The phrase, “Let’s get the old gang back together,” seems especially apt.
Self-described former drug-runner Tim McBride, 53, is organizing a reunion of his erstwhile colleagues next month in Everglades City, the base of their nefarious activity and the site of a series of raids that ultimately put a stop to it.
McBride says he isn’t proud of what he and his crew did in the 1980s, but he’s not apologetic either. The reunion is a way of catching up with old friends who’ve been out of touch — often thanks to prison sentences and conditions of probation — for years.
“It’s a part of history that can’t be unwritten. I want to honor and pay respect to the guys who were my best friends,” McBride said.
McBride was arrested on drug trafficking charges in 1987’s Operation Peacemaker, an investigation that netted dozens of arrests of Everglades City-area residents. It followed two similar raids, Operation Everglades and Operation Everglades II in 1983 and 1984.
He served four years in prison as a result.
So far, he says he’s talked to about 20 other fellows who were arrested in the raids and all of them have been enthusiastic about the idea of a reunion.
He’s picked the afternoon of Saturday, June 25, as the date and Billy Potter, owner of the Seafood Depot restaurant in Everglades City, has agreed to host the event. McBride hopes to have live music and has gone as far as to invite Hank Williams Jr. and Willie Nelson, performers he suspects might have a soft spot in their hearts for former marijuana runners. Nelson has politely declined, citing tour obligations. No word yet from Williams Jr., but if he can’t make it, local acts will perform in their stead, McBride says.
Entertainment aside, he sees the reunion as an occasion to share stories not often told, at least in not public.
McBride puts himself squarely in the middle of those stories.
A small player in the smuggling industry in the early 1980s, McBride says he moved up after the ringleaders were taken down in Operation Everglades. He became the leader of an outfit he calls the Saltwater Cowboys and a go-between for Cuban marijuana dealers in Miami and the Colombian drug lords who grew the stuff.
He’d organize the buys, arrange the shipments and then lead a fleet of large and small boats working off the coast of the 10,000 Islands once the pot arrived. Fifty-foot fishing boats would meet a freighter offshore and take on bales of pot. The fishing boats would bring it to shallow water where smaller boats would take the product and bring it ashore.
The Everglades City denizens’ familiarity with the backwaters made detection difficult for law enforcement. “We had unique skills and intimate knowledge of the 10,000 Islands. We were just cut-off wearing good old boys who had this ability. We were young and foolish. A lot of us thought we were bulletproof. Money does that to you.”
The marijuana trade going through Everglades City was much different than the violent drug wars of Miami depicted in TV and movies, McBride said. “We were worlds away from that. We didn’t shoot places up. We didn’t kill anybody. Nothing that would make a big draw,” he said.
At the same time, the volume of pot coming in through Everglades City dwarfed the amounts that would grab headlines and serve as the basis for films.
“We made those guys look like street corner, dime bag guys,” McBride said.
A freighter would carry 20 tons of pot or more. Crews would work every night for weeks at a time off-loading them, McBride said. He estimates he oversaw the arrival of 25 million pounds of marijuana and perhaps 100,000 pounds of cocaine over a 10-year period.
With the volume came money. The lowest paid worker stood to make $25,000 for a night’s work. At the upper end, McBride said, his share of a successful shipment might be $1 million.
Through fines and forfeitures, the government took about $4 million from him, a figure he says, “wiped me out.” But at a million dollars a night working for weeks on end, he should have had much more than that. Is there a fortune stashed away somewhere?
No, McBride says, explaining only, “It’s incredible to think how easy it is to spend money.”
McBride wrangled a relatively light sentence by cooperating after his arrest — not by giving up the names of the Cuban and Colombian bosses, “You may as well shoot me and shoot my family,” he said of that idea — but by describing in detail for prosecutors the methods that had been used to evade the law for so long. “We had it pretty well down to a science,” he said.
After getting out of prison in the early 1990s, McBride worked construction jobs. An injury put an end to that and now he’s seeking Social Security disability payments as he raises two teenagers in Estero. He’s also written a manuscript of his experiences and hopes to get television and movie producers interested in the story.
By no coincidence, he expects a film crew to be on hand June 25 at the Seafood Depot for a possible documentary.
Potter, the event host and lifelong Everglades City resident, hedges on whether or not he fits the bill as an outlaw of the sort McBride is reaching out to. “I never went to jail, that’s all I’m going to say,” he says.
He said he has no problem offering his establishment to a crew of former drug runners who’ve served their time and are moving on. “This is where it happened. If people show up, OK. If people don’t show up, no harm done.”
McBride has a web site, saltwatercowboys.org, and he can be contacted through it.
He recognizes that some in the community might object to former outlaws gathering to recount past adventures. “I’m not certain how people are going to take it. Frankly I don’t care.
“We’re not justifying what we did in the past, we’re moving beyond that. We’re fathers and grandfathers now. We’re contributing to our communities. If you take an airboat ride, your captain might be an old outlaw. And if you ask, he might tell you the story.”
Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten