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.

Continue reading

No comments:

Post a Comment