November 29, 2014

High Times in Everglades City

The skeletons in the closets of this tiny Southwest Florida mangrove community don't rattle. They stare, then skulk away. There are certain subjects you just don't pry into while cruising around E-City, especially during the past few decades. Money, for example. It's nobody's business but the IRS; and those agents have been here, raked through the area with souped-up calculators, grabbed millions in ill-begotten gains, and gone. But people talk the talk. They say strongboxes of cash are buried in overgrown backyards in these parts. They say sacks of 1980s money are hidden on landless mangrove islands, thousands of hundred-dollar bills stuffed inside the steel belts of old tires roasting in the sun next to rusted hulls of once-proud shrimp and mullet boats. There are fortunes mixed within the flotsam, hidden by the jetsam, covered by barnacles and rumor. It's all done under the "radar," they say, secretly slipped from the slowly squandering sunken treasures of the sea's last pirates. That's what they say.

A young fisherman tosses a 25-pound red snapper on the sidewalk: "This baby was feeding in the channel a few hours ago." He begins carving out chunks of fresh snapper sushi. He offers and we indulge. There's a cooler filled with beer. "There's people all over this island who were smart enough to hide it and not touch it for years," he loosens up. He was a baby when the feds raided the island. "There are men who will wait 'til no one's looking-they'll starve three days until the coast is clear, and then just take out what they need and leave the rest alone. You think they're bums. They're richer than the folks in Palm Beach.

"Nothing fancy. Uh-uh. No gold chains and big black dooley pick-ups and 'Vettes like the old days. Just the basics: beer, cigarettes, three-square, gas, dog food, pot and walkin'-around money."

Staples a man needs to survive out here on the godforsaken edge of Florida. That's what they say.

"They" don't have names. You really don't want to be caught knowing "their" names unless you are one of them. They might hang out at night at the Chickee Bar, just west off S.R. 29 when you're just comin' into town, where Red the bartender might ask you directly: "You folks from around here?" just to see what you might say. Best answer: "We're Florida boys, down to do some fishin'." (Bad answer: "Hey, isn't this the place where the whole town got busted for drug smuggling back in 1983?")

"Be careful," Red'll say. "People can get lost out there."

"Out there" is what this story is all about. Beyond Red's waving freckly arm is one of the most confusing places on this planet. The Ten Thousand Islands-2,000 square miles of shallow waters, identical-looking mangrove islands, clam beds, channels, bays, oyster bars, swamp forests and salty creeks, one of the most extensive mangrove estuaries in the world.

Covering the coastline from Cape Romano off Marco Island to just north of Cape Sable on Florida's tip, this mirrored hologram of green-blue reflections has been carefully manicured by God to confound and confuse mortal maritime men. By boat, every turn looks the same. Perfect mangrove islands surrounded by sparkly murky waters. Around every bend, the same postcard scene opens up. As far as the eye can see. And where the coast seems somehow clear, treacherous Gulf passes, full of shallow flats and collapsed limestone ridges, await.

Red is right. It is not hard to get lost, dehydrated, dead, picked apart by vultures, and added to the skeleton collection out here. The Ten Thousand Islands are the main reason this is called the Last Frontier. Compass, binoculars, sextant, map-none of that will really help you get from point A (land) to point B (open water).

You've got to have a local. A guide. Someone who understands what the tiny piece of red fabric tied to the black mangrove means. Someone who knows when the other locals have turned the channel markers or switched the canoe trail signs. Someone who can feel his way out of lost by instinct. And, of course, the local proliferation of such skills is what lured the trouble here in the first place.

What they call everglades city is really a state of mind within a geographical area on the wild backside of Collier County. Everglades City shares common history, fishing village characteristics and negative attitudes toward government intervention with brother Chokoloskee, seven miles to the south, and sister Good-land, about the same distance, as the crow flies over open water, to the west. Public parks and wildlife refuges take up most of the rest of the acreage in these parts. This is the remote western edge of Everglades National Park, a fresh-water drain-spout for the Big Cypress National Preserve, a paradise for sportsmen and smugglers alike.

