Saltwater Cowboy

Saltwater Cowboy

Illustrations by Brett Affrunti

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Tim McBride was a wanted man. From 1979 to 1989 he smuggled marijuana into the waters of southwest Florida and the Caribbean with a band of modern-day pirates known by locals as the Saltwater Cowboys, who operated out of Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. Back then, Colombia cultivated and supplied almost half of all marijuana consumed in the U.S. Nearly 90 percent of the marijuana exported from Colombia was shipped here by sea; most of the remainder was transported aboard aircraft. Night after night the Saltwater Cowboys offloaded up to 20 tons at a time from any vessel that would make the trip from South America. This was done under cover of darkness, although sometimes the Coast Guard would get wise, and the smugglers were forced to out-maneuver high-powered interdiction vessels like Blue Thunder in the 230-square-mile maze of mangrove forests known as the Ten Thousand Islands.

Times were good­—until it all came crashing down. In the below passage, McBride recounts his time as the man in charge of operations, returning from a trip to Colombia to meet with an unnamed supplier about a big shipment of pot bound for U.S. shores. That meeting would spark a chain of events that would force McBride to employ everything he had learned up until that point to not get caught. But time wasn’t on his side: The DEA, Customs, U.S. Marshals, and state and local law enforcement were all hot on his trail.

When I got back to the States, I immediately began making preparations. I met with my pal Johnny in Everglades City, whose job it was to round up the shore crew and to discuss what needed to be done. We would send a shrimp boat to Colombia and have it loaded with the bales that bore my subtle, but distinctive, mark. From there, the boat would make an eight- to 10-day journey north through the gap between the Yucatán Peninsula and Cuba, then continue on northeast, toward the southern tip of Florida. The captain would contact me when he got close, and we’d meet at a predetermined spot just 30 miles off our coast.

From there I would do what I knew best: I would send two crab boats, accompanied by our chase boat, to unload the bales. Unloading a ship wasn’t always as simple as pulling alongside and waiting for the load to automatically pour down onto our decks. Most of the time, my guys would jump on board and climb down into the bowels of the mothership to assist its crew in humping the bales up on deck before the off-load could begin. We each took turns below working in the heat of the still-running engines as we moved that weed. Like a bucket brigade, we passed bales up to a man standing on a pyramid of pot so that the guys on deck could reach down and grab them. We would unload this shrimp boat offshore because it would be suspicious for it to be any closer to the coast due to its size. My crab boats were smaller, and their day-to-day work routine of going out into the Gulf and returning to shore would not attract attention.

When the two loads reached the shore, the plan was for my crew and me to transfer them onto smaller, faster boats, usually mullet skiffs. A mullet skiff is a small net boat used to catch the common baitfish from which the craft gets its name. These skiffs travel at high speeds through shallow water. Mixed in with them would be T-Craft and Morgan boats with center or rear consoles. These smaller, faster boats had a lot of deck space and were equipped with twin 235-hp Evinrude motors that were capable of accelerating their sleek vessels from zero to 60 in seconds. The number of boats we used typically ranged from about 10 to 15. Each made as many trips as needed back and forth to the island until the off-load was completed and the load was stashed safely in someone’s house on the island. Picture it if you can: every room in a house stacked floor to ceiling with bales of pot.

Our load would be taken the next day across the causeway to Everglades City, where the road becomes the lone route out of town and meets US 41, the old Tamiami Trail, which stretches from Naples to Miami.

Or at least, that was the way it should have worked. This time it didn’t.

Based on what I heard over the radio from our spotters crouched in the bushes along the roadways, there was an unusually high number of sheriff’s deputies and what appeared to be unmarked police vehicles out across the causeway. With these guys roaming between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island, I was hesitant to bring our shipment to shore to the designated house. It wasn’t uncommon for the sheriff to pick a night to let us all know that he was still around. Every now and then the law of averages caught up with us and we unexpectedly clashed with the sheriff. We needed to lie low for a little while. But we couldn’t just leave the bales on our boats, waiting for the Coast Guard like sitting ducks. So together we decided to take them to a secluded spot among the islands known only to a few of us. We would stack the bales in large blocks, then try to transport them the next night. The spot I had in mind was about three miles south of Chokoloskee, hidden in a mangrove forest within the maze of the Ten Thousand Islands.

When I got there, accompanied by 20 of my crew, we waded into the forest. Unlike our pirate predecessors, who brought out their shovels to bury their booty, we began breaking down dead trees and branches. This needed to be done because there was no dry ground in the area. So, working together, we built eight platforms on which to rest the bales. We then formed a line from boat to platform and passed the bales man to man, stacking them about 50 to a platform. It was hard, physical work, complicated by the fact that each boat had to make two trips out and back. There we stood, many of us up to our waists in water and mud, being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Six hours later, with the sun about to rise, we’d finished. We were dead tired. I headed back to my home to get cleaned up, rested and prepared for the next night’s work in just a dozen hours.

