By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
Robert Platshorn was a hostage, all right, but you wouldn't have known it from the lush Caribbean scenery outside his hotel window. You wouldn't have figured it from his carefree fishing excursions for marlin and sailfish on luxury yachts or from the big fat joints of Colombia's finest marijuana that continually protruded from his lips.But a hostage he was, human collateral for a two-and-half-ton load of Santa Marta Gold that was slowly making its way up Colombia's Rio Magdalena on a large wooden raft called a bungo.
Its destination: South Florida. Its value: $1.4 million, minus the $30,000 in bad drug debts this load was supposed to cover, the $300,000 to be paid to the Colombian supplier, and the $200,000 for transportation. And until Platshorn's cohorts took possession of the marijuana and a bank transaction was completed, a captive Platshorn remained comfortably ensconced in an opulent suite at a hotel on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
His partners were supposed to fly the load back to Florida in the cargo hold of a DC-3, a reliable old plane that made its name carrying supplies and troops during World War II. Then, once all of the pot was sold and the money was deposited in an account, his "captors" would release him.
Platshorn wasn't worried. Stoned, yes — thoroughly baked, in fact, and intimately acquainted with the goods he was soon to transport — but not worried.
This was just business, and good business wasn't violent, not in the mid-1970s, when Platshorn ran his transcontinental racket. Marijuana suppliers were family-run enterprises mediated by political figures and local law enforcement intent on keeping a lid on the trade while lining their own pockets. And he trusted his partners. They were his stoner buddies, and he knew they'd come through for him.
"It was a hippie era," Platshorn says. "You tell a guy you'll pay him $1 million, you pay him."
Those were the years before the cocaine blizzard swallowed South Florida, and Platshorn was just an entrepreneurial pothead leading the 007 existence he'd always dreamed of — and smoking some really good weed while he was at it.
Back in Florida, he had a handful of yachts at his disposal. From a posh suite at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, he operated an auto auction, a marina club, and a barbershop. He used canal-front stash houses and wore stylish plaid leisure suits with the broad collars as sharp as spearheads.
The real cash cow, of course, wasn't the barbershop or the auction. It was the Santa Marta Gold — the finest grass coming into South Florida.
The plan all along was to make $1 million smuggling the stuff, then get out while the gettin' was good. But like most best-laid plans — and that ill-fated load drifting up the Rio Magdalena — nothing ever goes the way it's supposed to.
When shipments of marijuana landed at clandestine jungle airstrips or a yacht rendezvoused with a mothership on the open sea, DEA agents frequently heard the code name "black tuna" crackle over the radio. Platshorn didn't choose the sobriquet. It was the DEA that dubbed his ragtag group of stoners the Black Tuna Gang. And soon, the Tunas — and Platshorn himself — would become legendary figures in drug-smuggling lore.
Platshorn and friends would be accused of smuggling, or at least attempting to smuggle, 500 tons of marijuana into the United States during the mid- to late '70s. When they were busted in September 1978, the DEA proclaimed it the most sophisticated drug ring it had ever encountered.
Platshorn's 1980 conviction was a major coup for drug enforcement agencies, the first-ever joint FBI/DEA enterprise. In all, eight of the gang's central members were convicted in two federal trials, but the gang's leaders, Platshorn and Robert Meinster, would pay the stiffest price: prison sentences totaling 108 years between them.
On April Fool's Day of this year, Platshorn was released to a halfway house in West Palm Beach after 28 years in the pen. He has absolutely nothing to show for his stint as one of America's most wanted smugglers: no money, no job, little remaining family. A benefit concert for Platshorn, sponsored by High Times, hasn't been able to secure a venue, and a book he wrote in prison on an old typewriter, The Black Tuna Diaries, hasn't been picked up by a publisher.
But there is the Black Tuna myth, and Platshorn is eager to peddle it. He told his story to New Times – about the good ol' days of trafficking and how it went so terribly wrong. Through interviews with DEA agents, academics, and attorneys involved in the two trials that sank the Black Tuna Gang and after scrutinizing hundreds of pages of court documents, old newspaper articles, and Platshorn's manuscript, an image of "Bobby Tuna" began to emerge from the smoke and coke-lined mirrors of three decades of drug enforcement. Platshorn might have been a hippie at heart, but the traffickers who replaced him were a far more ruthless breed. Through their innovations in large-scale smuggling, the Black Tunas unwittingly paved the way for today's vicious drug game and the law enforcement practices that paradoxically fuel it.
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."
"Put 500 people in front of me," Platshorn likes to say, "and I'd get into 300 pockets."
Things were going well for him: He was married and had a son on the way, as well as a few successful businesses. Born in Philadelphia, Platshorn graduated from high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He studied communications and journalism at Temple University and at the University of Miami, but he never graduated. He was a smart middle-class kid with a restless soul. Unlike many who entered the drug trade, he wasn't clawing his way out of poverty; he was just a natural-born salesman and entrepreneur.
