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
The feds couldn't have realized that shutting down the Black Tuna Gang would set in motion even more sophisticated, powerful, and cutthroat drug organizations. In retrospect, smugglers like the Tunas would appear quaint and almost romantic compared to the highly organized Colombian cartels. "To me, Robert Platshorn represents a kind of outlaw culture most people identify with the Wild West," says David Bienenstock, a High Times co-editor who wrote a story about Platshorn in 2004. "Now, most of the marijuana in America is homegrown, and most smuggling involves hard drugs. Remember, the War on Drugs created the drug cartels, not the other way around."
The difference between the Black Tunas and the cartels was one of scale: The Tunas were just one link in a supply chain feeding the American stoner. They saw none of the grossly inflated profits from the street and had no part in production.
The cocaine overlords, however, had an incentive to organize. With a product worth ten times more than pot and with an escalating War on Drugs, the cartels became more like streamlined multinational corporations. They had their own security forces, advanced money-laundering systems, large-scale processing laboratories, and, most important, their own street-level distribution networks, making them a model of vertical integration.
Credit Platshorn and the Tunas for teaching a valuable lesson to this new breed of supplier/smuggler: Why risk a skunky-smelling boatload of pot when a scentless duffle bag of coke is much more discreet and much more valuable? By taking down the Tunas and those who followed them, the DEA forced the market to adapt. It created a climate in which cocaine was the top commodity — a commodity so lucrative that its revenues fueled the explosion of high-rises that still pierce the Miami skyline.
"It was the beginning of fundamental changes in trafficking routes and in forms of gang organization," says Dr. Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor and expert in U.S.-Latin American relations and drug trafficking.
Platshorn might not have foreseen the level of profits and carnage that would come to characterize the illegal drug trade, but he had a gut feeling. To him, coke was "bad karma." It was a substance people got shot over. He was a stoner, plain and simple, a hippie who wanted no part of the negative vibes associated with the increasingly proliferating powder and those who trafficked in it.
Goods worth their weight in gold incite violence. But plentiful grass at $60 a pound? Come on. That was just a party. It was definitely not something that would land you a 64-year prison sentence.
The scrape of silverware against ceramic plates and the din of more than 20 voices fill the dining room at the Center of Hope in West Palm Beach. At a nearby table, a father asks his adult son, a resident, how much he's making flipping burgers. And that's how they start after being disgorged from a Florida federal prison — at the bottom of the food chain.
There are rules here at the Center of Hope. Residents are not allowed to own cell phones. They aren't allowed to leave without written approval. They can't leave until gainful employment is found. Remaining free is contingent upon following the rules.
After nearly three decades in prison, structure and rule are imprinted on Platshorn's brain. He frets about being late from pre-approved jaunts or staying on a collect call long enough to annoy his supervisors. He raises his voice over the muddled roar of the dining room and leans in. The silver-haired former smuggler wants to talk about his wild days. He speaks quickly and clearly, his Philly patois slightly altered by a few missing front teeth. He's self-conscious about it and talks about getting his teeth fixed as soon as he has the money.
Yet when he talks about a smuggle, a near miss, being one step ahead of the feds, his eyebrows go up and his face comes alive the way it did when he was a pitchman selling newfangled contraptions to passersby on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Each turn of phrase is practiced, crafted through long hours behind prison walls. The price he paid, his "debt to society," hasn't quashed his nostalgia for the good ol' days.
Platshorn is 64 now. On the day of his release, he wore 22-year-old gray sweats. His hair was almost completely gray. But none of the indignities of age and hard time have erased the boss man in him. He complains that New Times didn't provide him with nearly 30-year-old newspaper clippings quickly enough. He orders a reporter to bring filterless Pall Malls and lobster bisque to the halfway house.
The genesis of the Black Tuna Gang can be traced back to a dusty day in August 1974 at the Wisconsin State Fair near Milwaukee. Platshorn was a pitchman — the guy in a white smock demonstrating how well contraptions like Remington Electric Knives, Dial-O-Matic Blenders, No-Run Hosiery, or electric toothbrushes worked, dazzling crowds with his gift of gab.
"He had finesse. He wasn't a barker," says Jerry Crowley, 71, who pitched with Platshorn from the beginning. "When he pitched the Vita-Mix, you thought you were going to die if you didn't buy one."