scope as a collection of green figures ran back and forth on the beach, battling the sea. It was a battle the Company was losing. The tide was going out. The boats were scraping the shallows. The hastily hired help was not following orders. When Turk Markishtum, one of the fishermen from the reservation, knocked his hull on a rock, he refused to continue. “I’m worried about my boat,” he said.
“How much does your boat cost?” Dave asked over the radio.
“$125,000,” Markishtum said.
“We’ll buy you two goddamn boats if you keep going,” Dave said. “Just bring the shit in!”
But now the tide was almost all the way out. No boat with a keel could get into the mouth of the river, and there was $10 million worth of Thai stick still sitting out there on the barge. The local fishermen took off. On the horizon, the black of night was giving way to the first pale hint of tomorrow.
“I’m getting that barge!” Fuzzy yelled into the radio. With the scope, Dave watched him break a Zodiac through the pounding surf and race out to sea. He tied the barge to the Zodiac. The Maravia was 35 feet long but flat-bottomed, and even with the bales stacked several feet high on its deck, Fuzzy figured he could tow it into the Soo.
“Go for it, man!” Dave yelled through the radio, watching Fuzzy make for shore with daylight emerging behind him. “Gun it!” Fuzzy couldn’t hear Dave over the whine of the outboard, and could barely see through the ocean spray, but he got the barge close. And then, just as he entered the mouth of the river, Fuzzy felt himself rising.
Dave watched as the monster wave curled up and lifted Fuzzy, his Zodiac, the barge, and the Thai stick 10 feet above the beach. Fuzzy managed to surf the tethered inflatables on the wave momentarily, until the crest toppled. He felt the weight of the barge land on top of the Zodiac, pinning him to the rubber floor—a potentially lethal position, trapped under several tons of cargo, with a million pounds of water behind it. A fatalist, Fuzzy was stoic. The party was over when it was over. And how ironic, he thought, to be killed by my own stash.
The wave started to swamp the Zodiac, and Fuzzy realized that his hand was still on the throttle. He instinctively gave the little motor all the gas, and when the wave shifted, the Zodiac broke free and shot down its face. Seconds later the towline broke and the barge swamped, dumping some of its load into the water. After tumbling through the foam, it came to rest on the beach. The beach crew unloaded what remained on deck and collected the rest of the bales from the river. Dave had come down from the hill and welcomed Fuzzy back onto the beach. “You barely got out of there with your life!” Dave said.
“It’s like I always say,” Fuzzy responded. “When in doubt—punch it!”
Dave and the beach crew scrambled to get the load into a U-Haul truck. First light was upon them. There was only one way in and out of the heavily forested area, the stash house was 10 miles away, and time was running out.
The road out of the forest was slick and canted, and the truck didn’t get very far before it slid off the asphalt. Dave’s nightmare was coming to pass: Everything was going wrong at once. “Leave the truck,” Dave said, now officially panicking. “Transfer the stash to the pickups.” That’s when Fuzzy discovered that the U-Haul’s rear door was jammed. The truck’s whole frame box was warped and wouldn’t open. “Get an axe!” Dave yelled. But there were no axes.
Dave looked around. The crew was losing faith. Birds were singing, announcing the morning. The scale of the disaster was dawning on everyone. “All right, everybody,” Dave said wearily over the radio. “This is a code red.” He had never said those words before. He couldn’t believe he had to give the order to abort. The Tusker was a lot of bad luck, but this was defeat. They had failed.
They had 60 bales in the pickups—a small fraction of the load. The rest they left on the beach, along with the boats and motors, the conveyor belts and generators. Dave instructed everyone to get their emergency kits, which contained oiled rags for clearing fingerprints. “Wipe it all down, boys,” he said. Fleeing the scene in the bed of one of the Company’s pickup trucks, Dave wondered what he would say to Lou.
The recovered bales went to pay back the investors. The rest was a loss. And the Company was already feeling the pinch. Smuggling is speculative and expensive: It had cost a lot to stage this fiasco, a million bucks spent to lose twenty. Dave, ever faithful and feeling guilty, bought Lou a gold Patek Philippe as an apology, even though everyone knew it wasn’t really his fault. At least no one was arrested on his watch, Dave thought. Hours later, Walter Cronkite was reporting on the CBS Evening News about the mysterious drug-trafficking incident on the Olympic Peninsula. The police discovered the entire smuggling operation in situ—the bales in the water, the truck, and all the gear—but they didn’t find a single fingerprint.
