It was the first hour of November 3rd, 1980, as the Learjet left behind Miami’s city lights and headed west over the dark of the Everglades. Aboard were two principals, each flanked by their respective henchmen. Until this hour, they had never met. The one who had leased the plane was a thirty-six-year-old drug-smuggling kingpin named Dan McGuiness. He had a penchant for ordering up Learjets on short notice. Once, after striking up a conversation with a young woman in a Boston bar, he went, on impulse, over to a pay phone and called up a Learjet from Miami to take the two of them to Jamaica for the weekend. McGuiness had pulled off enough successful smuggling deals to be able to afford little luxuries like that.
The other man, forty-two-years old, was well known in smuggling circles as Theo Poulos, a specialist in providing highly specialized off-loading services to “mother ships” coming up from Colombia laden with marijuana. The aircraft was now headed for a still-unspoiled part of the Florida panhandle so that Poulos could show McGuiness a choice, protected site for one of his soon-to-arrive boats.
As a prelude to talking business, McGuiness produced a silver case from which he drew a line of cocaine on the cabin’s conference table. Poulos did not partake, insisting he never mixed “pleasure with business.” McGuiness, flushed with the pleasure of the drug, waved over a flunkie.
“Bring a little treat up to the pilots,” he ordered and flipped him the silver case. But the flunkie moved only a step before Poulos caught him by the arm.
“How high are we?” he asked.
“Forty-two-thousand feet,” answered McGuiness.
“And how fast?”
“Six hundred miles per hour.”
“Then those boys on the flight deck better not be tootin’ no blow.”
The flunkie looked from one man to the other in the ensuing silence.
“Okay,” said McGuiness, finally. “Don’t want you to be uncool.”
Poulos was actually rather irritated. He had quoted a fee of $5,000, payable before takeoff, simply to show McGuiness the off-load site. If McGuiness used it, that was to be followed by a reservation fee of $25,000 plus a percentage of each pound of marijuana off-loaded. But McGuiness hadn’t ever paid the first $5,000, and now Poulos reminded him of that debt.
Suddenly, it was McGuiness’ turn to be irritated. Rolling his eyes as if he could hardly be bothered with mere pocket change, McGuiness flung open his attaché case. Poulos saw, as he was meant to, that it contained some kind of special radio and two pistols — as well as wads of cash. McGuiness peeled off $5,000 in bills and, with a sneer, tossed them at Poulos.
Poulos had already observed, and did not like, how McGuiness pushed around his hired help. Even the pilots had endured his barking before takeoff, but Poulos, for one, did not intend to do the same. He leaned forward across the conference table, money in his fist. His thick short neck and arms were tensed, his small, dark eyes hard.
“Dude, you think ordering up this Learjet makes you somebody. Well, lemme tell you: I’ll go out in the morning and buy — not rent, but buy — two Learjets!” And Poulos hurled the bills back at McGuiness.
At that instant, Poulos saw what he wanted to see in McGinness’ face — a slight, but critical, loss of bravado. The man had lost his edge. McGuiness would have lost much more if he had known he’d been faced down by an impostor who was actually an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Theo Poulos’ real name was Ted Weed (yes, Weed), and McGuiness, like so many other smugglers, was about to fall victim to Operation Grouper, the most elaborate and effective infiltration job ever brought off by a federal enforcement agency. It was also, by turns, audacious, original and highly comic. One can — and probably should — argue whether all those qualities might be better directed against some type of crime other than marijuana smuggling. But as long as the law is what it is, Operation Grouper remains a classic of its kind.
The whole operation lasted two and a half years, ending just weeks after that meeting on the Learjet. It accounted for 155 arrests, including that of some kingpins of the drug world who are rarely touched by such efforts. A staggering total of more than 1 million pounds of marijuana was seized, along with hefty quantities of pills and cocaine. Dozens of boats, large and small, as well as two airplanes, were likewise remanded. Though many agents from Florida to Louisiana to Georgia played key roles in the unfolding of Operation Grouper, it was Ted Weed whose original idea and powerful personality spurred the scheme forward. “That Teddy,” says fellow DEA agent Larry Hahn, “can ramrod anyone into doing anything.”
