He Dunnit (No, He Dunnit!)
Michael Ray Roberts was just nine miles out of West Palm Beach on August 1 when he spotted what no drug smuggler ever wants to see. Painted across the hull of a ship on the horizon was the Coast Guard's blood-red stripe, a terrifying sight for a man with 400 pounds of marijuana hidden on his boat. It was headed straight toward Roberts' sleek, 48-foot ketch.
The game was up. The Coast Guard cutter ordered him to lower his sail. They'd be coming aboard, and Roberts knew for sure that he was headed to prison.
At 56 years old, Roberts looks the part of a weathered sailor who's spent nearly three decades smuggling drugs. He has wispy brown hair that cuts across his forehead and a blunt-sized mustache that creeps down the sides of his mouth. A lifetime on the water has left him with permanent sunburn that reddens his cheeks and lights up his nose like neon. His sky-blue eyes look constantly tired, or perhaps stoned, considering he's a man who talks about routinely buying a pound of grass for personal use.
During 29 years in the smuggling business, Roberts had been caught before. He was an old hand at this. It wasn't the jail time that concerned him. Truth was, he had ways of wangling his way out of that. What worried him was something more personal. He was smuggling dope that August morning, he says, on a mission to rescue his grown son.
A month earlier, Roberts had begun what he calls "early retirement," setting sail for the Caribbean with his son, Michael Jr. On their first stop, in the Bahamas, his son got busted with a quantity of cocaine less than a gram, Roberts says at the Bahama Mama Bar in Freeport. He was buying it for a girl, he told the Bahamian court. The judge, unimpressed, slapped him with two years in prison, and officers led him back to a jail cell. No father likes to see one of his children in serious trouble. Roberts' son had a famished and beaten look when he visited him, and the sight of the young man had made Roberts die a little inside.
"The attorney down there, he told me I could get Michael out for 15 grand in cash," Roberts says. "I needed the money. I did what I had to do."
Roberts, of course, was well-versed in how to raise money fast. He put in a call to Richard Hudson, a dreadlocked Jamaican who goes by the nickname "Rasta." Roberts says he had shipped dope before for Hudson, whom Roberts claims is part of a Jamaican drug syndicate. Within days, Roberts says, Hudson had arranged for him to ship $340,000 in pot from Port Antonio, Jamaica, to West Palm Beach. The Jamaicans promised him $80,000, enough to get his son out with, coincidentally, enough left over to make retirement that much sweeter.
When the Coast Guard boarded his sailboat that day, though, Roberts was certain the plan was foiled. They came onboard, asked for his papers, and took a cursory look around the hold. After a lifetime of dipping into the goods he smuggled, Roberts has a coarse voice punctuated with a rough laugh that sounds like a dirt bike motor. He tried to joke with the sailors, but Roberts couldn't help but pour sweat. South Florida was stuck in a record-setting heat spell, and, two hours before noon, it was already blistering hot. Surely they'd see a wall panel partly askew and want to look behind it.
Luck was with him. The Coast Guard officers left. The sailors climbed back onto their cutter, and as Roberts watched that red-striped hull steam back toward shore, the blood started pumping through his veins again. Roberts had learned his lesson. He'd wait until the cutter had dipped over the horizon, and then he'd dump his load. The search had spooked him, and he figured he'd be better off dealing with the Jamaicans than getting caught.
"I really thought I had got away with one there," he says now.
But as anyone who's spent time hobnobbing with the felonious class will tell you, life often plays dirty tricks on those who flout the law. Roberts didn't get a chance to dump his stash. The cutter turned around again. Officers had keyed Roberts' name into their computerized files and gotten a hit. There had been a 1988 conviction for smuggling. This time, the sailors ordered Roberts to follow them to shore. Once at the dock in Riviera Beach, federal agents pulled apart the sailboat. They found tightly packed bales of pot stashed between cabin walls and the hull.
In the shifty world of smuggling, high-end drug deals, and seat-of-the-pants law enforcement, there are three kinds of currency: cash, drugs, and information. Roberts was short on the first, his supply of the second had been impounded by federal authorities, but he had information. And, having found himself in similar straits before, he knew how to use it.
The Coast Guard brought Roberts to a nondescript office building in downtown West Palm Beach where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has a satellite office. Honor among thieves is a quaint idea that early 20th-century novelists used to write about. Nowadays, when you're caught with a large quantity of drugs, the first option is: Strike a deal.
"Once you get caught red-handed like that, you're pretty forthcoming with information," Roberts says. They gave him an ultimatum: set up a drug sting and the government would recommend a lesser sentence than the 40 years he could face for smuggling.