Lou moved back to Santa Barbara, against his better judgment. Spooked by Neah Bay, the Company partners had decided to mount a final mission and then disband. Lou saw his psychic, a common form of business guidance in California at the time—who warned him, “I see bad things on the horizon.” Lou took note but didn’t listen. He and the rest of the Company partners wanted to retire big. The proverbial temptation of the last big score was too great.
Lou took up with a local artist and, somehow, her sister at the same time; they lived together in a house situated on a 100-acre orchid farm. There, the Company organized its final gig: four tons of Thai stick delivered to Bear Harbor, the kind of operation they’d pulled off without incident many times. Danny Tuna was back in the employ of the Company after promising to clean up his act. He had a new boat, the Robert Wayne, and promoted his first mate, John Engle, to captain it back from Thailand. The idea was to keep it small, easy, and lucrative.
Things seemed to be going fine until, a few months later, a ham-radio operator in the Philippines picked up a distress call from the western Pacific. It was the Robert Wayne; the vessel had been hit by a rogue wave, Engle said. It smashed the windows and swamped the gear, including the radio. Engle had managed to get out an SOS by splicing the CB to a high-gain antenna.
A few days later, the Robert Wayne’s propeller shaft broke. The ship was drifting now, a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan. As the hold was full of drugs, Engle couldn’t exactly call the Coast Guard. Fortuitously for the boat’s crew, it turned out that Danny’s sister was an escort at a Tokyo bar called Maggie’s Revenge, where she was popular with some yakuza men. (Danny’s sister was an exotic girl for a Japanese gangster to have on his arm—six feet tall, blonde, congenitally blind, and, according to Conklin, who later interviewed her, “a total knockout.”) Danny managed to arrange an intervention from the yakuza, who agreed to tow the boat to Yokohama and oversee repairs.
The yakuza wanted $300,000 for their services, on top of $250,000 for the Robert Wayne’s repairs. Ed negotiated a loan from a Company investor and brought the down payment to Chichi-Jima, a tiny island in the Pacific, in a suitcase. As insurance, the yakuza kept Danny Tuna with them “as a guest” until the mission was complete and the rest of the money was delivered.
Incredibly, the Company’s crisis management came through. The Robert Wayne made it to California and the off-load went smoothly. Some of the cargo was converted to cash, and the rest was transported back to Santa Barbara, to be sold in a few days. Lou agreed to store some of the pot and cash at his house—a breach in his usual security protocol, but he figured they’d get it to distributors in a few days. In the meantime, the Company threw a classic victory party at Bob’s place. This score would put everyone over the top, they thought, a couple million each for the partners. It felt good to be together again, everyone smiling, laughing, raising a toast to a clean getaway.
Conklin looked at his watch. It was 11 a.m. on November 5, 1981. He and his team were in position around Santa Barbara, waiting. Then another agent called in an approaching silver four-door Mercedes, license plate 1ATM158. The car turned west on Alston Road and then south on Cima Linda Lane, where other surveillance units made the driver: Ed Morgan, a.k.a. Kenneth Eugene Cook, Jr., a.k.a. Edward Otero.
It was early November, and the DEA had been sitting on the houses of Ed, Bob, and Lou for months now. Lou had no idea his Hilton Head contractors had led the heat to his doorstep on the opposite coast. The Agnors had told the feds that they’d been burned by Lou, stiffed $50,000 for services rendered. (Lou would claim that the money discrepancy was actually their lost investment in Company commerce.) Now Conklin had teams in place. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Ed saw the tail and tried to run, but he didn’t get far. The DEA boxed him in at the wheel of the car he loved so much, less than a mile from his house. Shortly thereafter, DEA agents saw Lou driving his matching Mercedes 6.9 and started following him.
Lou was by himself, heading for Bob’s house. It was a beautiful day, and Lou had just had lunch with the girls at home. He was feeling good, thinking about the pot in his basement and how much it was worth. When he saw that he was being tailed, he turned down the radio. He changed course, but the car followed. After a half-dozen turns, Lou found himself in a cul-de-sac. The cops didn’t even need to flash the lights.
“Keep your hands on the wheel,” Lou heard. Before the feds got a chance to yank him from the leather-lined interior, Lou recalls, one of the agents had pulled his .45 and stuck it in Lou’s mouth. The agent’s hand was shaking, as if he was overwhelmed by finally seeing the man he and his colleagues had been chasing for years. “You will never forget this day,” the agent said. “And your life will never be the same.” Lou knew he was right.
The DEA had caught up with Bob and Dave, too. They happened to be riding in Ed’s car when he was caught. For all his investigative efforts, Conklin didn’t realize who Dave was or the important role he played in the organization. But in Ed’s car, along with $20,000 in cash, the agents found Dave’s valise, which contained two fake IDs, an airline ticket, and several notebooks—all detailed accounting ledgers. It was a phenomenal bit of luck; the DEA had caught the Company principals en route to an accounting meeting.
By the end of the day they were arrested, and Bob’s house was surrounded with yellow tape, its contents tagged as evidence: three safe-deposit keys, photos of landing sites, and records showing payments to ship captains. At Lou’s house, Conklin found $557,829 and 892 pounds of product from the latest shipment, worth about $3 million. In Lou’s enormous safe were envelopes, each containing $25,000 and labeled “Johnny,” “Terry,” and “Fred”—pay for the crew. Lou had never before accepted delivery of pot on the premises. Now, handcuffed in his own living room, he could hear the agents in the basement taking down the secret panels that hid the stash. “Holy fuck,” one of them shouted. “We hit the fucking jackpot!”
It was quite a haul—for Conklin, too. He’d worked for years, with inferior equipment and funding, to put cuffs on these guys. His resources were so thin, in fact, that his agents had nearly run out of gas on the way to Santa Barbara; they were over their fuel budget and had to refill out of pocket to catch their targets. But now the Company’s leadership was all in a cell together, and the DEA had confiscated $12 million in cash, contraband, vehicles, and property from the organization. (To Conklin’s chagrin, he never did find the Duck.) When the news broke, McKinney told reporters that the Company had grossed $96 million over the past decade. At a minimum, Lou thought in his cell.
Fuzzy heard about the arrests on the news. Drug lords busted in upscale Santa Barbara. Sounds familiar, he thought. Then the phone rang. “Hey, Fuzzy, it’s been a while.” Fuzzy would’ve recognized that goofy nasal voice anywhere. “I’m sure you know why I’m calling,” Lance went on. “I got you into this. And now I’m going to get you out.”
Lance had already arranged for Fuzzy to sit down with the DEA. Fuzzy was conflicted, but as he considered the cards he had been dealt, he realized that he had only one to play. “It’s every man for himself,” Lance said.
The DEA loved Lance and Fuzzy from the moment they walked in the door. “You guys were the A-team,” Conklin said when Fuzzy and Lance sat down in the San Diego DEA offices, a tape recorder in between them. “Light years ahead of everyone else. We want to know how you did it.”
Fuzzy recognized one of the agents who had been on hand when he was arrested in Maine. Another agent, Fuzzy noticed, had pulled into the parking lot in one of Ed’s Corvettes. Fuzzy looked at the DEA team assembled around him, everyone with their notepads and Hawaii 5-0 suits. He rationalized that he would just confirm what they already knew. Besides, he had taken a fall once, and become a convicted felon, in the service of the Company. This time the feds were threatening 30 years. That was a long time away from his motorcycle. So Fuzzy gave them a tape he’d already recorded, describing the information he knew that would be valuable to the DEA. “Hi,” the tape began. “My name is Fuzzy, and I’m going to tell you a story about the Coronado Company.”
At the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, where the Company members were housed, the higher-ups were still sticking together. Lou was running damage control, even managing collections from jail. At their individual arraignments, the partners gave DeMassa instructions to collect money from distributors, through their attorneys, whom they’d fronted. Some of it DeMassa used to pay the beach crew from the last operation, some he kept, and some he gave to the partners’ girlfriends.
“I need information,” DeMassa told Jack Palladino one night over lobster bisque at the Stanford Court Hotel. Palladino was DeMassa’s trusted private detective, one-half of the husband-and-wife detective agency Palladino & Sutherland; together they’d worked with DeMassa on other major criminal-defense efforts, defending the Hells Angels against the government’s RICO investigation. Jack and Sandra’s job was to gather as much information as possible about the DEA’s case against the Company and how the agents had gotten their evidence; maybe it was coerced or otherwise tainted. Find out what people know, DeMassa told Jack, and how they know it.
But the DEA already had a strong case. With the testimony of Fuzzy and Lance—now known as Confidential Informants SR2820012 and SR2820013, respectively—Conklin was able to issue a second round of indictments with wider scope and more detail, the kind that comes from inside information. DeMassa wanted Jack and Sandra to figure out who’d flipped.
There was no shortage of suspects. Coronado was full of people the Company left behind who had nursed resentments for years. “They burned a lot of bridges,” one early beach-team member told Jack. Any number of disgruntled ex-employees could have dropped a dime. During grand jury testimony, Jack sat in a white van with painted-over windows in front of the courthouse where the jury convened, taking pictures of everyone who walked in, but found no familiar faces.
Having mostly worked in criminal defense, Jack and Sandra had a philosophical opposition to informants. In her office, Sandra kept an original World War II–vintage poster that warned: “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Their odds-on favorite, of course, was Lance, but nobody had any proof. Meanwhile, Lance was playing his own game. More than once as Sandra traveled around the country talking to Company associates, she found that Lance had gotten to them first, fishing for intel he could use as a bargaining chip with the DEA.
The private detectives met with Lance over a few dinners and meetings, each side hoping the other would slip up. At first everyone involved played coy, pretending they were on the same team. “Who do you think is talking?” Sandra would ask.
“Who do you think is talking?” Lance would reply.
The encounters settled into a routine of I-know-that-you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know-what-you-don’t-know gamesmanship. Jack and Sandra saw these meetings as opportunities to allow Lance, who always talked too much, to impugn his own credibility. They wore wires, hoping he’d put his foot in it. Extortion, for instance, would count him out as a government witness, and Lance had intimated that money might make him “go away.”
Lance knew they were taping him, and he tried to get around it. At one meeting, at a hotel in Reno, Jack bugged the room. Lance switched rooms at the last minute. He figured (correctly) that Jack was miked anyhow, and to be safe, he walked in with a note announcing that the entire meeting would be conducted on Magic Slates, the children’s writing pads where you pulled up the cellophane flap to make the words disappear. There they were, two private detectives and a drug smuggler, sitting in silence, negotiating on a kid’s toy. Nothing was said or written, and there was no record of their meeting, which Jack thought was very clever.
Lance didn’t like turning on his friends, but all’s fair in love and war, he thought. He felt bad threatening Ed, Bob, Dave, and Lou—they all still had affection for one another—but the Company had screwed him over. Now it was their turn to get screwed.
For months, Lou sat in the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, still waving his scepter against Company foes. With money there was yet power. According to DeMassa, Lou wanted to bribe his way out. Judge, jury members, maybe a congressman if he had to. Ed, Bob, and Dave were all on different floors of the jail. They never talked directly, coordinating instead through DeMassa. Harlan and Dave both started teaching themselves law, to get into the statutes themselves.
Dave faced an “848,” the federal government’s continuing criminal enterprise statute—it was the trafficking equivalent of RICO, dubbed the drug kingpin law, carrying the prospect of decades in prison. Dave wasn’t a kingpin, but a heavy charge was how the government put on the squeeze, looking for cracks in the foundation. The Company felt abused by the inflated charges, but from the DEA’s perspective, it was the sole means of pressing an advantage. When a crew was as successful and as tight as the Company was, the DEA had to find leverage where it could. So the feds wheeled out the 848s, investigated friends and families, and, for good measure, indicted all the Company girlfriends.
Jack and Sandra tried to trace the DEA’s footsteps, looking for evidence that the agents overstepped their bounds. Sandra went around reminding everyone not to talk without a lawyer present and offering protection to people like Ed’s father, a Navy janitor, whose pension the DEA had threatened. At one point, Jack discovered that he was under surveillance himself. A well-known rock photographer let the DEA use his apartment, across the street from the Palladino & Sutherland offices, to spy on them.
