“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.