Smoked Tuna in the Can

He was the first big bust of the War on Drugs. That and two bits won't get you a cup of coffee.

The lieutenant returned and ordered Platshorn and the pilots down a trail through a banana grove and into a van. Thirst overwhelmed him. They were to be taken to the village of La Cienaga, Platshorn says, and shot as an example.

The smuggler might have been stoned, but he still had his wits about him. He plopped down in the middle of the trail, and the pilots followed suit. Platshorn was stalling for time. Just then, Dávila rolled up in a Jeep, probably his infamous Renegade, with two clear plastic bags filled with $40,000 — a fraction of what the lieutenant had asked for, but a dead smuggler was worthless.

Robert Platshorn, 64, has eschewed his ragged prison sweats for much slicker duds since his release from Coleman Federal Prison on April Fool's Day this year.
Jacek Gancarz
Robert Platshorn, 64, has eschewed his ragged prison sweats for much slicker duds since his release from Coleman Federal Prison on April Fool's Day this year.
Platshorn enjoys a cocktail in London — an image of the Tuna before he was the Tuna.
Photo courtesy of the Platshorn family
Platshorn enjoys a cocktail in London — an image of the Tuna before he was the Tuna.

Though this particular load involved almost-lethal complications, it was the beginning of a lucrative partnership that would last the length of the Tunas' smuggling operations. As the money began flowing in, the Tunas invested in other businesses. They operated out of the Fontainebleau Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach for a time and even out of a houseboat moored along the same brightly lit main thoroughfare. Platshorn had a million-dollar home just across the Intracoastal from the Fontainebleau, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The Tunas invested in yachts, particularly Fort Lauderdale-based Striker Aluminum Yachts. Its treasurer, Mark Phillips, whose family owned the company, joined the enterprise, court documents say. He was able to retrofit yachts for maximum carrying capacity, painting water lines on the hulls to give the illusion that they weren't riding low even when they were pregnant with tons of grass. Thus, when pleasure boat traffic was hull to hull, streaming into Miami or Port Everglades, the Black Tunas could hide in plain sight.

Platshorn never saw the "herb business" as a career, he says. Smuggling means living with borrowed freedom. Sooner or later, it all comes crashing down. The Black Tunas, in fact, were in for a reality check in the spring of 1977. A stash house on San Marino Drive in Miami Beach was filled to the ceiling with eight tons of weed when police raided the waterfront home located off the Venetian Causeway. Plat­shorn and other key Tunas weren't there, but 17 gang members were arrested.

With a modest amount of money and a couple of relatively profitable legit businesses, Platshorn resolved to stay on the margins of the smuggling trade, no longer a key player. Others, including Phillips, tried to make a go of it on their own, but it would come as no surprise to Platshorn that these later smuggles would end in disaster.

"[Phillips] was a fuck-up," Plat­shorn says with a laugh. "Everything he touched turned to shit."

But it was when the son of a well-to-do Ford dealer in Fayetteville, North Carolina, entered the operations of the Black Tuna Gang that the operation really drifted off-course. George Purvis Jr. wanted to join the business. More important, Purvis (who couldn't be found for this article and is said to have entered the federal witness protection program) had connections in the auto industry that could save the by-then struggling South Florida Auto Auction.

Platshorn needed his legitimate businesses to be financially solvent so he could provide for his family when he left the game. One hand washes the other: Purvis would ship cars to the auction, and Platshorn would introduce him to Dávila. It all seemed so sensible, and he looked at it as a down payment on the straight-and-narrow life. But shaking hands with Purvis, who eventually became a prime witness against Platshorn, was the worst move this businessman ever made.

During Purvis' and Phillips' first endeavor, Platshorn's 85-foot yacht, Presidential, ran aground in the Bahamas, and 40,000 pounds of weed was lost. Platshorn wasn't on the boat at the time, but Bahamian police surprised a couple of Tuna members trying to salvage the load. The smugglers fled and were allegedly seen throwing green bales into the azure waters of the Bahamas. In his testimony at Platshorn's trial in Eastern District Court in North Carolina, Purvis said that Platshorn was upset that they'd been caught and told them that "if he had been here himself, it would not have happened."

In September 1977, Purvis and Phillips hatched another plan to bring in 22,000 pounds of pot off the coast of North Carolina from Dávila's 80-foot Venezuelan trawler, Don Elias. At Phillips' request, Platshorn got the OK from Dávila.

To meet the Don Elias, Purvis hired Wade Bailey, captain of the shrimp trawler Osprey, whose name in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, would soon become infamous.

A bag of diapers was sent to Dávila in Colombia, signifying "The baby is ready; send the mother." The DEA claimed that in November, Meinster took a room at the Hilton Hotel in Wilmington, North Carolina, overlooking the Customs offices. Radio equipment was set up so he could monitor law enforcement chatter (though Platshorn claims that neither he nor Meinster were anywhere near the deal).

With members of the gang gathered at the hotel, Purvis told Meinster he suspected Bailey was an informant, court documents say. Purvis alleged that the Tunas' security chief, Chip Grant, suggested he shoot Bailey, but Meinster vetoed the idea. The next day, Bailey and his crew aboard the Osprey met the Don Elias some 20 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The transfer began after the crews shouted the words black tuna back and forth. Purvis was nearby on a smaller boat but stayed clear of the transaction. He headed back to port and purportedly received a message from Bailey: "I'm catching all kinds of fish. My hold's going to be full soon. Why don't you come back and catch some?"

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