In his first book, former State staffer Jason Ryan has written an entertaining tale of drug smuggling along the S.C. coast in the 1980s. Think “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” meets the “Untouchables,” only with S.C. landmarks, reference points and names that ring bells, even today.
The characters in “Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting that Launched the War on Drugs,” for instance, graduated from Dentsville High School and attended USC or Newberry College or the College of Charleston. Their smuggling sites ranged from McClellanville — the state’s unofficial drug-smuggling capital — to docks in Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Plantation.
Instead of Butch and Sundance, Ryan gives the reader Barry “Flash” Foy, Les Riley and a sometimes bewildering cast of dozens more.
Like the roles reprised by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Foy and Riley and their mates are principled outlaws, “gentleman smugglers.”
They smuggled only marijuana — before graduating to hashish — because in that era when personal possession of grass was not even against the law in 11 states, it was a less serious crime in the eyes of some.
But they were principled.
The gentlemen avoided firearms, in the belief that — sensibly — it was difficult to establish trust and do business with someone who might shoot you. Or you might shoot. Someone could get hurt and that would be bad for business. Like the clerk in Butch Cassidy who too zealously sought to protect his boss’s money.
(OK, there is the one instance of the drug smuggling-sailboat with a rocket launcher, but that was a gift from grateful U.S. troops in Grenada, we’re told.)
It all starts off as something of a lark.
College kids making quick money by sailing to Jamaica to load up on inferior marijuana, then graduating to the trans-Caribbean adventure of more profitable Columbian dope and, however implausibly it seems, to convoys of yachts, sailing — adrenaline-inspired — to Lebanon to call a timeout in that country’s civil war and load up on hashish. Then, the smugglers limped — in leaking boats with busted masts — back across the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to drop anchor and rush ashore for some comfort food, and hope like heck the offloading wasn’t interrupted by the outmanned cops.
Whereas Butch Cassidy had B.J. Thomas singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” the soundtrack for the gentlemen smugglers was Jimmy Buffett, who makes a cameo appearance in Jackpot as the subject of a woman’s suggestion on the attributes of grapefruit juice that, unfortunately, is not suitable for a PG-Sunday morning audience.
The good times come to an end, as the book recounts in its Cassidy-like “who are those guys?” moment, when various federal law enforcement agencies, including the IRS, Customs, FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency form an multiagency task force to catch the smugglers.
A la “The Untouchables,” the good guys seldom are successful in busting an actual smuggling operation. So they launch Operation Jackpot to go for the next best thing, seizing the smugglers’ assets, including Hilton Head lots, a state representative’s car, a Charleston restaurant and, in one of the book’s more interesting tales, a prized sailboat.
The Kevin Costner role in the “Untouchables” goes to former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, then Ronald Reagan’s U.S. attorney for the state.
The McMaster portrayed is one that South Carolinians will recognize, almost 30 years later. He’s talkative, self-promoting, has a WASP-like affinity for dogs and is ambitious. Maybe he’ll be a congressman one day or president, he tells friends. (Or get his clock cleaned by Fritz Hollings in a U.S. Senate race — “I’ll take a drug test if you’ll take an IQ test,” Hollings retorted to McMaster, who had challenged the incumbent — and 20-plus years later finish third in the GOP primary for governor. But, hey, we were all young and naive once, and, ironically, bound for a seat on the State Ports Authority.)
Other players on the current scene appear in the book as well. Cam Currie, now a U.S. district judge, was a federal prosecutor for McMaster, for instance.
With Operation Jackpot, the feds’ pursuit, under way, Riley and an ally look for their Butch-and-Sundance-like Peru to hide out, but — “who are those guys?” — the inevitable day of reckoning comes. Riley is arrested in Australia and discovers the posse chasing him has been led by McMaster, who — South Carolina being small — he’s known since childhood.
Courtroom scenes ensue, featuring feds claiming the defendants smuggled almost a $1 billion of drugs into the country — ever notice that every drug bust is huge, according to law enforcement? — and the all-too-familiar inept drug lawyers with strange legal theories for the defendants.
At times, the cast of characters can be confusing. Even the smugglers who have turned state’s evidence can’t keep the names straight of their one-time partners in crime. Readers too will be tempted to keep a scorecard to keep the gentlemen straight. But there are some sparkling moments as well — including the escape of one kingpin from the Charleston County jail.
Still — “who are those guys?” — the pursuit never ends, until it does — in a California airport for one character, a Colorado ski resort for another and, for Barry Foy of Dentsville High and USC, getting off a plane in New York, wife and children in tow.
Ryan has told an interesting yarn.
Most impressively, he was able to get the surviving gentlemen smugglers to tell their side of the story, not just law enforcement officials.
There are momentary fits of hyperbole. For instance, Operation Jackpot did not launch the war on drugs, despite the book’s title. But Ryan cheerfully acknowledges in his text that virtually every president since Richard Nixon has launched a war on drugs.
What’s changed has been the loss of innocence and adventure. Gone are the gentlemen smugglers and their sailboats — the romantic heirs of the pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, the Confederate blockade runners and the Prohibition-era rum runners, all of whom knew the merits of the S.C. coast, tales Ryan also recounts.
The latest twist, as Ryan notes, in his closing chapter is the creeping legalization of dope via state-approved use of medical marijuana.
Jackpot’s one-unanswered question? Did the feds find all the gentlemen smugglers’ millions, some squirreled away in foreign banks that their drug-addled minds just may have forgot.
Or forgot to confess.
By STEVE BROOK
May 1, 2011