Squatted by non-Indians for the first time in the latter part of the 19th century, these little towns first made the map in the early 1920s, when the Tamiami Trail was being built. Land baron Barron Collier, looking for a spot to house Trail builders, actually created the Everglades City one sees today. He purchased most of the land in 1923; and within five years, the sleepy trading post/fishing settlement/farming community was a bustling industrial-based company town. There were roads, a railroad, a bank, a telephone, sawmills, a boatyard, churches, a school, workers' barracks, mess halls and even a bona-fide Northern pantywaist streetcar. Seafood-especially stone crabs, mullet, snook and redfish-gained a world reputation.

To make it out here, you had to know how to fish, to use a gun, to barter, to deal with unsavory characters and hurricanes-and you had to know how to navigate those goddamn islands. Over the years, the town's resident profile morphed into a staunch, enigmatic swamp-Cracker persona. And as the government kept intervening in the way they made their living, some say decent folk either turned bad or they got out of town. The late Joe Lord, who ran the Monroe Station travel oasis a few miles east on the Trail, put it this way back in '84: "These people aren't criminals. They just act that way. This criminal activity is just a protest against the government. Uncle Sam has stomped on every schoolteacher, fisherman, librarian and Little League player in these parts. You take a nice-natured, refined housecat and throw it outside, after a while it'll climb in your dumpster. It'll steal your food."

They'll tell you the longtime trade in plumes, furs and gator hides was stopped. Panther and bear trapping were curtailed. Thousands of acres of land and water were declared off-limits to the locals. "And every time you turned around, they were passing a new law against the fisherman," says old man McMillan, a Viking who came down here from Minnesota half a century ago. "You can't fish for this one anymore. You can't fish for that one. You can't use your nets. You can only catch two. You can't go out when they're biting. They take away our livelihood. What do they expect?"

Prohibition, however, had taught Everglades City locals about another way: Bringing booze into the mainland-through the island maze, then along the back roads, in the dark of night-kept a good part of Florida supplied with Cuban rum and homemade 'shine in the 1920s and '30s. The revenuers couldn't follow or find anything in the unforgiving landscape. Nobody was hurt, the money was good and everyone went to church on Sunday. From then on, illicit activity became a tolerated part of the social fabric of the last frontier.

The KKK gathered in the woods. Poachers were everywhere, looking for gator, orchid, snook. The paramilitary had snuck around here to train on their way to Nicaragua. The authorities, headquartered faraway in county seat Naples, were powerless to apprehend daredevil locals in their go-fast boats, and probably didn't care much, anyway. The ranks of the local cops were infiltrated with lookouts and look-the-other-ways. It was only a matter of time-the late '70s, around the time the new Endangered Species Act began flexing muscle and word went out that Everglades National Park waters would be closed to commercial fishing-before the drug smuggling would begin.

It was a natural sequence of events. it worked like this. A marijuana importer, usually from Miami or Colombia, would contact someone in Everglades City with information about an airdrop or a pot-loaded "mother ship" waiting out in the Gulf. Rendezvous points, radio frequencies, times and signals were all provided. From the shore, nothing seemed unusual about E-City boats going out at all times of day or night. That was the fishing business. The bales of marijuana were eventually loaded into trucks, stored in warehouses and sheds-even the trunks of cars-until driven to distribution points north. When the mother ship was really full, some went out and back several times in a single night. A hardworking man could make $50,000 from dusk to dawn bringing dope through lower Florida's Gulfshore fringe.

The good ol' boys got sophisticated and began using marine radio frequencies to track patrolling rangers. The place began to change. Gold chains, sports cars, second stories on doublewides, even swimming pools began to appear. There were rumors of chandeliers hanging over worktables, sunken tubs in bedrooms, murals in the bathrooms. Hundred-dollar bills and a wink paid for coffee. All of this going on, night after night, in a town where crime was practically nil and folks bragged about leaving their car and front doors open. Said Everglades Echo editor Rusty Rupsis in a Miami Herald story in 1983: "The signs may have been there, but we may have been too close to see them. The smugglers aren't stealing from you; they're nice people. They don't give you any trouble. You can live next door to most of them and never know the difference."