All the suspect traffic the night before had me concerned. I concluded that we still couldn’t bring the bales to the stash house. It was too risky. My guys and I devised a new strategy. It was decided that we’d use pitpans, shallow-drafting watercraft similar to johnboats, about 16 feet long and seven feet wide. When loaded with bales, pitpans could float in as little as 12 inches of water. Boats of this type were especially useful at times like this because our new plan was to take the load up the Turner River, through the shallow backwaters of a mangrove forest. We would follow the river until we reached a spot where it flows under US 41, effectively bypassing Chokoloskee Island and Everglades City altogether. From there the bales would be packed into three big box trucks, then taken directly to Carlito and Leo in Miami. As agreed, I would keep a number of pieces in reserve to secure our payment. Those would be loaded into vans equipped with air bag suspension and taken 30 miles away to a close friend’s house in the Golden Gate Estates a few miles east of Naples.

So that night, in a fleet of more than a dozen pitpans, we went back into the forest to reclaim our booty. We re-formed our lines to each platform and passed our treasure once again from man to man, restacking the bales safely on the decks of our dry boats.

When that part was completed, we snaked our way through the backwaters to the mouth of the river. Along the way, one of our many spotters hiding out along the route broke radio silence.

“There’s a party of fishermen camping on Rabbit Key.”

Rabbit Key is one of the small outer islands that we had to go right by in order to get into the pass. Anyone there would have heard the unmistakable sound of a fleet of power boats passing in the middle of the night. We couldn’t afford to draw that kind of attention. These inconvenient campers left us with no choice: we’d have had to shut down our engines and paddle the boats, all 18 of them, single file past those fishermen.

We were fewer than 50 yards away as we drifted by them on the evening tide. Keep in mind that we were now trying to move 27,000 pounds of pot, without the help of engines, through a maze of islands without being seen or heard, in the blackness of night. We could hear the campers laughing and having a good time. We could see them in the light from their campfire.

That same campfire made it impossible for them to see us in the darkness. They never knew about the multi-million dollar flotilla passing by them, a stone’s throw away. An onshore breeze blew in our favor. It sent the smell of all that pot into the forest and not into the campers’ faces. Twenty-seven thousand pounds of pot gives off a very thick and powerful odor with the distinctive hint of burlap. It’s not like you’re carrying a dime bag in your pocket, if you know what I mean.

We made it past the jolly campers, then restarted our motors and continued the journey to the mouth of the Turner River. As we wound our way through the thick mangrove forest and at times pushed ourselves along with paddles, our caravan of boats was right on schedule. The water was very shallow in the upper part of the river near the highway. I had planned this expedition to coincide with high tide, so we were able to push our boats through.

It took seven hours to arrive, but all of the pitpans made it to the trucks parked near a span of US 41, where the loading immediately began. The first truck took about 40 minutes to fill and send off. The second truck took a little less time. We were finding our rhythm. The driver of the third and last truck backed into position, turned off his motor, and then jumped out to help. Approximately 20 minutes into loading that truck, a car pulled over at the end of the bridge that spans the river right next to where we were standing with the weed. My heart rate accelerated, and I think I might have even peed my pants a little—I’m not sure.

“Shit,” I said to Johnny. “Who the hell could that be?”

I had men stationed at 10-mile intervals all the way to Miami, spotting for law enforcement of any kind. They would have contacted me over the radio if a cop were headed our way. But this guy wasn’t driving anything marked. He had passed all my spotters only to stop right here next to us. We immediately stopped loading and prepared to haul ass out of there. This guy wasn’t alone either. When he opened his door to get out, I could see another passenger illuminated by the dome light. Seeing that it was a woman, I knew that this guy wasn’t a cop because there were basically no female officers in our neck of the woods in those days. Our truck was backed up to the river behind a few trees and bushes, and our boats were lined down the riverbank, and we were at least 30 yards from the bridge. So unless he could see in the dark and knew right where to look, he wouldn’t know we were there. Everyone just stayed quiet and alert, waiting for the guy’s next move.

He got out of his car and walked over to our side of the bridge. He looked up and down the road, then unzipped his fly and proceeded to take a piss over the guardrail. Of all the places along this fucking road through the Everglades to stop and take a leak, he picked this one, just a hearty piss stream away from a truckload of Colombian marijuana. He did his business, zipped up, then got back into his car, and just like that the couple drove off. We were no strangers to close calls, but still, we breathed easier once they were several miles down the road. It was my guess that they must have been visiting someone nearby or my guys surely would have spoken up. We then finished loading the truck. The hard part of the job was finally done. We had transported the load from Colombia to the Florida mainland. Now, all we had to do was drive the trucks to the other coast and get paid.

From Saltwater Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of a Marijuana Empire by Tim McBride with Ralph Berrier, Jr. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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