At the state fair, he met an old acquaintance from Philadelphia who was looking for some buyers to offload several shipments of marijuana. And so it began for Platshorn, who got a little dough for referring a contact to Robby Meinster, his childhood buddy. (Meinster, who lives in Pennsylvania now, declined to be interviewed.)
Richard Nixon was out of the White House by then, and the prevailing attitudes toward pot suggested to Platshorn that legalization was just up the road. There was an opening for profits, but he had to move fast. Besides, moving marijuana was so much more exciting than hustling No-Run Hosiery.
In 1975, Platshorn moved to Miami and began ascending the pot-purveying hierarchy, establishing Miami-Cuba connections as a middleman. These Cuban connections would later be severed as the Colombians violently wrested control of the cocaine trade.
Platshorn lived in the Spring Gardens section of old Miami, on the Seybold Canal. In spring 1976, he and Meinster opened the South Florida Auto Auction on seven acres at 2979 NW 36th St. Meinster relocated to Miami, and business began moving on all fronts. When Platshorn went to Barranquilla, Colombia, to salvage a failed deal that his weed-hustling customers' money depended on, he met "Johnny."
Platshorn needed a load of pot on credit, and Johnny knew just the right people. Johnny introduced him to Raúl Dávila-Jimeno. The Associated Press later described him as "dark-eyed and handsome," a man who "never [moved] without his local militiamen or his silver-plated .357 Magnum beneath an expensive leisure suit." From a prominent Colombian family, he was the only one from his country charged in the Black Tuna case. He was never extradited to the United States to face those charges.
The deal gelled, and Platshorn established a good working relationship with Dávila. For his second load from the wealthy Colombian, Platshorn arranged for 5,000 pounds of some "primo Colombian yerba." As collateral, Platshorn offered himself. He'd be released as soon as the load was sold and payment was deposited in an account.
It was in the fall of 1976, after an almost three-week stay in El Rodadero de Santa Marta on Colombia's Caribbean coast as a "hostage," that Platshorn finally rendezvoused in Aruba with a couple of pilots and the DC-3. They flew to a clandestine airstrip near the Caribbean coast in La Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, jokingly referred to as O'Hare South, and took on the load.
But as they prepared to leave, Colombian soldiers began filtering out of the jungle shouting "¡Tranquilo, hombres!" — which, roughly translated, means "Don't move, stay calm, and put your hands above your heads!"
The soldiers glanced nervously at the glinting pistol stuck in Dávila's waistband and began disarming everyone. The noon sun glared high overhead, and Platshorn was wilting in the oppressive humidity. The soldiers pointed to the far end of the runway to the man in charge. He was a lieutenant, dressed in olive-drab fatigues, with two Dobermans on a leash in one hand and a chrome automatic in the other. When he finally joined them, the lieutenant asked Platshorn if he was the boss. Platshorn said he was just a laborer: "Yo campesino solo."
The Colombian officer didn't buy any of it. So he ordered Platshorn, laborer that he was, to begin unloading five tons of Colombia's skunkiest, one fecund 50-pound bale at a time. Platshorn was desperate for something to drink and eyed the lieutenant's canteen greedily. The officer chuckled and waved him toward the DC-3 with his gun.
The cargo hold had by then turned into an oven, and waves of heat stole his breath when he stepped inside. But the heat was suffused with the odor of baking marijuana. The THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in pot — from 5,000 pounds of Santa Marta Gold was coaxed into the air by the rising mercury, intoxicating him like some massive vaporizer as he toiled and sweated. He stacked the bales in fours, but after only a few stacks, he found himself utterly stoned.
His business partners had left to retrieve money to buy off the lieutenant — a requested $2 million. But the lieutenant's patience was wearing thin, and he was toying with the idea of shooting Platshorn. A fine example that could be of what happens to traffickers when they didn't pay his "landing fees." Platshorn wasn't worried — not a bit. He tore a corner off one of the bales and joined four rolling papers. Then he rolled a massive joint and lit it like some pungent torch. The Colombian soldiers laughed at him and crowed "loco." Then, with the lieutenant off in the shade somewhere, Platshorn offered the joint to the bemused, carbine-toting Colombians, and a few accepted. To them, this man didn't seem to be much of a threat at all.
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.
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?"
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.
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."
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?"
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."
With little resolved, Platshorn waits in line. All around is the incomprehensible droning of myriad languages and dialects and the occasional flash of the camera for license pictures. Finally, his turn arrives.
After a few questions, he declares, "I'm the longest-serving marijuana prisoner."
The woman behind the desk raises her eyebrows, but she doesn't look up from the computer monitor.
"Lesson learned?" she asks.