But Naples Sheriff Aubrey Rogers believed something bad was happening. Bar fights were up in town. There had been an actual Miami-style pistol-whipping. When he suspected some of his own officers might be involved, he begged the DEA for help. It was perfect timing. Illicit trade in drugs had just been estimated as a $10 billion (untaxed) take in Florida-making it suddenly the state's largest industry. The early '80s saw hundreds of additional federal agents added to the DEA's South Florida "War on Drugs" Task Force, and Southwest Florida's peaceful fishing havens appeared on the government radar.

Just as Nancy Reagan was standing before a White House mirror practicing, "Just say no," Operation Everglades was born. The FBI, DEA, IRS, ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), U.S. Marshals, U.S. Customs agents, Department of Defense and Coast Guard set off for little ol' Everglades City to "disrupt the marijuana smuggling routes from South America and the Caribbean to the U.S.," said a post-operation DEA press release.

It took the better part of two years infiltrating a four-page-phone-book town where everyone seemed related. Government posers rolled into town, smoked dope with the locals, helped unload bales, smiled when guns were put to their heads and gained acceptance. The scheme worked. So deep was the penetration of the Everglades City smuggling rings that the DEA began to get advance information regarding the big mother ships offshore. In this way, 39 big boats were grabbed on the open sea, then quietly towed hundreds of miles away from the E-City fishermen's gaze.

"Routine Coast Guard patrol," proclaimed newspaper accounts of the heists.

The big bust began at 5:17 a.m. thursday July 8, 1983, when a convoy of police cars stealth-rolled into town and erected a roadblock across S.R. 29-the only road in and out of Everglades City. By the time the sun came up, more than 200 multi-jurisdictional lawmen, including ominous, full-scale, black-suited SWAT teams, were combing the island, storming into coffee shops, running through back yards, knocking on doors and boarding to search every single maritime vessel on the two islands. In Goodland, Naples and other parts of Collier County, doors were knocked on-and vessels searched-at the same time.

"I remember our neighbor left in his truck to get coffee that morning and never came back," says Betty Campbell, who runs the Everglades City Historical Museum. "I thought that was strange."

The DEA played rough that morning, wearing bulletproof vests, fully expecting Miami-type criminals and violence. "There weren't any Colombians out here. There weren't any gangs. Those guys wouldn't come near this place. We would have kicked their nasty asses right back out of town," remembers one smuggler historian. "Those boys stayed out at sea. They weren't welcome in town. The DEA should have known that."

Despite the storm-trooper tactics, it was a peaceful raid. Several smugglers, most of them white-booted crabbers preparing to go fishing, reportedly shook the hands of their captors. (Later, law enforcement agents would attend good-bye pig roasts thrown by smugglers on the eve of their departures for federal prison camp.)

Twelve were arrested right in Everglades City, including two former police officers and a guy with an arsenal of 15 handguns, a rifle and a MAC-11 submachine-gun. (His bond was later set at $4 million by a Miami federal magistrate.) On the surface, they were good local citizens-many, just the week before, had joined a community effort demanding the banning of beer at the city's annual February Seafood Festival.

Sixteen were arrested in Goodland, Naples and elsewhere; and they were still looking for 13 more (including former Florida Supreme Court Justice David L. McCain and Naples bail bondsman Andy Petz) by nightfall. The way the press reported the raid, in dispatches sent around the world, one would've thought every male adult in Everglades City had been taken down. In fact, one woman said just that in a Miami Herald story co-written by Carl Hiaasen: "'They've arrested all the men,' said a bartender in her 20s who was wearing a T-shirt with 'Florida's Finest Seafood' emblazoned over a bale of pot. 'It's going to be a town of women.'"

