Drug smugglers, pot haulers, or Saltwater Cowboys: three names for nearly 200 Collier County residents arrested in the 1980s on charges related to marijuana and cocaine importation.
But Steve Whitlock and Tim McBride, who federal agents and local law enforcement caught in one of three massive operations from 1983 to 1989, said they have done their time behind bars and now want to publicly show what they accomplished in the decades since.
At a reunion of sorts, organized by McBride at Fred’s Diner in North Naples on Saturday night and attended by a dozen friends and family members, the pair sat beside each other and spoke candidly about the days of late-night runs through backwaters, payments so large the bills were weighed instead of counted, and the anxiety that went with smuggling tons of marijuana for years in their 20s.
Both now in their 50s, they said they have rebuilt their lives.
“It’s not a celebration of smuggling pot, patting ourselves on the back. It’s about who we are now,” said McBride, who wrote an as-yet unpublished book about his smuggling days.
Whitlock worked in construction and McBride in crabbing during their drug-hauling days. After their releases from prison in the early 1990s, Whitlock earned a bachelor’s degree from the Ringling College of Art and Design and became a successful marine illustrator based in Sarasota, while McBride stayed in the area to work in construction and raise his two daughters. He also now offers to do speaking engagements about “the plague of illegal drugs and the violent crime it breeds.”
There are regrets, surely. Pride isn’t a term associated with that part of their histories, they said. But Whitlock explained mounting debts at his plastering company in the mid-1980s that reached $60,000 gnawed at him.
“I had my back against the wall financially,” he said, seated at a table with a few other men who were also involved in smuggling, but were not caught.
“We weren’t stealing from people. We were importing a product, a commodity at the time,” Whitlock explained.
Operation Everglades in 1983 and 1984, and Operation Peacemaker in 1989, netted scores of area residents, from Chokoloskee to Naples, and more from around the state and southeastern U.S.
McBride and Whitlock were arrested for the same incident -- a runoff of Pine Island in 1987 -- on the charge of conspiracy to import marijuana. That was the last time they saw each other until 2010, when they ran into one another at a fishing store in Fort Myers. They stayed in touch, and are working on plans for a fishing tournament aimed at getting at-risk youth onto the water and out of trouble. It would be a dramatic shift from their first days on a boat together.
Early on, small fishing boats would make runs out to a “mothership” to offload the tons of marijuana, from Everglades City up to Fort Myers. Whitlock recalled a time when his 26-foot boat was so laden down with bales that he had to lay on top of them to drive.
Tom Smith, a former lieutenant who joined the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in 1977, described how drug running was a land, sea and air operation, with low flying planes dropping bushels of marijuana, crabbing and fishing boats hauling in tons off of ships, and U-Haul trucks filled bottom to top stopped on Alligator Alley en route to Miami.
“Through the mid-80s was the heyday of pot smuggling. It totally consumed a lot of the sheriff’s assets... it was a dangerous, dangerous time,” said Smith. There were makeshift runways illuminated by upward-pointing flashlights, and off of San Marco Road heading into Goodland, smugglers placed plywood sheets on top of mangrove roots so trucks could meet the boats.
Smith worked a case as a homicide investigator where two hit men from Miami came to Collier County looking to collect money from a drug deal. They carried two MAC 10 pistols with silencers.
“It was a pot deal that went bad, whereby they felt they had been ripped off and they came by to claim their money,” Smith recalled. Two people were killed.
“For anyone to think that the activities going on at that time were mild and had no criminal intent is flippant,” Smith said.
Maureen Sullivan-Hartung, former journalist with the Everglades Echo and author of “Hidden History of Everglades City & Points Nearby,” who attended Saturday’s reunion to research chapters for a second book about the area, had a different take.
“I think it’s fabulous that these guys, who have paid their debt to society, can reach out to see each other and catch up and see what changes each have made. These guys have really made a difference.”