There was more than enough resentment to go around. The DEA hated DeMassa; he was, according to Conklin, a “shyster attorney” who used “crooked detectives” to get criminals off. Jack and Sandra thought the DEA took it personally that anyone would dare stand up to the agency. “It wasn’t common to do that,” Jack recalled later. “And we were good at it.”
But the DEA was chipping away at the Company. DeMassa was on the defensive; he knew that the agency was gunning for him as well. Bob eventually chose to go to trial, but DeMassa encouraged Ed and everyone else to plead out. Lou arranged a plea bargain before he could be charged with an 848. The kingpin never faced the kingpin law, but he got 10 years anyway. So did Ed, who struck the same deal. During Lou’s sentencing, he looked up at the judge and told himself that he would never again lose his freedom. When he got out, he vowed, he would change his life, again. Freedom wasn’t worth all that money. But what was it worth?
In 1982, Lou was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution on Terminal Island, just off Los Angeles Harbor, to “do his dime,” as it was called in the yard. He looked around and thought: I can’t spend 10 years here. In the MCC library, he had met a prisoner who traded homespun legal advice to his fellow inmates for cookies. “Want my advice?” he told Lou. “Get yourself out of here. That’s what all these other motherfuckers are trying to do. And they’re actually supposed to be in here.”
The jailhouse lawyer knew a former U.S. attorney named Kevin McInerny, who talked Lou through becoming an informant. Conklin was shocked when he got the call from McInerny: “Lou Villar wants to talk.”
It was controversial within the DEA whether or not to let Lou turn. He was too high up in the Company, some said—what was the point of rolling up the organization if you were going to let the kingpin walk? But Lou could provide detail on financing, suppliers, and dealers—the entire Thai network that Conklin had in his sights. Conklin had been able to indict a lot of those people based on Lance's and Fuzzy's testimony, but for convictions he needed someone to take the stand. He also had his eye on a target closer to home. He wanted to go after DeMassa.
Lou already felt cheated by DeMassa. The Company had paid him half a million in fees, and in Lou’s mind all he did with it was negotiate some rather unfavorable plea bargains. Lou asked McInerny to reach out to Dave. Lou knew Dave could get out if he wanted to. So far he’d held firm, even though DEA agents had visited him in prison, stalked his wife, and harassed his sister, the prosecutor. Dave’s family had pleaded with him to turn on the Company. Finally, Conklin came to him and told him he had one last chance. He showed Dave the 848 paperwork with his name on it. “There’s a train leaving the station,” the agent told him. “Do you want to be on it or under it?”
Conklin felt like he was doing Dave and the others a service. In a way, he thought, the Company guys were lucky to get caught now: The days of fun-loving hippie smugglers were giving way to the violence and gangsterism of cocaine culture. Arrest was a way out, informing a path to redemption. “You have a chance to be a regular guy again,” Conklin told Dave. Dave waited until he thought everyone who had worked for him had been dispositioned, so his testimony wouldn’t affect his employees. And then he switched sides.
In his cell at the MCC, Harlan was still fighting the prosecutors, poring over court documents. He’d been imagining that Pops and the Company might still mount a cavalry charge. Instead, his boss and friends would testify against him.
It was understandable that Lance would turn state’s evidence; he’d been shafted. Maybe Fuzzy, too; he was an outsider, never one of the Coronado boys. But Lou? Lou had been at the center of everything. It was as if the Godfather broke omertà. And that broke Harlan’s heart.
He remembered when he did his first piece in jail, how Lou took him aside and coached him on doing his time. Now it was Lou’s turn, and Lou was skipping out. We were a fucking championship lineup, Harlan thought. And Lou was the coach. Harlan sometimes still felt an echo of remorse from 14 years earlier, when he disappointed Lou on the basketball court. He never imagined then that Lou would disappoint him in return. “We loved him,” Harlan would later tell the journalist Mike Wallace. “And he rolled right over on us.”
On one of Harlan’s trips to the courtroom, he was being led into the elevator when he ran into Lou, accompanied by prosecutors, on his way to testify. Harlan was dressed in corrections orange. Lou was in his civilian clothes, looking sharp as always, with a big smile on his face. “How are you doing?” Lou said. He looked Harlan in the eye and shook his hand. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said, just like in his coaching and Company days. “Hang in there.”
They got off on different floors. Harlan spent six more months on the ninth floor of the MCC and was then transferred to Terminal Island for the rest of his sentence. Lou walked out of the building and into the California sunshine.
The fallout from Lou and the other informants’ testimony was widespread. Many Company members and their associates did time. The Fort Lewis helicopter pilots were court-martialed. The Indians from Neah Bay were arrested. A third indictment came down in 1984, naming more suppliers and distributors; Conklin was disabling the Thai network, just as he had hoped. Eventually, more than one hundred people were indicted. Lou gave up many of them himself, even Kerrie’s brother Kent, who had worked with the Company on the beach. Some people, like Kent, spent just a few months in prison, others years.
The DEA raided DeMassa’s office, taking all his files, and eventually arrested him, charging him with harboring Bob Lahodny as a fugitive and 16 counts as a coconspirator in the Company case. He went to trial in 1985. Facing 20 years, DeMassa pled guilty to three felonies and served six months in a halfway house.
Bob Lahodny went to trial in 1985. After 10 days—during which Lou, Dave, and Fuzzy all testified—Bob changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to five years. He got out in 1989 but was arrested again that year, along with Ed Otero, after the two attempted another smuggling gig in Northern California.
Ed was serving his second sentence when he saved the life of a prison guard who was being held hostage by two armed prisoners, and was released early. Seven years in prison was enough to straighten him out. He moved to Palm Springs, started a legitimate—and successful—air-conditioning business, and bought himself a boat with his own hard-earned money.
Dave was released in 1983. He was relieved that he could see his family, but he knew he couldn’t go back to Coronado. He moved away and got into real estate. The first time Dave saw Lou after being arrested was on a plane to Maine, where they had both been subpoenaed to testify in a case related to the Little Machias Bay bust. Dave was still angry at Lou for informing on him before he turned state’s evidence himself. By the end of the flight, however, the two men were cracking tiny bottles of booze and rekindling their friendship. Other relationships, however, couldn’t be recovered. Lou never again saw Bob, Ed, Lance—or Kerrie. “What really hurt,” Kerrie says, “is that Lou never apologized.”
The man who walked into the pizza place was barely recognizable as the tanned playboy I’d seen in pictures and newspaper articles. At age 76, he looked like a retiree, with white hair and a warm smile. “No one else besides the people who lived it has ever heard this story,” Lou Villar said.
Arranging the first meeting had been complicated, requiring the kind of cloak-and-dagger planning that Lou knew from the days of the Coronado Company. I showed up at the restaurant, waited, and was finally approached by Lou after I “checked out.” He was spry, fit, and still sharp as he jumped into a story that hadn’t been told in thirty years.
As I spent time with Lou, I could see the charming and charismatic man who had drawn so many people into his orbit at the Company. But I also saw the tragedy of his story. By the time we met, I had spoken with many who still felt the sting of his betrayal.
Lou himself served nearly two years in prison. After he was released, he was resentenced to a year of unsupervised probation. He managed to hold on to a bit of money, some of his furnishings from Hilton Head, and his wine collection.
Did Lou have regrets? He did. He’d testified against people he cared about. It was an agonizing decision, one he couldn’t rationalize away: “I told my story in exchange for freedom, and I’ll always have to live with that.” He hadn’t spoken to a reporter since 1985, shortly after he got out of prison. At the time, he said he regretted his Company days; they’d affected his family and destroyed most of his friendships. But things looked different to him now, with nearly three decades of perspective. “Those were lessons that had to be learned,” he told me.
He understood why his friends were angry. Still, he told himself, some of them could have taken a deal like he had. They had chosen to stick with honor among thieves, but Lou thought that was just a hollow criminal piety. Maybe that, in turn, was a hollow informant’s piety. But Lou now says that for him, time behind bars was an opportunity to accept defeat and learn how to live a legitimate life again. In his forties, he changed his name and started over. He was successful in his new career, he told me, but it wasn’t the same as the Coronado Company. “Then again,” he says, “what could be?”