Roberts called Hudson in Jamaica and claimed he had just arrived in West Palm Beach with the marijuana. Hudson told him to wait at a Days Inn to make the exchange, Roberts says. And as simple as that, Roberts was in the game again. He had become a second-tier snitch with, he claimed, the means to shut down a source of illegal drugs flowing into the U.S. This time, Roberts realized, he'd be marked for death by Jamaican drug lords. But he wasn't thinking about that. With just a couple of phone calls, he thought, maybe he could be back on the sailboat heading to the islands.
But again, things didn't go as planned.
Instead of a Miami Vice-style sting, the federal agents looked more like they had trained in Mayberry. The agents failed to nab any of the cartel leaders. The only arrest was of a low-level driver. As for the prime suspect, one of the cops accidentally shot him to death. Authorities won't release details of the bust, and two months after the shooting, an investigation into whether the killing was justified still isn't finished.
The botched sting, the sordid entrapment plan, and the grinding prosecutorial maneuvers that followed all seemingly straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel or a David Mamet play demonstrated once again the futility of trying to plug all the holes in their own anti-drug blockade or of rounding up all the drug smugglers. They also show that, while Customs officials are cracking down on big import spots such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale, smugglers have begun moving their entry points to porous smaller ports like West Palm Beach. Palm Beach County, with its proximity to the Bahamas and its sparsely populated beaches, has become a main entry point for drug smuggling, according to Roberts and other smugglers.
Roberts' willingness to turn state's evidence is by now commonplace. Federal sentencing laws that give breaks and sometimes cash to snitches often allow drug smugglers to go free in exchange for ratting out their partners. Critics say more and more criminals are escaping prison time by taking deals and pointing the finger at any low-level drug dealer or innocent bystander they can implicate.
In jail in West Palm Beach, where he agreed to speak to New Times, Roberts now lives the frightened life of a government informant while he awaits sentencing. But then, this is nothing new to Roberts, whom some describe as nothing more than a professional snitch.
Back in the mid-1970s, Roberts was deep into the decade's drug culture. He got a steady paycheck from his job as a paramedic in North Palm Beach while he made most of his cash selling small bags of weed to his buddies, says his former roommate, Howard Lawson. He was making enough dough that, Lawson says, Roberts came up with a plan.
"You're a boat captain, and I've got the drug connections," Lawson says Roberts told him. "If you'll smuggle it in, I've got the network to distribute it."
Within a year, the roommates had given up the dime-bag trade and were regularly dealing in hundreds of pounds of pot, Lawson says. On December 16, 1976, they made their biggest pickup yet, a 400-pound bale from a dealer in Fort Lauderdale. They threw it in the back of a van with a bumper sticker that read "Have a Shitty Day" and drove it to the Boca Raton home of a guy they knew who could unload it. The middleman said he was short on cash, so Lawson and Roberts took off with their van full of dope.
But while they were in the house, a cop had sneaked into the garage where the van was parked and hung a cloth from the CB antenna. Their friend had been working as an informant, and not long after the pair left the house, agents swarmed the van and arrested the two neophyte drug smugglers.
"They busted us with it right in our hands," says Lawson, now 64 and living a clean life in Boynton Beach. "It was a slam dunk."
They both served about two years in state prison in Belle Glade. They split up afterward, and Roberts didn't take long to get back into the business. Soon, Roberts bragged that he had a pair of sheriff's deputies working for him, Lawson says. "The deputies would meet him offshore, where they'd take it in for him on a sheriff's department boat."
In March 1985, hoping to make one run that would turn him into a big-time smuggler, Roberts sailed to Santa Marta, Colombia. He loaded a sailboat called Pequina with sticky and sweet Colombian weed. The stash weighed in at 15,000 pounds 712 tons of weed. He sailed to Walkers Cay, Bahamas, but he had no idea how to unload that much dope without getting caught.
It was at the Best Western's beachside bar on Singer Island in April 1985 that Roberts concocted the biggest deal of his drug-running career. According to court documents, Roberts met with Claude Avon Pinder, head of a well-managed group of drug-smuggling boat captains. They called him "The Kingfish," and Pinder promised to help distribute the dope over the next three months, prosecutors say. Using fishing boats and skiffs, 25 separate boat captains met Roberts in international waters from West Palm to Fort Pierce. They unloaded the pot, several hundred pounds at a time.
When the entire load was divided between middlemen from Florida to New York, Roberts split the proceeds with the team. Six-figure payments in cash were becoming common. Given the amount of law-enforcement heat the drug trade was beginning to attract, it's surprising how easily Roberts and the rest got away with it.
Three years went by. Then, in 1988, one of the smugglers, facing a drug charge in Georgia, spilled the details. Edward "Dutch" