Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend?

Fifteen years ago Johnny Oceans disappeared off the coast of East Africa. His body was never recovered. Accident or conspiracy? Why did it take so long for the courts to declare him dead? A champion sport fisherman, keen diver, smuggler, and casino impresario, he had many friends and a few enemies. Investigating Ocean’s hidden story, Hew van Grit spent a year on two continents following the enigmatic trail of a man who led more than a double life. 

By Hew van Grit

n 1998, while scuba diving in Kenya, casino manager Johnny Oceans vanished off the face of the Earth. In a manhunt costing more than two million dollars, deploying four helicopters, six planes, and a fleet of boats, and lasting six months, the FBI and Kenyan coast guard searched the entire coastal region of Kenya.

In the end, Oceans status - alive or dead - was never confirmed. His location and fate remain unknown.

Seven years later, in September 2005, the Devini family took legal action to have Oceans declared dead, presenting petitions, good-faith evidence and affidavits that he could not be located. The judicial proceedings at Miami-Dade County were conducted sub rosa. In the end the court refused to issue a death certificate.

Only last year did the court finally declare ‘death in absentia’ for Mr Oceans. Fifteen years seems an awful long time to wait. In Miami people disappear all the time. At sea it’s even more common. Usually, after seven years, the law assumes a missing person has died. Why then did the courts refuse to assent the death Johnny Oceans?

Transcripts reveal nothing. All sensitive material has been censored with a large black felt tip pen. Still, Miami-Dade must have seen convincing evidence that Oceans was still alive.

octors only issue death certificates for dead bodies,” says Chris Devini, smoking a vapor cigarette. “If they can’t find your body, you’re not legally dead, that is until a court says you are. It’s a loophole the mob’s been taking advantage of for years.” Although Miami born and bred, he speaks in the Brooklyn lexicon, with dental D’s and T’s.

It’s 9 p.m. and we’re in the Bleau Bar, the centerpiece of the Fontainebleau hotel’s recent one billion dollar renovation. Outside the South Floridian humidity hangs heavy like bad blood in the air, inside it’s polar. The floor glows ultramarine. 

Devini’s wearing a turquoise Hawaiian rayon shirt several sizes too large, cream silk pants, and tan Gucci loafers. Bronzed, well built, and of medium height, with short-cropped curly black hair and just a few flecks of grey around the ears, he displays a cultivated charm, polished by years of welcoming big spenders into his casino.

I order another drink, an NFL margarita (no fucking lime). Like a witchdoctor the bartender prepares the ingredients, infusing the air with lime juice and latin spirits. A tower of bottles rises above him, four glass tiers wrapped around a wide circular pillar lighted by rose coloured spotlights and pink backlighting: post-modern drug money chic. 

Adding to the flavour of fun and danger, voodoo music plays over a high-end stereo: syncopated timbales, cowbells, and an acid jazz horn section. Celia Cruz, the great Cuban diva is singing, “Quimbara, quimbara, quimba-quimba-ra.”  It’s not Spanish, but an African incantation to the Orixas. 

I get straight to the point, “When Miami-Dade finally issued a death certificate for your cousin, why did you tweet, ‘Johnny Oceans is always with you’?” 

“Seemed like a good thing to say at the time,” says Chris.

I smile and nod slowly while sipping my cocktail. “A strange choice of words though, don’t you think? Convention would have you say ‘Johnny Oceans is always with us.’ But the way you put it made it sound more threatening.”

“What difference does it make?” he laughs with unsmiling eyes. “Johnny’s with me, Johnny’s with you. What happens in Miami, never happened.” 

lorida’s foremost gaming tycoon is not giving anything away. Toying with a fortune in jewellery draped around his wrists and neck, he sidesteps all my questions about Johnny Oceans, regailing me instead with fishing tales and casino stories from the four corners of the Earth.

Finally, after his fourth blueberry mojito, he offers a brief glimpse into his cousin’s backstory. “For a couple of years Johnny piloted go-fast boats for the Black Tuna gang, who actually ran their operations from a suite in this hotel. Can you believe that?

“After that he was mostly involved in inconspicuous import/export - all along the Florida coast. Strictly marijuana, though, he never got involved in cocaine smuggling.”

“Tell me what happened in 1987,” I ask, slowly placing my drink on the bar. “Just before Johnny was due to testify in front of a grand jury he disappeared, only to turn up five years later managing one of your family’s casinos in Kenya. What’s the story there?”

“The DEA had a mountain of evidence against him, but my family called in a few favours, and in the end nothing stuck. After that Johnny went off to learn the business for a while.”

“Favours? In return for what?”

“Bay of Pigs. The Kennedy’s. You name it…”

“Tell me about your family.”

“Like you don’t know…” he laughs, playfully boxing my shoulder. “OK, for your readers. Dino Devini started out in Steubenville, Ohio in the 1920’s during Prohibition, in Rex’s Cigar Store. Like every other cigar store in town, Rex’s was a front for mob rackets: numbers, illegal drinking, bookmaking, craps games, the whole ball of wax. Uncle Dino was like a magician the way he could palm cards and switch dice. That’s how he became the youngest bust-out man in Steubenville.

“From these humble beginnings, he went on to run the Riviera Casino and Tropicana Club in Havana for Meyer Lansky and the others. But in ’59, after the Revolution, Fidel Castro closed down all the casinos in Cuba and the family was forced to leave the country. We moved around for a while, finally ending up in Africa.

“Anyway, in 1961 when the US government needed his help, Uncle Dino played his part as a good American citizen and worked for the CIA on Operation Mongoose. They were meant to assassinate Castro. Well, we all know how that ended,” he sneers. “Still, you scratch my back, I scratch yours, badda bing badda boom, when the time came they dropped all charges against my cousin Johnny.” He takes a swig of his drink, eyeing me, never dropping his glare, then asks, “Did I tell you Marty and Bobby are making a movie about the family?” 

“You did,” I reply smiling. “By any chance does the screenplay include Johnny’s story?”

“Why you so fucking interested in Johnny?” he snaps slamming down his drink. "Listen, my cousin’s dead. End of story. Capice?”

“But until last year Miami-Dade County thought otherwise. Why’s that?”

“Who gives a fuck? Seriously. You’re asking too many questions about the dead. Johnny who, Johnny where… Let sleeping dogs lie. ”

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend? Part II

"Mickey was hard to miss. He was over six feet tall, with a thick head of blond hair. Some people called him Red because of his hair color, but it looked yellow to me." 
Jon Roberts, American Desperado

areers in the drug trade are thrilling but brief and usually end in prison or the grave. But at 68, Mickey Munday is in top physical condition. "Stay in shape, don't drink, smoke or do any drugs," he chides, "and have the gift of the gab to talk about anything." 

We're at Opa-locka Executive Airport in a nondescript hangar, standing next to a small all-black helicopter (make and N number omitted at his request). It's suitable surroundings for a smuggler who out-foxed the law for years with souped-up hardware. 

"I'm the only one alive from those days," he says with a glint in his eye. His complexion is ruddy from a life in the sun. He's wearing a black silver-studded stetson, capping two feet of crimped blond hair, and towering over me. 

With calm Southern cadence, as though recalling childhood memories, he describes one nail-biting tale after another. A native Floridian, Munday’s boy-next-door image served him well. He was able to get close the 'Competition' as he calls them - the various agencies policing US borders - without raising suspicion.

He does not credit his one-time associate, New York mobster Jon Roberts, with the same subtlety. "Jon's car was a Mercedes 560 limited edition four-seater. There were only three in the country at that time. It might as well have had a sign on it that said 'coke dealer'."

Working for the Medellin Cartel in Colombia, in the space of just eight years Munday and Roberts smuggled more than two billion dollars worth of cocaine into the United States. Their exploits are the subject of Cocaine Cowboys, a 2006 documentary film directed by Billy Corben, and American Desperado a book written by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright.

Paramount Pictures is scheduled to start filming 'American Desperado' next year. Peter Berg will direct and Mark Wahlberg will star. But who'll play Mickey Munday? 

"I was a paid consultant on the movie but the screenwriter never even met me," he says with down-home incredulity. "If they make the movie, except for dates and names, it will be fiction. Sad. Jon was a thug. He was good at what he did but he was not a smuggler. I told Paramount this a hundred times but they still bought Jon's shit."

hat about Johnny Oceans?" I ask. "Was he a smuggler? I've listened to your Tall Tales CD a couple of times but you never mention him. I know he drove go-fast boats for the Black Tuna Gang, until they got caught in 1978. What then? Did he work for you?"

"I would never take on someone after they'd worked for someone else," he replies with a straight face. "I liked virgins. I could do business with others but I never worked with them. They'd steal my ideas. I didn't tell people about how I did things because I didn't want them doing what I was doing.

"I had my own boats, as in my own boat factory. Like the one I talked about in Cocaine Cowboys that I used to tow the coast guard - my little 23 footer they rode in while we towed their broken boat, never knowing 380 kilos of cocaine was stashed below the deck." He laughs then shakes his head. "God forbid someone else used a tow truck to move drugs. Ever see a cop stop a tow truck?"

"But by all accounts," I say, shifting my stance, "Oceans was the best damn boat pilot in South Florida and a champion big game fisherman. Are you saying your paths never crossed?"

"We were all connected to the boat business in one way or another. Fishing was certainly a good cover for smuggling. A small Bertram 31 with a, I think it's 10 foot 6 inch beam was a great low profile big game fish boat. I liked the 46 sport fish the best. Rough water, big seas meant nothing to it!"

"You’re being elusive. Did you or did you not know him?"

Munday frowns, bemused by my persistent line of questioning. He nods slowly, looks into the distance with a problem-solving squint, lasers shaping 3-D strategies out of thin air, then leans closer to me and says, "John and his ghost boats are a myth." 

The statement just hovers in the air. After a moment, he cracks a smile, lighting up his shiny pink face. "Let me tell you what I do know. You see back then I used to record all the government radios, public and secret. One time in 1986 the Competition were chasing a go-fast boat across Biscayne Bay, a Midnight Express. 

"Midnights were the smuggling boat at that time, until the owner got caught laundering drug money and struck a deal with the DEA to start making boats for them. On this particular morning, three Metro Wellcraft Scarab boats and a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter were in hot pursuit of a 37' Midnight, trying to cut him off before Haulover Cut. 

"He was doing more than 60 miles per hour, but the weather was closing in. Midnight's aren't so fast on rough seas. They had him in their sights and the chopper was already on top of him. I could from hear from the tone of their voices, the Competition figured they had this guy. Suddenly the chopper pilot yells, 'Where the hell did he go?'

Mickey's eyes narrow. "Just like that the Midnight had vanished. No explanation...It sure had me baffled, so I asked around the people I did business with, and this one guy tells me, 'Sounds like one of Johnny Oceans' ghost boats.'"

welve miles north of Opa-loka, in Hollywood, Harris Glaser vice president of Midnight Express powerboats is showing off the company's new 39-footer, with the first ever triple set of 557 horsepower engines. We're standing in the parking lot next a flatbed loaded with two 39s, their markings obscured. “The rough water capabilities and handling of this hull makes it the vessel of choice for US Homeland Security and other governments," boasts Harris. "It is the fastest law enforcement boat in the world.”

"Used to be the one they chased," I laugh. "How did your powerboats go from being the choice of smugglers to standard-government issue?"

"Google it," smiles Harris. "It's an old story."

"I gather Johnny Oceans was one of your best customers back then."

"Yeah, in the mid 1980's he bought a fleet of 37-foot Midnights, each with four 225 horsepower Mercury outboard engines. An open 37 with four motors could run over 60 miles per hour with a load."


"Not my area," he retorts. "And way before my time. But the 37's he ordered all had very distinct hull specifications."

"Like what?" 

"Distinct. Let's just leave it at that. What I can tell you is that in 2008, ten years after Johnny vanished, we received an order that was identical in specs."

"Really? Who placed the order?"

"You can't expect me to tell you that, Hew," chuckles Harris shaking his head. "Midnight Express wouldn't be in business for very long if it revealed that sort of information to investigative journalists, now would it?" 

Palm leaves thrash in the wind. Storm clouds are gathering. It never gets below freezing in South Florida, but the tempests can be furious and bubble up out of nowhere. Harris takes the sudden change in the weather as his cue to end our interview.

"Just answer me this," I ask, beeping open my car lock. "Where did you ship it?"

"Truth is, I don't even know."

riving back to Miami in the thunderstorm along I95, I look into my rear-view mirror and see a state trooper flashing his lights. I pull over onto the safety edge. “Sorry officer, did I cause a violation? I was barely doing 50.”

“Hew van Grit?”

“Yes sir.”

“A word of advice, son: get the hell out of Florida before your card gets pulled.”

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend? Part III

“Best of luck and give my regards to Johnny Oceans.” 
- Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill and American Desperado

ensing a change of scenery might be good for my health, I flew to Malindi, Kenya, where Johnny was last seen alive. Considering they're more than 8,000 miles apart, the Swahili Coast has much more in common with South Florida than one would expect: sun, fun, billfish, Hemingway, smugglers, pirates. And the place is crawling with criminals.

During my first week on the Coast, no one in the Devini family or their employ would even talk to me. They refused to allow me near their casino. Bobby Devini was locked away in his heavily-guarded mansion, as out of reach as if I’d never left Miami.

I checked into Driftwood, a laid-back beach hotel with a restaurant bar area that has enormous wooden rafters holding up several tons of thatch. No matter how hot the day an offshore breeze always blows through Driftwood. A couple of times I saw Bobby’s daughter Daniela in the hotel, yet she always managed to dodge my attempts at blindsiding her. Nice looking broad.

Instead I befriended Al, a regular at the bar who knew Johnny well. With a voice eroded by decades of hard liquor and smoke, eyes that widened and narrowed as he spoke, and a thin layer of grey stubble covering his tawny jowls and pate, he was every bit a pirate.

When starting to recall an Oceans anecdote, he would first cough, wheeze then clear his throat a few times. ”I think it was 1995,” he rasps. “I was invited treasure hunting on the Horn.”

“The Horn?” I ask.

“The Horn of Africa. Johnny’s grandfather fought in Somalia during World War II (then Italian East Africa), and discovered treasure on the Horn. Johnny claimed the old man then buried it somewhere in the Sanaag, but was killed before he could say where. I went up this one time to help him look for it. We had a riot, larking about in a Land Cruiser in the desert, looking for something, not quite sure what...”

“Where, in Somalia?”

“Puntland, to be precise. Fucking fabulous place. Buried treasure aside, Johnny knew his way around. It helped that the locals spoke some Italian.”

“So, apart from big game fishing, scuba diving, and gambling, he was also a treasure hunter.”

“For a fucking lark, mate,” says Al, laughing then coughing uncontrollably. “I don’t think he ever truly believed there was anything out there. Johnny was a prankster.”

He leans in closer, so I’m well within range of several notes of beer and whisky on his breath. “There’s someone you should get to know,” he mutters, while repeatedly tapping the side of his nose. “I can arrange it.”

s I drive up the sandy forested track, connecting the road to the water’s edge, the remoteness of our rendezvous makes me wonder if this is the one that’s going to pull my card. Known only as ‘El Kabong,’ he was Oceans’ childhood friend in Miami, and worked alongside him as a smuggler.

Tucked back from the shore, overlooking a coral cove, his house is like the setting for a Bond movie, a true villain’s hideout. Except for a large second-storey bedroom with adjoining terrace, the rest of the building is single storied, engulfed by palm trees and tropical plants. I park my car and wander up a path that leads from the gate to the door.

One by one, from a large overhanging tree with thick wandering branches, a troop of monkeys descends onto the roof and begins foraging for windfall on the terra-cotta shingles.

I’m greeted at the door by a wiry little man in shorts and sandals. He introduces himself as Walter then invites me in. As he leads me down a hallway, I noticed that one of the bedrooms is fitted with a reinforced steel door riddled by what looks like three bullet holes.

Walter shows me into a vast living room dining room area. “Make yourself comfortable.” It's a roomy pad, sparsely decorated with dark, antique wooden tables and chairs, a sideboard, a four-poster day-bed draped in Swahili fabric, and a ten-seater L-shaped settee - ideal for lounging on long days just watching the Indian Ocean. 

“Uh… is your boss around?” I ask, picking up a magazine from a stack on the coffee table: last month’s edition of Robb Report. El Kabong has expensive tastes.

“Bwana is upstairs. He will be down shortly. May I bring you some tea or coffee?”

“Coffee would be great,” I say, dropping the magazine, “decaf, lots of cream and sugar.”

The outside walls of the villa are made up of floor-to-ceiling folding doors that extend and contract between corner pillars. They’re all open now, offering a spectacular view of the ocean, and allowing the fragrance of seaweed, salt water, and frangipani to waft through.

It’s high tide. The sun is shining brightly. The ocean, aquamarine in the distance and mottled green over the reef, is calm but breezy. Half way between the shore and the eastern horizon six dhows are sailing northward, their progress marked by two arched palms in the foreground. They’re moving fast, helped on by an afternoon westerly.

I’m absorbed in the music of waves and wind through palm fronds and pine needles, when I hear monkeys jumping from the rooftop. They’ve come down to wander the grounds, looking for scattered fruit between sand dunes planted with ferns and flowering trees.

ollowing in their footsteps, the man himself. “Hew!” he cries, vigorously shaking my hand while beaming from ear to ear. “Great to meet you. Al says you’re an alright guy.”

In his mid-fifties, trim, square-jawed and tanned, with a greying buzz-cut and piercing blue eyes, he resembles the actor Paul Newman, only taller and more menacing. He’s wearing blue flip-flops, a white Grateful Dead t-shirt, and Columbia PFG fishing shorts with pockets everywhere.

Straight off, he tells me his real name, but insists for the purposes of this article that I refer to him only as ‘El Kabong.’ I ask my questions, and he looks asquint at me, making every effort to suppress a grin. 

Walter arrives with a small Moka pot, a stove-top aluminum coffee maker, no sugar no cream. The coffee’s so strong, I can stand a spoon up in it. After one sip I’m buzzing.

I enquire about the steel door. “Yeah, all my visitors ask about that,” he laughs. “It’s not what it looks like. The door was there when I bought the house, and the holes, well lets just say, hell hath no fury like a woman in stilettos.” He straightens his posture and clasps his hands. “So whadya want to know about Johnny?”

“You’re the one who knew him best,” I say, turning on my digital recorder.

He takes a sip of coffee, then makes a face like Bobby De Niro playing a gangster clown. “First of all, his name’s not Johnny Oceans. That’s just one of his aliases. To be perfectly honest with you, no one knows his real name. Even as a kid, he used the alias Baba Looey.”

uring the course of my year-long investigation into Johnny Oceans, I’ve read tens of thousands of pages of transcripts, travelled as many miles, and interviewed dozens of people. No-one was as forthcoming as El Kabong.

At his swish, sea-side villa on the Swahili Coast, relaxing in the shade beside an olympic-sized salt-water swimming pool, we spent the entire afternoon talking about Johnny. He told me what it was like growing up with him in North Miami Beach, how they all wanted to be like Dan Aronow and race Cigarette boats for a living.

He painted quite a flattering picture of Oceans, describing his larger-than-life personality, passions for bill-fishing, diving and weed, and his outstanding smuggling skills. But he was unable to shed any more light on Johnny’s ghost boats (“Like Mickey Munday said, it’s a myth”) and claimed to know nothing about his disappearance in 1998, though he saw him regularly up until the end.

From his fidgety body language, anxious hesitations, and derailment of thoughts, I know there are things he’s still concealing, sub rosa events from his past that bore no witnesses, very dark things I sensed perhaps he felt it was time he offloaded.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend? Part IV

he next morning he takes me out on Albatross, a 33-foot Black Fin Express fishing boat with twin 280 horse power inboard diesel engines. I’m not in the best of shape for our pre-dawn departure, having spent the night dreaming El Kabong was a hit man hired to whack me but somehow I’d pulled a first-show-him-a-good-time-on-the-coast card.

Once we're away from shore, I soon learn his conviviality, and the source of his handle are largely down to his fondness for smoking one bong-full of weed after another. “Ever see the cartoon El Kabong, Quick Draw McGraw’s alter ego, wears a mask, carries a guitar that he beats villains on the head with - Ka-Bong!?”

Every so often he offers me a hit, insisting it’ll cure my sea sickness. Each time I refuse, which seems to annoy him. He puts on Bob Marley “Satisfy My Soul,” and as if on cue, one of a spread of six lines trailing from the stern starts zipping off its reel. In no time El Kabong has caught a 25-kilo tuna. 

Our skipper, a swarthy white Kenyan, skillfully steers Albatross over the swells toward the bigger game. The fish are jumping. There’s blood everywhere as El Kabong clubs his third Yellow-fin on the head. “You can’t be a tuna murdra,” he says, in a Jamaican accent, “without getting blood on the deck, mon.” But despite my repeated appeals, he refuses to allow me to take pictures.

Another strike. This time I have a go. It’s one hell of a challenge on two legs. Soon I’m in the fighting seat, rocking and reeling with a massive fish on the end of my line. After an exhausting 45-minute struggle, during which I’ve been hurtled all kinds of abuse by El Kabong and the skipper, I accidentally let my line rub against the hull, and it snaps.

“What the fuck’s wrong witju, Hew?” screams Kabong. He’s standing behind me, steaming like a Manhattan manhole in winter. “It’s only a fish,” I say calmly. Out of nowhere he whips out a .38 snub-nose and shoves it in my face. “Only a fish?” he spits. “Only a fish?” There’s profound evil in his voice. My heart stops. I can’t speak. All I hear is angry breathing through flared nostrils. “Fuuuck, man,” I whisper nervously, “I’m really sorry.”

He smiles, replaces the gun, retrieves a lighter that he aims at the bowl of his bong, then lights up. “What?” he yuks, taking a big, long hit. “Did you think I was gonna whack you?”

I slump slowly onto a bench, try to catch my breath. “There are people who do want you dead,” he adds, opening a bottle of Coke, “for asking so many questions about Johnny. But I’m not one of them.” He throws some ice in a glass then slowly pours the soft drink over the cubes. “I don’t know if I’ve been much help with the article you’re writing. Fact is, if you want to know the truth about Johnny Oceans, there’s really only one person you need to talk to.”

“Who, the man himself?” I laugh.

“What’s the matter with you?” he cries, slapping me on the back of the head. “Are you a bozo? We don’t like bozos. That was a sticker me and Johnny had on our Midnight: ‘No Bozos.’ It had BOZO with a diagonal red line through it.”

“Who do I need to talk to El Kabong?”

He takes a lingering sip of his drink, eyeing me over the fountain of fizz, then says, “Ibrahim Sadiq Odeh. He knew Johnny intimately. They sometimes fished together.”

“Where does he live, on the Swahili Coast?”

“He used to, right here in Malindi, owned a 7-tonne trawler and a fishing business, which was a front for his gun-running activities. No, Odeh is one of the terrorists behind the simultaneous US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-salaam on August 7 1998, that killed 223 people and injured over 4,000 - exactly two weeks before Johnny vanished.”

“Are you saying Odeh had something to do with Oceans’ disappearance?”

“Not likelyas he was already in FBI custody when it happened."

“Where can I find him? I have to meet him.”

El Kabong winks as he downs the rest of his Coke, then carefully places his empty glass in a cup holder. “He’s currently serving life up in ADX Florence, a supermax in Colorado, said to be the world’s most secure prison.”

“What are the chances they’ll let me interview him?”

“Forgedaboudit!” he laughs, dismissing me with a gesture. “Place makes Guantanamo Bay look like a day care centre. But I think I know a way in.”

l Kabong’s way into ADX Florence was inspired. Before departing Malindi, I dropped in on Nadine Nasser, Odeh’s wife, and took away a message that could only be spoken in person to her husband. Six months and dozens of letters of endorsement later I finally obtained a visitor’s pass. 

It’s now January, and I’m driving south in below-freezing weather through Fremont County, home to ten different prisons. From what I can see it’s a dreary landscape: bumpy, featureless, and barren. Snow covered plaines fade into a gunmetal overcast sky that clings to the dark blue foothills of the Wet Mountains.

I’ve pieced together as much of the puzzle as I’m able to so far. Johnny’s story is much less of a mystery than I figured. Gifted with outstanding maritime skills, he was naturally successful at smuggling marijuana into South Florida during the 70s and 80s. When brought before the law, he escaped jail by way of his formidable family connections. After a five year apprenticeship in the gaming business, he began managing a casino in Malindi. For the next six years he fished, scuba dived, and gambled his way up and down the Swahili Coast, occasionally treasure hunting in Somalia, but did little else until his disappearance two weeks after the embassy bombings in Kenya. What’s the connection? I’m hoping this next interview will lay poor John to rest.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Johnny Oceans: Lie or Legend? Part V

rom the snowy depths of gloom, a vast, architecturally inelegant low-lying complex comes into view, like a concentration camp. I drive for a mile past its outlying fences.

ADX Florence was designed from the ground up as a control unit for inmates who show no concern for human life, or have been deemed too dangerous, too high-profile or too great a national security risk for even a maximum-security prison.

Referred to as “a cleaner version of Hell,” it’s known for its harsh conditions. Inmates are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and for the first three years they are not allowed any contact with any prisoner or visitor anywhere in the facility.

Security levels are unprecedented. With 12-foot high razor wire fences, laser beams, pressure pads, a multitude of motion detectors and cameras, and attack dogs patrolling the surrounding area, this 'supermax' makes as much of a statement to the outside world as it does to its prisoners. 

As I drive up, I pass a sign that reads, “All visiting traffic must enter and the leave the institution through the front entrance.” Right, as opposed to climbing over the razor-wire fence, while under fire and being chased by a pack of blood-thirsty rothweilers. Thank you!

Visiting room officers rule, and must be alerted to the arrival and departure of every living thing or inanimate object, even if it’s the air in your lungs. They treat me like they would a hardened inmate in a less secure prison.

Once inside the front lobby, I undergo a physical search, pass through several scan-ray machines, then have my attire closely inspected to make sure it complies with their strict dress code. Only then does the officer grant me final approval for my visit, roughly stamping my hand with ‘INMATE VISITOR.’ 

Two guards then escort me to the designated visiting room. There are 1,400 remote-controlled steel doors, controlling the 437 inmates in ADX. The facility does not have a mess hall. Food is hand-delivered to each cell by the guards. Everything is locked down. As we pass a row of sealed cell doors I don’t see anyone nor hear any sound, other than our footsteps. That’s because these are not cells but visiting rooms.

The guards unlock the door of my designated room and order me inside. Apart from a TV screen, microphone and speakers, the room is so entirely featureless that it defies description.

I’ve only been granted a ‘video visit,’ which means I will not actually be in the presence of the inmate. I’m told that any damage to the monitoring equipment or visiting room will be reported. The guards then inspect the room thoroughly before leaving me alone and locking the door behind me.

On the TV screen a high-definition picture of a room identical to mine appears. Seated in the centre, wearing a yellow jump suit and restrained in steel hand and leg cuffs, and a belly chain, is the person I’ve come to see: Prisoner 420, the convicted terrorist formerly known as Ibrahim Sadiq Odeh.

he Palestinian is short, with a slight build, gray clipped hair and a widows peak. His wide diamond-shaped face and simple eyes amplify the look of a rabbit caught in the headlights. Apart for a shaven upper lip and a beard, he doesn’t look like a terrorist.

“Welcome, my friend,” he says, smiling at the camera, while raising his arms as high as they will reach to greet me. “May Allah grant you the al-Firdaws al-A’la for bringing me a message from my dear wife Nadine Nasser.”

“It’s my great honour, Prisoner 420. I have travelled very far and waited a long time to deliver Nadine’s message to you in person. She asked me to tell you, ‘ana ba─žibbak’.”

“It’s always the same message,” he laughs. “Tell me my friend, how is Malindi?”

“One of the best coastal spots I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting,” I cheerfully reply.

He closes his eyes, straightens, then takes a deep breath. “Mmmm. I can still smell the spices and brackish water, even after fifteen years away, ten of them in solitary confinement, can you believe.”

“Ten years in the hole,” I gasp.

“They caught me feeding the birds and gave me an Incident Report. Except for prison guards, in the last 3,623 days I have not been allowed any contact with any other human being. I cannot even see you now, only hear your voice.”

“But I can see you.”

“How do I look? They don’t allow us mirrors.”

“Much less fearsome than I imagined.”

“You are too kind,” he whispers.

“What can you tell me about Johnny Oceans?”

He just stares inscrutably at the camera, with shackled hands on his lap, saying nothing. I wonder if he’s heard me. Then he rolls his head, leans back in his chair and laughs. “Oh, you mean the American? Mr Forgedaboudit,” he says, with a belly laugh. Soon he’s in hysterics, crying with laughter. A guard enters the room and quickly restrains him, but Prisoner 420 cannot stop laughing.