When Lou and Dave spend time together now, their wives have forbidden them from talking about the halcyon days of the Company, because it can go on for hours. No matter how nostalgic he gets, Dave says he wouldn’t do it again. Lou says he would. The highs, the lows, the hard lessons—“those are the things,” he says, “that made my life.”
Ed Otero died in January 2013 of a heart attack while fishing for tuna off the coast of Mexico. “Ed rode the wave of life through the ’70s and early ’80s,” his obituary noted, “which included many adventures.”
Dave Strather divorced, remarried, and raised his daughter. He still has one of the Company’s voice scramblers and can reproduce the Bornstein chart from memory.
Bob Lahodny moved back to the San Diego area after his second prison term, got married, became a stockbroker, and lived, according to friends, “a festive and happy life” with his wife until they divorced. After that, Bob struggled to find his footing again. He died in 2010, from complications from hepatitis C, which he contracted while traveling in Asia.
Lance Weber never got his performance-speedboat business off the ground. He moved back to Coronado and met a new girl, Deanna, whom he married a few years later. He invited Jim Conklin and other DEA agents to his wedding, where Conklin presented him with a pair of handcuffs in a shadowbox with an engraved plate reading, “Congratulations on Your Life Sentence!” Lance and Deanna had two children. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000.
Allan “Fuzzy” Logie made it through 10 years of probation without incident. He still rides motorcycles but had to stop surfing after he crashed his bike and injured his back. He remembers every mechanical upgrade he ever made to a vehicle.
Al Sweeney received five years of probation and moved back to Coronado. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985.
Don Kidd still runs his garage in Oregon, where he still specializes in the impossible. “It gets annoying,” he says. “People always bring me the shit they can’t fix.” He and Harlan Fincher have stayed friends, visiting each other every few years.
Harlan Fincher served four years in prison. When he returned to civilian life, he owed the government tens of thousands of dollars he didn’t have, on account of the IRS asset case against him, which made it hard for him to recover financially. Between that and his felony record, he had difficulty finding work that made use of his many talents. He married in 2006 and manages a ranch.
Paul Acree disappeared before the initial Coronado Company arrests in 1981. None of the other Company veterans know where he is or if he is still alive.
Phil DeMassa returned to law after his conviction; the California Bar Association did not pull his license, on the grounds that his crimes did not “involve moral turpitude.” Still, his practice never quite recovered. He died in a scuba-diving accident in 2012.
James Conklin spent 26 years with the DEA and still admires the ingenuity of the Company. After finishing the CorCo case, he was given a plum assignment in Thailand, where he was tasked with taking on the Company’s supply at the source. He spent four years there, essentially eradicating the entire Thai stick trade. He retired in 2004 and moved to Las Vegas, where he started a private-investigation firm with his son.
Jack Palladino and Sandra Sutherland are still private investigators and have worked on behalf of many high-profile clients since the Coronado affair, including John DeLorean, the auto executive charged with smuggling cocaine in 1982, Bill and Hillary Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign, and Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco-industry whistle-blower portrayed in the film The Insider. They now live and work in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood and are aided in their investigative efforts by their cat, Tipsy, who likes to sit on the files.
Kerrie Kavanaugh took a few years to move beyond what she now calls “the follies of the early ’80s” and eventually went back to school to pursue her culinary interests. She worked as a chef on private yachts, where she met her husband, a ship’s captain. They moved to the Pacific Northwest and had a daughter.
Lou Villar hasn’t talked to Kerrie in 35 years, but he kept a copy of the poem he wrote her.
Coronado High, by Joshuah Bearman, is Issue No. 27 of The Atavist Magazine, published July 2013.
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Author: Joshuah Bearman
Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, Playboy, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, and is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.
Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Animation: Colleen Cox
Web Design: Alex Fringes
Music: “Life’s a Gas,” written by Marc Bolan, copyright 1971 TRO/Essex Music International, Inc., performed by Islands
Animation Soundtrack: Jefferson Rabb
Research and Production: Vonecia Carswell, Lila Selim, Chris Osborn, Nadia Wilson
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Gary Kidd
Audiobook Narrator: Brett Gelman
Fact-Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
© 2013 Atavist Inc.