He Dunnit (No, He Dunnit!)

Michael Ray Roberts has avoided serious prison time by ratting out his partners. So far.

When the entire load was divided between middlemen from Florida to New York, Roberts split the proceeds with the team. Six-figure payments in cash were becoming common. Given the amount of law-enforcement heat the drug trade was beginning to attract, it's surprising how easily Roberts and the rest got away with it.

Three years went by. Then, in 1988, one of the smugglers, facing a drug charge in Georgia, spilled the details. Edward "Dutch" Schouten agreed to testify against his former bosses in exchange for a sentence of a year and a day.

Schouten fingered Pinder and Roberts as the ringleaders. But after his arrest, Roberts agreed to testify for prosecutors. He quickly blamed the whole deal on Pinder, and federal prosecutors ran with it. In arrest documents, prosecutors claimed that Pinder controlled a network of 150 smugglers and said he was responsible for importing ten tons of pot in the 1980s. They claimed his ancestors had ties to rum-running in the 1920s. Federal authorities seized Pinder's home and family property worth $4.1 million.

Michael Ray Roberts, after his August 1 arrest on charges of smuggling 400 pounds of pot
Michael Ray Roberts, after his August 1 arrest on charges of smuggling 400 pounds of pot

Roberts spent three days on the stand testifying against his former partner. Thanks to Roberts' testimony, Pinder got 30 years in prison.

The use of unidentified snitches to get search warrants tripled in the 1980s and early '90s, according to a National Law Journal study in 1995. If anything, the practice has increased geometrically since then. It's so common that there's even a website — whosarat.com — dedicated to snitches. The site shows photos of informants and has information for the targets of snitches to beat trumped-up charges. The reason more accused criminals are agreeing to testify is that federal sentencing guidelines offer explicit breaks to those who agree to turn state's evidence. But perhaps as an even greater incentive, federal drug agents often pay informants, sometimes six-figure salaries. Former DEA agent turned defense expert Celerino Castillo III says those informants are often liars simply looking to get out of prison time. Often, drug agents know they're lying and are told to feed the informants more lies to get better convictions, Castillo says from his home in McAllen, Texas.

"As an agent, I was told regularly by my supervisors to get the informants to make things up," Castillo says. "The government will do anything for a conviction in the war on drugs."

Pinder got out with good behavior three years ago and now lives in Jupiter, where he's working as a salesman for a food company. He says his role in the deal was nothing more than to watch over the pot while it sat in a fishing boat in the Bahamas. Pinder claims he never met with Roberts at the Best Western to plan the operation, something he says Roberts fabricated. "They painted me to be the kingpin, and guess what? It was Mike Roberts," Pinder says. "He keeps getting busted and keeps getting away with it by blaming it on other people."

Pinder says he's surprised that his former partner had the nerve to rat out some tough characters and that none of them have looked for revenge. Pinder doesn't want retribution, but he doesn't want to see Roberts walk away this time either, he says. "I ain't in the killing business, but I tell you, I don't want to see this happen to nobody else," Pinder says. "I'm not an angel, now, but I'm not what they made me out to be."

Thanks to Roberts' testimony, prosecutors charged 25 alleged members of the "Pinder Ring." One of the accused boat captains, Frank Wyatt, maintained his innocence and took his case to trial in 1990. Roberts claimed to have seen Wyatt take a shipment of dope into the Fort Pierce inlet, but on the stand, he admitted he had never actually seen Wyatt before. For his part, Wyatt says he was at the inlet that day but was fishing with his son. "He testified against me, and I had never seen him before in my whole life," Wyatt says. The lawyers barely had time for a bathroom break before the jury returned a verdict clearing Wyatt of drug-smuggling.

Wyatt, a 76-year-old retired golf course manager in North Palm Beach, says he doesn't hold a grudge against Roberts. He says he knows that Roberts just cut a deal to avoid prison. "I'll tell you right now that I could go down to the penitentiary in Miami and get a dozen guys who, for a couple of cartons of cigarettes, would swear you assassinated John F. Kennedy," Wyatt says. "Roberts lied to get his freedom. That's how the system works. I can't blame him. Wouldn't you do it if they said you were going to walk away?"

Before he cut his deal, Roberts faced up to 30 years in prison for the weed he says he imported with Pinder. He got three years' probation.

Afterward, Roberts moved to Myrtle Beach and took a job as a night manager at the Holiday Sands South hotel. He saved money and bought a boat repair business in the early 1990s. He says he stayed clean for a decade, but the easy money wasn't something he could stay away from for long.

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