The potential for Operation Grouper arose from a basic change in the nature of marijuana smuggling in south Florida in the mid-Seventies. Until then, the main source for the weed in this area was Jamaica. Those who smuggled it were mostly young, “hip” Americans, many of whom were still in college. It was no problem to buy a few bales of grass in Jamaica for twenty-five dollars per pound and then head for home on a sailboat to a private dock, where the pot could be unloaded by night and sold for $125 per pounds, or more. lt was profitable, and it was also a bit of a lark. Far from being a crime, marijuana smuggling was seen by some as an honorable act of the counterculture.
The government, of course, did not see it that way. Political pressure gradually closed down Jamaica as an easy source of grass. At the same time, the much larger supply being smuggled over the Mexican border was also being shut off. But the government could not close down the demand for the product. Almost at once, a major new source opened up — the Guajira Peninsula of Colombia.
The nearest U.S entry point for Colombian grass was — just as it had been for the Jamaican — south Florida. Those who smuggled it, however, were a new breed — Hispanic Americans, many Cuban-born, living in Miami or, in some cases, San Juan, Puerto Rico. They could deal with their fellow Latins as American counterculture smugglers could not. The scale of the new smuggling also registered a dramatic shift upward. Instead of a few hundred pounds, the Colombian loads ranged from ten tons to 112 tons, and were carried aboard shrimpers, oceangoing tugs and freighters of all sizes.
It may have been feasible for small-time smugglers to unload a few bales of grass undetected. But these large vessels from Colombia could not simply cruise into U.S. waters, let alone unload their huge cargoes, without being noticed. So they normally transferred the grass at sea into smaller boats for the trip to the mainland. That is why these large vessels are called mother ships or, more simply, mamas.
In the earlier heyday of the young, American smugglers, Ted Weed had been a U.S customs agent. He was younger than many of the smugglers, and with an earlier part-time career behind him as an alligator poacher in north Florida, Weed had a knack for sniffing them out. This ability was recognized by the DEA, which hired him just as the first of the mother ships began to appear. On occasion, he had “popped” (busted) small boats as they reached the mainland with their miniloads from the mother ship. But that was near the tail end of the smuggling chain. Those arrested were inevitably “mules” — low-level carriers who could easily be replaced by the organization. The mules rarely even knew who was up there in the executive suite. Those kingpins are classified by the DEA as Class I violators — able to import multimillion-dollar loads of illegal drugs on a regular basis. They were the very smugglers, naturally, who were almost never hit by even the most adept undercover operation, and Weed hungered to get at them. In the fall of 1978, quite unexpectedly, he saw his opening.
At the time, Weed was working in the Bahamas with Operation Banco, a pioneering effort by the FBI and the DEA to track drug money being laundered by offshore banks. The Bahamas were more than a laundering point. They were an intermediary station, not to say a barrier, for marijuana cargoes off-loaded from mother ships to small boats in the safety of the open ocean on the eastern fringe of the island chain. These small boats could then head straight for the mainland — or else stash the grass in the islands. From there, at a chosen moment, it could be brought to the mainland by sea or air.
It was dangerous enough for anyone to smuggle a cargo of marijuana through the Bahamas without being intercepted by Bahamian police or pirates. But it was doubly dangerous for the Cubans who were the boatmen. For years, Bahamians had been nailing Cuban fishermen found in their waters. Bad blood ran between the two peoples. No Cuban, even with American citizenship, wanted to be caught by Bahamians — officially or unofficially.
Ted Weed had heard this lament of the Cuban smugglers from a Greek-born, Bahamian national named Anthony Tamis (not his real name), the owner of a nightclub on Freeport that was frequented by the smugglers. Tamis was also a FBI-DEA informer on the Banco investigation — or, to use the preferred current terminology, a CL (“cooperative individual”). It was then that Weed was struck with a thought that — with some initial help from Tamis — would grow beyond his wildest dreams: If the Cubans were having so much trouble moving their marijuana cargoes through the Bahamas, why not develop an organization that could lend them a hand?
One month later, an eighty-foot yacht named the Lady Elizabeth arrived in Freeport. At the helm was Weed and beside him was another DEA undercover agent named Pete Serrin. They moored the yacht in a slip behind a waterfront barn called the Britannia Pub, where they had also taken an apartment on the second floor. They soon brought over a second boat, a sport fisherman called the Melanie, which measured a mere thirty-eight feet. It was soon rumored that the two men had bought the Britannia Pub. Certainly, they never paid for their own drinks. Neither did they show any visible signs of earning a livelihood.
At his nightclub, Anthony Tamis introduced the two men as his cousins from the old country — Theo and Pao. When he introduced them one day to a Cuban-American smuggler named Jesus Gonzalez, Tamis was more specific. His cousins were highly skilled and reliable specialists at off-loading mother ships. At first, Weed sat in uncharacteristic silence as Tamis sang their praises. Then he whispered the clincher — not only were he and Peto off-loaders, but they could offer a client an extraordinary bonus: They had paid off the Bahamian police to look the other way. To use Weed’s more exact term, his organization had the police “on the tit.”
“Gonzalez looked at me,” says Weed, “like he has seen the Messiah.”
At a meeting the following week at a restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana district, Gonzalez introduced Theo and Pero to a well-connected smuggler named Ignacio Esposito. Esposito promptly hired the “organization” to off-load the Santa Magdalena, which was soon to leave Colombia loaded with sixteen tons of marijuana. He did not seem deterred by the pair’s stiff terms — twenty-five dollars per pound for the 150-mile transit of the Bahamas. For the full load, that would mean $800,000. For a safe passage, it would be worth it. At wholesale ($200 per pound) in Miami, the load would bring $6.4 million.
The night set for the rendezvous with the Santa Magdalena was rotten, with the skies overcast, winds strong, swells reaching twelve feet. Still, the Lady Elizabeth and the Melanie — crewed with a grab bag of local law-enforcement agents recruited by Weed — were at the designated rendezvous point, three miles east of Manatella Light, an hour early. But at sea, there was no sign of the Santa Magdalena. The seas grew so high that the crews could see nothing but walls of water. Weed could not even make radio contact with the mother ship, because Esposito had failed to provide him with the proper frequencies. At four a.m., Weed ordered his boats back to Freeport.
He was furious with Esposito, who apologized profusely. Those same heavy seas, it seemed, had delayed the Santa Magdalena. But he promised that it would be at the rendezvous point the following night. Almost surely, it would have been, been, had not Weed quietly notified the coast guard. Furnished with the name of the vessel and its approximate coordinates, a cutter had an easy time spotting the Santa Magdalena. It was popped, by agreement with Weed, early in the evening, still several hours away from Manatella Light.
Though aware of the seizure, Weed took his crews out at midnight. They tossed the night away once more, and again, in the morning, he was furious with Esposito.
“I have something to tell you, Theo,” said Esposito sadly. “The great white shark hit our ship.”
Weed cursed and banged his head with his fist. Theo’s payment was based on delivery. No dope, no cash.
“But listen,” said Esposito, brightening. “I am arranging for another load to come up. This time we’ll off-load it down south, near Long Island [one of the southernmost of the Bahamas].”
“I have protection up here, not down there,” said Weed. “Can’t do it.” He also pointed out to the Cuban that those waters were very shoaly. He advised against off-loading there under any conditions. Esposito did not take that advice, but he should have. This second mother ship, actually a fifty-five-foot yacht, hit a reef near Long Island and sank on January 10th, 1979. A few days later, for reasons possibly connected to the two failed off-loads, Esposito was found dead in Miami. A bullet had been fired directly between his front teeth.
It did not seem to occur to anyone in the smuggling community that Theo might have been involved in the seizure of the Santa Magdalena. On the contrary, he had produced crews that were prompt, sober and eager — qualities much appreciated in the critical task of off-loading. Who could blame them if the great white shark had struck?
In early 1979, the organization had all the new business it could have handled — if only the mother ships had been delivered into its protecting hands. In January, the Delfin and the Sea Nymph were popped by the coast guard, with twenty tons of marijuana. Then came the Mini 1, a freighter seized with a staggering fifty tons. In March, it was the Del Mar with twenty tons. This mother ship was easily spotted far out at sea by the coast guard because the smuggler, Augustin “Gus” Barres, had told Weed that the boat was transporting two automobiles on the open fantail along with the payload. He even told Weed the make and model of each car.
