by Capt. Daniel A. Laliberte, U.S. Coast Guard retired
On the evening of March 8, 1973, Coast Guard cutter Dauntless made the Coast Guard’s first seizure of a marijuana smuggler when it stopped the sport fisherman Big L at the western edge of the Bahamas.
The case had begun two months earlier as a controlled-delivery operation of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, forerunner of today’s Drug Enforcement Administration. A BNDD agent known only as “Agent Cook,” from the Miami Field Office, had convinced the owner of the fishing vessel Adventurer III, Roy Warren, to accept an offer from a local drug dealer to pick up a load of marijuana for him in Jamaica. Two undercover agents posing as his crew would assist Warren, and the drugs and conspirators ashore would be seized upon Adventurer III’s return to Miami.
Unfortunately, the plan started to fall apart as soon as the load was picked up in Jamaica. The Miami dealer, Michael Parks, was light on cash and the Jamaicans decided that two of their own men would accompany the vessel to ensure delivery of the load and payment of the balance owed. Then, when Adventurer III was underway on the return trip, Parks told Warren that rather than returning directly to Miami, he was to transfer the load to him on board a second vessel near North Cat Cay, ten miles south of Bimini.
Realizing that the BNDD lacked the capability and jurisdiction to intercept the contact boat outside of U.S. waters, which extended only to 12 nautical miles, Agent Cook turned to the Coast Guard. With perhaps the broadest authority of any U.S. law enforcement entity, the Coast Guard’s maritime expertise was exactly what Agent Cook needed. The Service’s officers and petty officers may enforce all applicable American laws both in U.S. territorial waters and worldwide on the high seas.
Six agents met Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless at homeport in Miami Beach on the morning of March 8. The 210-foot medium-endurance cutter had just returned from two weeks of patrolling the Florida Strait, where it had been searching for Cuban refugees near Cay Sal, at the southwestern edge of the Bahamas. Under Commander Chuck Millradt, Dauntless’ crew of nine officers and 63 enlisted men had already rescued several hundred Cuban migrants in just two months. Although one of these cases involved recovery of several grenades and an automatic pistol, the boardings had been friendly with the Coast Guard viewed as a rescuer.
According to the pre-operation brief, this case might not prove so friendly. After taking on board the BNDD agents, the crew headed toward a sunset rendezvous with a Bahamian police boat southwest of the offload site. The police boat would linger out of sight in case the pick-up boat tried to escape into Bahamian territorial waters. The pick-up boat was now identified as the 38-foot sportsfisherman Big L, out of Miami.
Following the rendezvous, the Dauntless crew extinguished all navigation lights and steamed stealthily north. A short time later, Warren radioed that the marijuana had been offloaded, but the Big L had broken down. The Adventurer III had taken the smuggler in tow toward Miami.
Cmdr. Millradt took charge and ordered his crew to flank speed of 18 knots. When the cutter closed to 600 yards, Millradt simultaneously energized his navigation lights, illuminated both vessels with his 12-inch searchlights, and ordered the Adventurer III to heave to. He then sent one of his small boats with a boarding party led by Ens. Penn Shade to circle the Adventurer III and continue on to the Big L. As his boat drew near, Shade ordered the four persons on board the Big L to muster in the cockpit at the stern of the sportsfisherman. Shade thought he heard splashes on the far side of the boat, and hoped that it was the sound of weapons being tossed overboard.
Shade and Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Charlie Bozeman boarded at the bow of the boat, then worked their way aft on the narrow passages to either side of the main cabin, both smelling the strong, distinctive odor of marijuana. Looking through the cabin’s windows, Bozeman noticed bales lying in plain view.
Bozeman had learned to conduct hostile boardings four years earlier, while serving aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer in the waters off Vietnam. The Spencer had interdicted dozens of small vessels suspected of smuggling arms and ammunition from North Vietnam and detained 52 suspected Viet Cong personnel. It was this cadre of old hands like him who would ensure the safety of Coast Guard men and women until the service could develop doctrine and establish a program to train its personnel in law enforcement boarding tactics and procedures.
I smell marijuana and you’re all under arrest.-Ens. Penn Shade
When the two men reached the cockpit, Shade announced with more confidence than he felt: “I smell marijuana and you’re all under arrest.” BNDD agents were then ferried over to assist with handcuffing the prisoners and searching the boat. They found a total of 1,130 pounds of marijuana. The Adventurer III was released. Oddly, the absence of Michael Parks among those arrested went unnoticed by the BNDD agents on scene. Apparently, he had crossed from the Big L to the Adventurer III during the drug transfer and remained hidden there during the interdiction. He was not arrested until the next morning when Adventurer III moored in Miami.
After pleading “Nolo contendere” to a charge of conspiracy to import marijuana, all five smugglers were convicted in federal court. As the organizer and primary conspirator, Parks received a 3-year sentence and the rest received six to 12 months each. Over the next eight years, the Dauntless crew would continue to seize smuggling vessels carrying an aggregate of more than one million pounds of marijuana.
Today, 45 years later, the Dauntless is homeported in Pensacola, Fla. Since that first drug bust, smugglers’ preferred cargo has shifted to cocaine, a much more valuable per pound than marijuana, and their typical conveyance has become the “Go Fast” boat. However, the crewmembers of the Dauntless continue to successfully interdict smugglers in their patrol area of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific.
Editor’s note: A larger version of this essay titled “Smugglers’ Blues: The Coast Guard’s Debut in the War on Drugs,” previously appeared in Sea History Magazine.