By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Michael Ray Robertswas just nine miles out of West Palm Beach on August 1 when he spotted what no drug smuggler ever wants to see. Painted across the hull of a ship on the horizon was the Coast Guard's blood-red stripe, a terrifying sight for a man with 400 pounds of marijuana hidden on his boat. It was headed straight toward Roberts' sleek, 48-foot ketch.
The game was up. The Coast Guard cutter ordered him to lower his sail. They'd be coming aboard, and Roberts knew for sure that he was headed to prison.
At 56 years old, Roberts looks the part of a weathered sailor who's spent nearly three decades smuggling drugs. He has wispy brown hair that cuts across his forehead and a blunt-sized mustache that creeps down the sides of his mouth. A lifetime on the water has left him with permanent sunburn that reddens his cheeks and lights up his nose like neon. His sky-blue eyes look constantly tired, or perhaps stoned, considering he's a man who talks about routinely buying a pound of grass for personal use.
During 29 years in the smuggling business, Roberts had been caught before. He was an old hand at this. It wasn't the jail time that concerned him. Truth was, he had ways of wangling his way out of that. What worried him was something more personal. He was smuggling dope that August morning, he says, on a mission to rescue his grown son.
A month earlier, Roberts had begun what he calls "early retirement," setting sail for the Caribbean with his son, Michael Jr. On their first stop, in the Bahamas, his son got busted with a quantity of cocaine less than a gram, Roberts says at the Bahama Mama Bar in Freeport. He was buying it for a girl, he told the Bahamian court. The judge, unimpressed, slapped him with two years in prison, and officers led him back to a jail cell. No father likes to see one of his children in serious trouble. Roberts' son had a famished and beaten look when he visited him, and the sight of the young man had made Roberts die a little inside.
"The attorney down there, he told me I could get Michael out for 15 grand in cash," Roberts says. "I needed the money. I did what I had to do."
Roberts, of course, was well-versed in how to raise money fast. He put in a call to Richard Hudson, a dreadlocked Jamaican who goes by the nickname "Rasta." Roberts says he had shipped dope before for Hudson, whom Roberts claims is part of a Jamaican drug syndicate. Within days, Roberts says, Hudson had arranged for him to ship $340,000 in pot from Port Antonio, Jamaica, to West Palm Beach. The Jamaicans promised him $80,000, enough to get his son out with, coincidentally, enough left over to make retirement that much sweeter.
When the Coast Guard boarded his sailboat that day, though, Roberts was certain the plan was foiled. They came onboard, asked for his papers, and took a cursory look around the hold. After a lifetime of dipping into the goods he smuggled, Roberts has a coarse voice punctuated with a rough laugh that sounds like a dirt bike motor. He tried to joke with the sailors, but Roberts couldn't help but pour sweat. South Florida was stuck in a record-setting heat spell, and, two hours before noon, it was already blistering hot. Surely they'd see a wall panel partly askew and want to look behind it.
Luck was with him. The Coast Guard officers left. The sailors climbed back onto their cutter, and as Roberts watched that red-striped hull steam back toward shore, the blood started pumping through his veins again. Roberts had learned his lesson. He'd wait until the cutter had dipped over the horizon, and then he'd dump his load. The search had spooked him, and he figured he'd be better off dealing with the Jamaicans than getting caught.
"I really thought I had got away with one there," he says now.
But as anyone who's spent time hobnobbing with the felonious class will tell you, life often plays dirty tricks on those who flout the law. Roberts didn't get a chance to dump his stash. The cutter turned around again. Officers had keyed Roberts' name into their computerized files and gotten a hit. There had been a 1988 conviction for smuggling. This time, the sailors ordered Roberts to follow them to shore. Once at the dock in Riviera Beach, federal agents pulled apart the sailboat. They found tightly packed bales of pot stashed between cabin walls and the hull.
In the shifty world of smuggling, high-end drug deals, and seat-of-the-pants law enforcement, there are three kinds of currency: cash, drugs, and information. Roberts was short on the first, his supply of the second had been impounded by federal authorities, but he had information. And, having found himself in similar straits before, he knew how to use it.
The Coast Guard brought Roberts to a nondescript office building in downtown West Palm Beach where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a satellite office. Honor among thieves is a quaint idea that early 20th-century novelists used to write about. Nowadays, when you're caught with a large quantity of drugs, the first option is: Strike a deal.