Self-starting, freewheeling, highly dynamic agents like Weed tend to make the higher-ups in any agency, including the DEA, a trifle nervous. But the early results of Weed’s off-loading scam were an undeniable success. That spring, DEA headquarters in Washington gave Weed’s group the official status of a mobile task force. Its mission was to insinuate itself ever higher in the smuggling hierarchy. Weed was given the privilege of giving his brainchild a name.
“Call it Operation Conch,” said Weed, speaking from Miami.
Soon afterward, headquarters was back on the phone. A check of the files indicated there had already been an Operation Conch.
“Then call it Operation Grouper,” said Weed. It has since been suggested that the term refers to the bales of marijuana, “square groupers,” that sometimes float ashore in south Florida after being pitched from chased boats. “Hell, I wasn’t of that at all,” says Weed. “I was thinking of that plain ol’ reef fish.”
An ongoing problem during Grouper was how to keep smuggler clients convinced that when their ships were hit by the coast guard, it was somebody else’s fault. To divert suspicion, when a ship was popped, nobody appeared more angry or distressed than Weed. His cut, after all, depended on safe delivery of the load. Smugglers even felt sorry for him. “Don’t worry, Theo,” said one Cuban after telling him the bad news. “I know that next year is going to be your year!”
There were moments, however, when Weed did have to take a hard line. Once, for example, the loss of several loads prompted the Miami arrival of the Colombian principal, a giant of a man named Luis Fuente, known as “the Indian.” He came with a reputation for violence. Puente and his local partner, Martine Suarez, met with Herrin and Weed at a condominium townhouse, located in the fashionable suburb of Miami Lakes, that the organization had leased and outfitted with hidden video recorders.
Weed was to the right of the Indian as they sat around the dining table. He listened impassively as the big Colombian, his pockmarked face dark with anger, delivered a monologue in rapid Spanish, laced with the name Theo. Each time the name was repeated, the Indian almost spit.
Weed knew he was being blamed for the loss of the load. But it was necessary, he decided, not to let that sort of accusation get out of hand. He reached into his ankle holster, pulled out his gun and placed it on the table in front of him. By chance, the barrel happened to be pointing in the direction of the Indian.
“What’s he saying about me?” asked Weed, staring fixedly at the man.
A quick conversation followed between Suarez and the Indian. Then Suarez turned to Weed. “He says you are a very good man. He says he likes you very much!”
By New Year’s Day 1980, Operation Grouper was over a year old. Theo Poulos and his undercover crew had caused another six mother ships to be popped, one after the other. In terms of the future of the operation, that was both good and bad. “Sooner or later the smugglers were bound to put two and two together,” explains Grouper agent Larry Hahn. And Weed also felt that the time had come to stop pushing their luck. Yet, he did not want to close down the operation. The longer Grouper could be kept running, the more upper-echelon smugglers they would be able to arrest. The case of a mother ship called the Fenicio gave Weed a chance to set the stage for a new phase.
The Fenicio was a 110-foot sailing ship with a German crew, due up from Colombia in February with a comparatively small load — eight tons of marijuana. It belonged to a Cuban-American named Fidel Lorenzo. At eleven o’clock on the night of February 24th, Weed and his partner Serrin, along with Lorenzo and two of his men, headed out from behind the Britannia Pub aboard the Melanie to meet the Fenicio six miles southwest of Freeport.
In order to deflect the accusing finger from himself, Weed had arranged a little scenario with the coast guard. A blacked-out cutter was to follow the Fenicio at a distance of one mile. At midnight, it would transmit a radio message to its base that said it was proceeding to investigate a mysterious sailing ship nearby — a transmission that Weed would just happen to monitor aboard the Melanie. Weed would then warn the Fenicio to dash for protection within the three-mile limit of Bahamian waters. Meanwhile, the Melanie would do the same. With prior permission to enter Bahamian waters, obtained via diplomatic channels, the cutter would ignore the Melanie while it chased down the Fenicio. By then, back in the safety of their berth behind the Britannia Pub, Weed would remind Lorenzo of how grateful he should be that they, at least, had managed to escape.
At first, all went as planned. Precisely at midnight, contact was made with the Fenicio at the rendezvous point. Then, feigning sudden alarm, Weed called Lorenzo over to listen to the coast guard cutter’s transmission. The Fenicio was quickly warned, and the Melanie raced back to its berth. Weed was asleep by two o’clock and assumed that the slower Fenicio had been nailed.
Weed didn’t know, however, that the cutter had chased the Fenicio to the three-mile limit — and had then veered away. Because of a delay in communications, the cutter’s captain had not received permission to conduct a chase into Bahamian waters, as the scenario called for. Racing full speed ahead in the dark, meanwhile, the Fenicio had hit a reef near shore. Less than an hour later, it was spotted by Lorenzo and his crew, who had driven to the beach to see what had happened to their ship.
At three a.m., Weed was awakened by pounding on his door. It was a breathless Lorenzo, begging him to salvage what they could from the Fenicio. A sleepy Weed was soon back at the wheel of the Melanie, speeding toward the Fenicio. He was mystified to find no cutter in sight. With a shrug, he helped the three Cubans unload bales of marijuana from the deserted Fenicio. They managed to get almost two tons aboard the Meianie before they “ran out of dark?”
“Don’t you worry,” Weed told Lorenzo as they headed back to the Britannia. “We’ll keep the grass stashed on my boat until tomorrow night. Then we’ll haul ass over to West End [on the mainland side] and off-load it into your boats.” Lorenzo’s gratitude was immense.
Weed now saw his moment to shut down the Bahamian phase of Grouper without foreclosing any future operations. This time, the scam was worked out quickly in a morning meeting with local authorities. At four p.m. on the day after the off-loading, four Bahamian policemen burst through the front door of the Britannia Pub.
“Which one is Theo Poulos?” asked the sergeant.
Everyone in the place knew Theo, and they all stared at him as he sauntered forward.
“We have a warrant to search your boat.”
“My boat is clean,” said Weed.
“We’ll see, sir,” said the sergeant.
The decks of the Melanie smelled of Pine Sol — the disinfectant commonly used to mask the aroma of marijuana. All the shades in the cabin windows were drawn, and the door was locked. At first, Weed claimed not to have the key. But when the police threatened to break down the door, he relented.
“Oh, my … Oh, my, look at that!” exclaimed the sergeant as he gazed into the cabin, which was fully loaded with bales of marijuana. A gasp also arose from the pub crowd now assembled at dockside.
Weed was put in manacles and hustled off to jail. The next morning, the press reported his arrest and the seizure of the Melanie and its cargo. Released on bail of $200,000 (but only on paper), Weed had accomplished his purpose. He could explain to his network of smuggling “clients” — indeed, they could read it in the newspapers themselves — that the Bahamas were now too hot for off-loading. But he had a new and better option to offer them. He and Peso had cousins in the bayou country of Louisiana. There, unlike in south Florida, countless waterways leading up from the Gulf of Mexico were ideally suited to smuggling. Mother ships could actually be brought straight to dockside, eliminating the perils of off-loading at sea. There, the organization would provide not only unloading facilities but secure storage for the marijuana. There, in “coon ass” country, as the locals themselves called it, the smugglers would be taken care of as never before.
On the evening of March 22nd, 1980, only a month after the debacle of the Fenicio, Fidel Lorenzo was sitting happily in a restaurant in Houma, deep in the bayou country south of New Orleans, being well cared for by two local “cousins” of Theo Poulos. Also with Lorenzo were two other smugglers he had brought from Miami named Alex and Bobby Chirino. They were eating the superb food of the region, including crayfish étouffee, shrimp boil and crab bisque. It was a suitable ending to a day of business that had gone very well.
The two “cousins” were very large men, each edging toward 300 pounds. One was a DEA agent named John Donald, known in Houma simply as Fat John. It was Donald who, in a conversation with Ted Weed only weeks before, had mentioned that coon-ass country would be an ideal place for a large-scale undercover operation. The problem was getting the smugglers.
“Don’t worry,” Weed had said. “We’ll send ’em.”
The other “cousin,” Allan “Happy” Wall, was a deputy sheriff and narcotics specialist from nearby Thibodaux. He was only a shade bigger than Fat John. But with his pointed black beard, his face naturally composed into a scowl and his dark eyes glinting strangely with gold like those of a water moccasin out of the local bayous, Happy was an infinitely more menacing presence. It was no surprise when he explained that, in the organization’s hierarchy, he handled not only food but physical security.
