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.

Bailey hauled the load up the Cape Fear River to its predetermined destination on the Brunswick River. Halfway through the unloading, Customs officials swarmed the boat and arrested 11 men. One of them, Lee Smith, was caught leaving the site in a rental truck full of pot.

The next day, the Coast Guard cutter Vigorous seized the Don Elias.

Bailey was indeed a paid informant, says former Assistant U.S. Attorney Herman Gaskins. Federal agents later raided the abandoned hotel room. Among the agents was Gaskins, who says he found the gang's belongings and CB radios.

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.

Out of everyone involved, it was Bailey who came out smelling like a rose. He got $7,000 from the Black Tunas for his participation, plus $10,000 from the government for his role as an informant. After the bust, Bailey skimmed 500 pounds of pot from the shipment — a little icing on the cake that he turned around and sold for $97,000, the News and Observer newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, reported. When all was said and done, he was granted immunity from prosecution and ended up pocketing the ill-gotten cash. Bailey generated a bit of his own myth: T-shirts reading "Don't Shoot, I'm Not Wade Bailey" were in high demand along the beaches of North Carolina.

Shortly after turning himself in to authorities in North Carolina, Purvis bonded out and returned to South Florida and to Platshorn's doorstep.

His legal troubles didn't deter him from trying to land a profitable load. In yet another failed trip, Purvis and others crash-landed a cargo plane on an airstrip in the Colombian jungle. The aircraft had to be buried before the Colombian Army found it. "The Colombians wanted to bury Purvis," Platshorn says.

Purvis returned to the States and surrendered to federal authorities. It was then, the government contends, that Purvis began cooperating with the DEA. Now under the watchful eye of federal agents, Purvis devised yet another trip to Colombia in March. Platshorn knew pot wouldn't be the only thing he'd try to haul back. He called Dávila ahead of Purvis' arrival and said, "Don't give these assholes cocaine." If Purvis had procured the coke, it would likely have meant life in prison for Meinster and Platshorn.

But the once-familiar landscape had already begun to change. Coca refineries were beginning to spring up in Colombia; mountains of cocaine were on their way. Colombian tough guys would be coming to Miami to wrest control from the Cubans and clear the way for the cartels. Platshorn was feeling the first gusts of a blizzard, and he didn't like it.

Purvis disappeared after that last trip. The next time Platshorn saw him, Purvis was sitting in the witness stand.

A sealed indictment against the Tunas was opened in federal court in May 1978. Agents arrested Platshorn, who quickly bonded out. But several months later, his bond was revoked.

The Black Tunas' attorneys had volunteered to surrender their clients peaceably. Instead, at 6 a.m. September 10, Platshorn received a call from a federal agent saying that they were outside his home and that he had 30 seconds to answer the door before it would be kicked in. Platshorn's spacious house was soon filled with agents wearing FBI and DEA windbreakers — no doubt a strange sight, since the two agencies had a long history of mutual suspicion. It was their first joint venture and a celebrated victory in a renewed War on Drugs. Then-Attorney General Griffin Bell announced, "It is one of the biggest drug busts by federal authorities in history."

Watching the evening news or reading the extensive coverage of the Tuna bust in the Miami Herald, smugglers no doubt took notice. They saw how risky marijuana was and searched out more valuable and compact goods.

"Operation Banco" was all over the headlines. A thorough review of bank transactions, in fact, ultimately brought the Tunas down, the feds claimed. Former DEA agent Michael Levine says the agencies wanted the public to believe there was a new, fresh way to fight the war. But no one, least of all Levine, could really argue that the Tunas were busted up by anything or anyone other than Wade Bailey and George Purvis Jr.

"Informants are the name of the game," Levine says. "If you have an informant in the organization, you're gonna make the case."

It was a slam dunk in the Eastern District Court of North Carolina. The feds had the informants, and they had 11 tons of grass seized from the Osprey. It took less than two weeks to convict Platshorn and Meinster of aiding and abetting marijuana importation. But this was dress rehearsal for a bigger trial — the more serious charges leveled against the Tunas in Florida.

The trial in the Southern District of Florida would be a test of endurance. It began in September 1979 and dragged on for nearly five months, with charges against 12 defendants detailed in a 105-page indictment the Miami Herald said "reads like a paperback thriller," with 36 counts of criminal activity.

The trial was, by most accounts, pretty tedious at first. That is, until December 6, when the jury was sequestered so Atlee Wampler of the Miami Organized Crime Strike Force, consisting of Justice Department prosecutors, could announce to Judge James Lawrence King that they had uncovered a plot to disrupt the trial. In this supposed plot, Meinster and Platshorn were conspiring to have King murdered — an allegation Platshorn calls "bullshit." It was later rejected by a jury. Wampler also claimed that several of the defendants, as well as Plat­shorn's wife at the time, Lynn, were planning to bribe jurors. One juror was subsequently removed and charged with obstruction of justice. The plot was slapped across the front page of the Herald. Miami FBI Chief Arthur F. Nehrbass growled to an Associated Press reporter, "To permit our courts to be destroyed by a gang of drug dealers is unthinkable."

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