When the dust had cleared 11 months later, however, Operation Everglades had nabbed 14 boats (nearly the entire Southwest Florida stone crab fleet), two small planes and a whole bunch of cars and trucks, not to mention more than $5 million in property and personal assets. About 200 people (100 from the E-City area alone) were brought up on various federal charges. Not a bad haul from the Ten Thousand Islands gang, but not near the numbers the DEA had put up in 1981 for its three-state Operation Grouper ($1 billion in illegal drugs, $12 million in assets and 30 boats) or in 1982 for Operation Tiburon (495 arrests, 95 vessels and 6.4-million pounds of marijuana).

But the Everglades City story was more compelling than the Dadeland Massacre or a bust of Colombian nationals at sea. These were pure everyday working-class American patriots, net fishermen and crabbers, charter boat captains and guides, hunters and gatherers, struggling to make a subsistence living, lured into crime by the promise of wealth. The story was reported for weeks: A proud town gone rotten.and busted.

Hardest hit was smuggler/raconteur Totch Brown, who eventually 'fessed up to his midnight deeds, pled guilty to income tax evasion and was forced to write checks totaling more than $2 million to police and IRS agents. Never hit was former Justice McCain, who was accused of helping smugglers purchase a shrimp boat and making arrangements with the E-City bunch to bring 30,000 pounds of marijuana into Florida. The disbarred McCain somehow evaded the sting that morning and survived on the lam until his body was dropped off at a Jacksonville funeral home three years later.

But, as "they" say, a few got away. The smart ones paid attention to the federal indictments in Miami and kept their ears to the ground. The cash was buried. That's what they say.

Two decades later, the big bust is largely forgotten. It's not even listed among the proud campaigns on the DEA Web site. The "I Survived Operation Everglades" T-shirts and ballcaps worn proudly by locals for many years have all but disappeared. "We really don't mention anything about it in here," says Campbell, the museum curator. "Yes, it is history. It did happen. But it's not really something the town is proud about. You know what I mean?"

All the locals who served federal time thanks to Operation Everglades are back on the street now, most still trying to make a living in the Everglades City area. The old smugglers are treated with the same cautious respect as folks everywhere treat old Vietnam vets in their leather biker jackets and tattoos. Not long before his death last year, admitted smuggler Brown rode waving through town as the grand marshal of the Seafood Festival parade. Heroes come in many forms, including good ol' boys gone bad.

Today, the Ten Thousand Islands area is better known as an ecotourist destination. Outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world come to enjoy the best Florida has to offer, from shallow-water sport fishing in the tidal flats to back-country camping. One can rent powerboats, canoes, kayaks and airboats. Guides, advice, charts and equipment rentals are easily found in the area. Even bird watching is superb year-round, rivaling Everglades National Park in the wintertime. There's an alligator farm, a circa-1910 trading post, quaint bed and breakfasts, topflight seafood restaurants, swamp buggy rides-one can even fly over the backcountry in a small airplane. Manatees, bald eagles, roseate spoonbills, even the occasional Florida panther are sighted with regularity.

Florida's rising tsunami of land values, which recently hit the Everglades City area, probably signifies the true end of the area's outlaw character. It won't be long. Old-time locals in mobile homes are now seeing their 150- by 80-foot dead-grass lots going for $200,000-a far superior chunk of cash to the smuggler's risky take. In fact, it's hard to buy a house in these parts now for less than $300,000, according to a recent article in the Naples Daily News.

Many E-City workers are forced to live in impoverished communities like Copeland and commute to work. Newcomers weren't raised on frog legs, don't own guns and would rather look at than sail through the Ten Thousand Islands.

Oh, one more thing. This from the Sept. 28, 2004, Miami Herald, page 5B: "A pilot who rented a twin-engine plane claiming he was headed to the Bahamas on a church mission was arrested Monday in Southwest Florida after allegedly trying to smuggle five Haitian nationals into the United States. Daniel Johnson, 51, of Trenton, N.J., was arrested by U.S. immigration authorities at the Everglades City Airpark in Southwest Florida after authorities were alerted about the aircraft, said Zachary Mann, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs."

Smuggling aliens? An isolated incident? Somebody knows. Nobody cares.

Peter B. Gallagher wrote "The Rise and Fall of Chief James Billie" in the October 2004 issue of Gulfshore Life.