Joined by Richard Hazelwood, an undercover agent representing the state police, Fat John and Happy picked up Lorenzo and the Chirino brothers at the New Orleans airport and whisked them down Route 90, across the Mississippi River and into the bayou country. Amid an ever-deepening maze of swamps and bayous, they headed to the small town of Dulac, only a few miles from the gulf itself. Here, they showed the smugglers a prime off-loading spot, known simply as a “hole.” By day, it was a commercial fuel dock. By night, it was deserted. A mother ship could come straight to the dock and, in total security, unload its cargo onto waiting trucks.
The smugglers were then taken up through Thibodaux — passing the sheriff’s office there where Happy worked — to visit the “farm” two miles west of the city. It was a spread of several thousand acres that, since the days of slavery, had been called Melodia Plantation. The smugglers were much impressed as, turning off the main road, they drove for a full mile between fields of sugar cane before reaching the house where their men would stay while awaiting buyers for the marijuana. Across from the house was a large barn, more than ample for a multi-ton stash. Farm animals grazed all around. It was all very deluxe. The smugglers may have wondered why they ever bothered with the troublesome Bahamas.
After dinner, over coffee and brandy, Fat John — who was supposedly a disbarred lawyer and was put in charge of finances — laid out the terms. It would cost $15,000 to reserve the hole and the farm. This rather high deposit was necessary, he explained, in order to eliminate the small-timers and poseurs who could not really bring in a mother ship. And the $15,000 would be applied to the final fee, computed at twenty-five dollars per pound of delivered marijuana. This, too, was a stiff fee, but it covered everything. That night, Lorenzo and the Chirino brothers willingly handed over the $15,000.
For the smugglers, the fate of this load was ill-starred from the first. The mother skip, called the Miss Jeanette, developed trouble and nearly sank en route from Colombia. Its fifteen-ton load was shared on the final leg by a second vessel, called the Sir John. On the eve of the off-load, moreover, Fidel Lorenzo had grown nervous about his crew of ten Cubans imported from Miami. At home they blended in, but here, it seemed to Lorenzo, they stuck out too much. Was there any way to make them look more like coon asses?
By coincidence, Happy Wall had been worried about a related problem. How, in the enforced darkness of the off-load site, would it be possible to distinguish between his own undercover crew of fifteen and the “bad guys”? Thanks to Lorenzo’s request, he had an answer to satisfy both sides. At a local sporting-goods store, he bought ten bright-orange baseball caps.
“Your people wear these,” he told a delighted Lorenzo. “It’ll make them look like certified coon asses. And make sure they wear them at the off-load. That way my boys will know who the bosses are.”
The off-load was carried out without a hitch on the night of April 17th, 1980. In the blackness, it seemed to Happy — now joined by Theo, Pew and a few others from Miami — that the orange caps glowed in the dark. By four a.m., all fifteen tons were stashed safely in the barn at Melodic Plantation. That morning, the Cubans began the laborious process of weighing and tagging each bale. For use as eventual trial evidence, Fat John convinced the Cubans to personally sign each tag.
The ancient house, vacant for years, had been thoroughly spruced up under Happy’s direction before the arrival of the smugglers. With wads of their cash in hand, he had bought new cots, sheets and pillows, and kitchen- and tableware. Into a new freezer went 150 pounds of prime steaks. That was primarily for the Cubans. For his own group, Happy brought in a fifty-pound burlap bag filled with crayfish, known locally as “mudbugs.”
Happy had no problem establishing his credentials as a cook. But when one of the Cubans kiddingly questioned his expertise with the M-76 automatic rifle he carried in his other capacity as security chief, Happy whirled around and blasted a distant cistern with a perfect circle of holes. After that, deference was willingly paid.
Within days, the first big buyer arrived in Thibodaux. Known only as Walter, he stayed at the local Sheraton motel, where Theo was also staying. As one of the chieftains of his clan, he did not deign to stay on the farm. Walter spent an entire day in the barn examining the marijuana sniff by sniff, touch by touch. It was not until the next day that he finally selected eight tons for purchase at $225 per pound. On the following day, after an elaborate procedure in which $3.6 million in cash would change hands, Walter planned to ship the marijuana to New York in two giant eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer rigs.
