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.

This trial came to a close in February 1980, with Platshorn sentenced to 64 years in prison, Meinster to 54. Out of all the defendants, Platshorn would remain in prison the longest.

The monochromatic world of prison was as different as it could be from the bright and vibrant seascapes of South Florida. In Marion Supermax — a federal prison in Illinois for only the most violent offenders — tormented souls howled through the night. The clangor of fists and feet striking steel bars echoed in the corridors.

Platshorn was a born rebel. He rebelled against the marijuana laws he believed were wrong — the very laws that would relegate many of his best years to prison. Now, his every movement was controlled by the institution. Still, he found ways to resist, ways that wouldn't necessarily land him in solitary confinement. He smuggled — cigarettes. The vehicles for contraband were food carts, not luxury yachts, but the tiny smuggles soothed a bruised ego. Asked if he managed to smoke grass in the pen, Plat­shorn grins and says, "Can I plead the Fifth?"

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.

Despite some small victories, Platshorn's life as he knew it was over. He'd be leaving behind his wife Lynn and two children. He and his previous wife had also remained close, but she was suffering from complications of lupus and died long before he was released, as did his 12-year-old daughter, Hope, from an asthmatic condition. "We made plans we knew would never happen," Platshorn says.

He knew it would be a long time before he'd breathe free air again, so he and Lynn decided to get a divorce.

The Black Tunas' lengthy prison sentences presented a cautionary tale for the smuggling trade. Said Judge King: "In a thunderous warning, the Congress said: 'The illegal traffic in drugs should be attacked with the full power of the federal government.' The price for participation in this traffic should be prohibitive. It should be made too dangerous to be attractive."

But self-congratulatory statements from law enforcement officials about the pall that the Black Tunas' case had thrown over the drug smuggling business sounded hollow in the face of new supply sources and new drugs.

Larger-than-life tales of exotic locales and near misses among the buccaneering marijuana smugglers would be replaced by stories of the carnage wrought by cocaine cartels, sensationalized in television shows such as Miami Vice and films like Scarface. Platshorn and company stood at the edge of the preceding epoch.

The story of the Tunas can still be found on the DEA's website. But while the group's demise is touted as one of the agency's great victories, insiders say the Black Tuna Gang is in fact the emblem of the feds' ultimate defeat.

Platshorn is standing in a long, shuffling line at the DMV in West Palm Beach, just one of a hundred seeking validation in the form of a plastic card. He wears a pair of baggy swim trunks, a gray polo, and a cap that reads "Stuntman's Association." He could be someone's grandpa, short and jolly-looking, darkened by a perpetual tan from years on a boat far off Florida's Atlantic Coast.

Unlike most of the people here, Platshorn won't be getting a driver's license. In fact, he hasn't driven a car in 30 years, so he'd have to take a refresher course. He's here to get a state I.D., also known as a walking I.D.

Jobless, nearly penniless, living at a halfway house, his only means of identification is a prison identification card — Robert Platshorn, prisoner number 00603-004. His son, Matthew, who lives in Reno, Nevada, hasn't been to see him in the two-and-a-half months since his release. In fact, Platshorn doesn't want him to come to this place.

The only job he's been able to secure so far, cold-calling for AT&T — an old ex-con standby — ended in abrupt and abject failure. He made a few calls but was angrily rejected each time, something for which Platshorn had no stomach. Even the renowned pitchman couldn't sell a prospective customer on the other end of an unsolicited phone call.

His movement and activities are still controlled at the halfway house. He can't leave until he has a steady 9-to-5 job — a prospect that disgusts the black marketeer, who's never punched a clock. This new life has stripped him to the bones. All he has are the adventures of the past, which now seem more myth than reality in this age of state-of-the-art, home-based hydroponic pot farms. Nobody smuggles pot anymore. In this new market, Platshorn is a relic of the past and the jealous guardian of his own legend, which he hopes will provide his ticket to something approaching prosperity.

Platshorn approaches a curt, blond, middle-aged DMV employee sorting this human traffic. She asks him for his I.D.

"It's been 25 years," Platshorn says.

She glares at him.

"What?" she says. "Are you saying you're 25 or that it's 25 years since your license expired?"

"It's 25 years expired."

"Do you have a copy?"


"Do you think it's in the archives?"

"I've been in jail."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help