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
"Once you get caught red-handed like that, you're pretty forthcoming with information," Roberts says. They gave him an ultimatum: set up a drug sting and the government would recommend a lesser sentence than the 40 years he could face for smuggling.
Roberts called Hudson in Jamaica and claimed he had just arrived in West Palm Beach with the marijuana. Hudson told him to wait at a Days Inn to make the exchange, Roberts says. And as simple as that, Roberts was in the game again. He had become a second-tier snitch with, he claimed, the means to shut down a source of illegal drugs flowing into the U.S. This time, Roberts realized, he'd be marked for death by Jamaican drug lords. But he wasn't thinking about that. With just a couple of phone calls, he thought, maybe he could be back on the sailboat heading to the islands.
But again, things didn't go as planned.
Instead of a Miami Vice-style sting, the federal agents looked more like they had trained in Mayberry. The agents failed to nab any of the cartel leaders. The only arrest was of a low-level driver. As for the prime suspect, one of the cops accidentally shot him to death. Authorities won't release details of the bust, and two months after the shooting, an investigation into whether the killing was justified still isn't finished.
The botched sting, the sordid entrapment plan, and the grinding prosecutorial maneuvers that followed all seemingly straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel or a David Mamet play demonstrated once again the futility of trying to plug all the holes in their own anti-drug blockade or of rounding up all the drug smugglers. They also show that, while Customs officials are cracking down on big import spots such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale, smugglers have begun moving their entry points to porous smaller ports like West Palm Beach. Palm Beach County, with its proximity to the Bahamas and its sparsely populated beaches, has become a main entry point for drug smuggling, according to Roberts and other smugglers.
Roberts' willingness to turn state's evidence is by now commonplace. Federal sentencing laws that give breaks and sometimes cash to snitches often allow drug smugglers to go free in exchange for ratting out their partners. Critics say more and more criminals are escaping prison time by taking deals and pointing the finger at any low-level drug dealer or innocent bystander they can implicate.
In jail in West Palm Beach, where he agreed to speak to New Times, Roberts now lives the frightened life of a government informant while he awaits sentencing. But then, this is nothing new to Roberts, whom some describe as nothing more than a professional snitch.
Back in the mid-1970s, Roberts was deep into the decade's drug culture. He got a steady paycheck from his job as a paramedic in North Palm Beach while he made most of his cash selling small bags of weed to his buddies, says his former roommate, Howard Lawson. He was making enough dough that, Lawson says, Roberts came up with a plan.
"You're a boat captain, and I've got the drug connections," Lawson says Roberts told him. "If you'll smuggle it in, I've got the network to distribute it."
Within a year, the roommates had given up the dime-bag trade and were regularly dealing in hundreds of pounds of pot, Lawson says. On December 16, 1976, they made their biggest pickup yet, a 400-pound bale from a dealer in Fort Lauderdale. They threw it in the back of a van with a bumper sticker that read "Have a Shitty Day" and drove it to the Boca Raton home of a guy they knew who could unload it. The middleman said he was short on cash, so Lawson and Roberts took off with their van full of dope.
But while they were in the house, a cop had sneaked into the garage where the van was parked and hung a cloth from the CB antenna. Their friend had been working as an informant, and not long after the pair left the house, agents swarmed the van and arrested the two neophyte drug smugglers.
"They busted us with it right in our hands," says Lawson, now 64 and living a clean life in Boynton Beach. "It was a slam dunk."
They both served about two years in state prison in Belle Glade. They split up afterward, and Roberts didn't take long to get back into the business. Soon, Roberts bragged that he had a pair of sheriff's deputies working for him, Lawson says. "The deputies would meet him offshore, where they'd take it in for him on a sheriff's department boat."
In March 1985, hoping to make one run that would turn him into a big-time smuggler, Roberts sailed to Santa Marta, Colombia. He loaded a sailboat called Pequina with sticky and sweet Colombian weed. The stash weighed in at 15,000 pounds 712 tons of weed. He sailed to Walkers Cay, Bahamas, but he had no idea how to unload that much dope without getting caught.
It was at the Best Western's beachside bar on Singer Island in April 1985 that Roberts concocted the biggest deal of his drug-running career. According to court documents, Roberts met with Claude Avon Pinder, head of a well-managed group of drug-smuggling boat captains. They called him "The Kingfish," and Pinder promised to help distribute the dope over the next three months, prosecutors say. Using fishing boats and skiffs, 25 separate boat captains met Roberts in international waters from West Palm to Fort Pierce. They unloaded the pot, several hundred pounds at a time.