Normally, this would have been the hour for a police raid. But Weed asked the DEA headquarters to allow the trucks to go on their way. The route of the grass could then be traced to the big New York wholesalers. But then at the last moment, Walter himself got nervous. Instead of two big trucks, he announced that he would send the load north on no fewer than seventeen campers — almost impossible to trace — to be loaded that night. Suddenly, it had become necessary to stop all that marijuana from leaving Melodia Plantation.
At a hurried conference with local police, the federal agents devised a scenario that would result in the seizure of the load without compromising the ever-expanding web of Operation Grouper.
That evening, the usual complement of eight Cubans and six undercover agents was joined for dinner by special guest Walter. Typically, steaks were the fare for the Cubans and creole specialties for the others. One agent ate his dinner in a corner, where he was monitoring a police-radio scanner — one of the electronic services provided by the organization. It was ten o’clock on this warm spring evening when the agent abruptly held up his hand for silence. Everyone gathered around the scanner, as Happy Wall later said, “like families did in World War II, listening to FDR.”
What they heard was the voice of a nearby Thibodaux patrol-car officer:
“… That little Marywell girl ran away again. I’ll take a look for her over in those fields behind Melodia Plantation. That’s where they found her last time …”
The Cubans had turned pale.
“Keep cool,” said Happy. “Me and Ricky [Richard Hazelwood] will go up to the gate and talk ’em out of coming down here.”
With the young sugar cane not yet tall, the view up the mile-long drive to the main road was still unblocked. All in the house could see the lights of their car meet those of the police cruiser at the gate. In a few more minutes, the cruiser turned around. Happy and Ricky returned to the house triumphant. They had convinced the cop that the little girl must be elsewhere. All breathed a sigh of relief — but only for a moment. A new transmission crackled over the scanner:
“… Some fellows talked me out of going back there, but now I’m thinkin’ that that old place is supposed to be deserted. I believe I’m gonna check it out anyway …”
Once more, the patrol car was seen to turn into the long drive. Halfway down, it neatly swerved around the chain gate. Then, in that otherwise death-silent house, came another transmission:
“… I counted five cars in front of that old place. Somethin’ is definitely strange. I believe there might be dopers in there. You better call me some state-trooper reinforcements before I do anything more …”
Walter, who was ordinarily soft-spoken, now whispered, “I think it’s time to leave.”
Happy Wall raised his M-76, his great bulk quivering with rage. “I’ll kill every one of the bastards!” he bellowed. “I’ll mow ’em down on the road!” And he charged for the door.
Right behind him were the Cubans, grabbing wildly for their clothes. It seemed to them that they were sure to lose not only their marijuana but their lives in the carnage about to be set off by this madman. Last to go were the agents, shouting curses.
“Everyone head for the Sheraton in Thibodaux,” called out Ted Weed. “Y’all can hide in my room.”
In less than a minute, all five cars were racing up the drive. Weed took the nearly catatonic Walter in his car. As they swung right on the main road, they could see, still a mile away, the flashing red lights of the state-police reinforcements coming from the left. And if they had looked back in the dark over the fields of young cane, they would have seen flashes of automatic-weapon fire. What they could not see was that Happy was firing into the air.
The disheveled and distraught Cubans were soon assembled in Weed’s room at the Sheraton. Unlike Walter and the local boys, they could not melt away. They hardly knew where they were. Warning them that it would be unsafe to remain in Thibodaux, Weed phoned for reservations in a motel in Houma, ten miles away. There was one more problem: One of the Cubans, little Bobby Chirino, was nowhere to be found. His brother Alex remembered having seen him dash for the back of the house just before everyone else charged for the front.
“Get your asses over to Houma before the cops bust in here,” said Weed. “Me and Peto will go back to look for him.”
“But … they’ll catch you,” said Fidel Lorenzo.
Weed glared at the Cuban as if he were a traitor. “You can’t leave a man like Bobby to those police killers. They’re liable to blast him right on the spot.”
Back at Melodia Plantation, the two agents first drove down to the barn, where they paid brief respects to the police who were checking out the cache. Then they drove very slowly, up and down the long drive, calling out Bobby’s name. At last, they heard a weak reply.
“Theo — is that you?”
They found Bobby, covered with mosquito bites, dragging himself along in the field. His ankle had been broken, he explained, when he’d jumped out a rear window of the house. All night long, he had been crawling through the cane, expecting at any moment to be bitten by a snake.
Weed and Serrin returned Bobby Chirino to a hero’s welcome at the morel in Houma.
“These boys had just lost 30,000 pounds of marijuana on account of us,” says Weed. “But for bringing back their man, they thought we were the greatest guys in the world.”
Happy Wall soon found a new farm. It was located ten miles to the southeast, near the small town of Lafourche, in a swamp shrouded by hanging moss. A high gate barred the only road into the place. A new metal-sided barn was built, with a raised floor to keep the marijuana dry. The muddy road was widened and paved so that even the biggest tractor-trailer rig could be brought in. Radio equipment, including special antennae, was installed for clandestine radio communication with Colombia. There was also a pit on the way to the house in which fifty snakes were dumped. From then on, the place was known as the Snake Farm.
Smugglers who were escorted here as part of the grand tour all liked the Snake Farm very much. But during the next ten months, all of these smugglers lost large marijuana shipments to the ever-potent Operation Grouper. Among them was one of the biggest loads ever seized — seventy-five-tons aboard the mother ship Polaris.
Yet by the end of 1980, for reasons that had nothing to do with the smugglers, it became difficult to maintain Grouper operations in the bayou country. For too long, a small group of local lawmen — most visibly, Happy — had been observed spending fabulous amounts of money. They were seen in fancy restaurants in the company of strange Latins. Many people assumed that Happy and his cohorts were corrupt. And if a deputy sheriff was on the take, then so must be the sheriff himself. Before the next elections, the air would have to be cleared.
So in October 1980, a bust was arranged at the Snake Farm so the smugglers could be told that bayou country was “too hot” for any further operations. As usual, however, they were offered a new opportunity. “Cousin Billy,” yet another DEA agent, was set up in Panama City, Florida, to offer a full line of services on that unspoiled portion of the Gulf Coast.
Three loads were hit in Panama City early in 1981. Another “cousin” was made available on the coast of Georgia. Operation Grouper, it seemed, could have gone on and on. The truth was, however, that it threatened to get out of hand. On March 13th, 1981, task forces in three states arrested a total of 155 persons.
It had not been hard to make friends with many of the more likable smugglers. In the enforced intimacy of off-loading boats and farms, it had been inevitable. But it was psychologically very hard to arrest them — or, more exactly, to expose their duplicity. The “victims” themselves bore remarkably little ill will toward the agents. One of the Cubans who was about to go to prison, for example, handed his wedding ring to Happy Wall. “He was afraid it would be stolen where he was going,” explains Wall. “He didn’t trust the authorities, but he did trust me. So he asked if I would see that the ring was delivered to his wife.” It was done.
Another of the smugglers, Roy Hinderling, had offered Happy a puppy from a litter of golden retrievers soon to be born. At a grand-jury proceeding, Happy suddenly heard Hinderling call out, “If you still want her, Happy, the puppy is yours!”
Ted Weed, who had started it all two and a half years earlier, was strangely quiet during the sweep of arrests in south Florida. “What would have been the sense in my going out?” he asks. “Those smugglers who knew me would never have believed I was a DEA agent anyway.”
That proved true in the case of Dwight and Sammy Ward, the two men who had brought Weed to Dan McGuiness, the kingpin with the Learjet. Seeing him in court, they were very hurt. “When we got busted,” said Dwight to Weed, “they let us make just one phone call. I didn’t call my lawyer, I didn’t call my folks. I made that one call to you — to tell you to get out of town?”
As for McGuiness himself, he also met Weed in the hall outside a courtroom. He caught Weed by the arm, the way Weed had once caught his flunkie aboard the Learjet. A young U.S. attorney with Weed was afraid the prisoner might get violent. But McGuiness had an admiring look on his face.
“You, my friend,” said McGuiness, “ought to get the Academy Award.”