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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