“What’s so damn funny?” I yell.

“It was difficult, I have to admit,” he sighs, sitting up, sniffing, and trying to regain his composure, “But Mash-a Allah, I finally found a way to get that Kafir off my back.” As the guard exits the room, the prisoner playfully shrugs. “He was assigned to watch me.”

“Who, Oceans? Assigned by whom?”

Who else?” he chuckles. “US intelligence.” The mask of innocence has been replaced by the demeanour of a misanthrope.

“Why the hell would they send a croupier to watch you?” I ask.

“Croupier... You actually believe that? Johnny Oceans was a Tier One asset.”

“He was…?”

“The fishing, the diving, the gambling - just a smokescreen for his true activities.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What were his true activities?”

“Shutting down al-Qaeda in East Africa. The rest of the world may have been blind to what Johnny was really up to, but we knew. It was at the end of 1993, in Mogadishu, just after Black Hawk Down, when we learned of his existence, only his code name at first - Marlin - until I made the connection.

“His last assignment was to keep an eye on me in Malindi. He knew I was supplying weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, that my fishing business was just a cover, but he had no idea I was planning to bomb the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar. Like I said, it was difficult, but in the end I managed to put the wily fisherman off my scent.”

“How did you manage that?”

“By making sure the intelligence services were aware in advance of a ‘secret’ arms deal,” he sniggers, making air quotes with his shackled hands, “I loaded 200 AK-47s a 30 RPGs on to my trawler, which I knew Marlin [Oceans] was tracking, then set sail from Malindi to rendezvous with a bigger ship in the middle of the ocean. A few miles out to sea, I jumped ship, boarded a dhow, then sailed back to Mombassa where I caught the last bus to Nairobi, arriving the following morning. I was sure Marlin would soon discover my deception, and worked quickly over the next two days making all the preparations, collecting the explosives, training the suicide bombers, going over the plan. When the bombs exploded I was miles away but, Mash-a Allah, Marlin was still at sea chasing my trawler across the Indian Ocean. It was the most shameful day in that Kafir’s career.” 

“Do you know what happened to him?“

“I’m sure, after August 7th, the humiliation was just too great. He had to disappear.”

“What? He committed suicide? Hari kari? Or was someone else behind his death?”

“Death?” laughs the prisoner. “Let me ask you something, my friend.” He leans closer. “What was it about this story that first tweaked your journalistic instincts?”

“Certain anomalies, things that others passed over. Investigative journalism is a bit like prospecting for gold. With the right eye you can see traces of a vein that others have overlooked. In this case, it was the refusal of Miami-Dade County to issue Johnny Oceans with a death certificate, even after seven years.”

“Did you ever find out why they refused?”

“No, I did not. I can only imagine they were in possession of evidence suggesting Oceans was still alive. But I can find no such evidence anywhere.”

“It was I who gave evidence to the court,” he smirks.

“Really? You? Wh-what exactly did you tell them?”

He's about to speak when the video feed abruptly cuts out. Then the stern voice of a prison officer comes booming over the audio: “This visit has been terminated, for violating Section 13 of the Visiting Procedures: improper conduct on the part of the visitor shall result in the visit being curtailed or terminated.

“What improper conduct?” I protest. But the feed's gone dead; there’s nothing but static on the TV screen. “Aw, c’mon, not now...I’ve only got one more question to ask the guy. PLEASE! You’ve got to give me one more goddamn minute...” No response.

Then, as if by the hand of a new operator, the TV flickers back to life. Prisoner 420 is now much closer to the camera. Under the ceiling lights of the visiting room his features look garish and shadows obscure his eyes. As if possessed, he moves compulsively from side to side, leaving tracers of his brown and yellow form across the screen.

“I need to know where he is," I plea, begging him to give me the final piece of the puzzle. “Is he still alive? You’ve got to tell me, where is Johnny Oceans?”

“Don’t you know,” he sneers, tilting his head back with a mockingly baleful grin, like a beast sidetracked from its kill by fervid scavengers, and for a moment I gaze into the face of Satan. “JOHNNY IS WITJU!”

Hew van Grit is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam

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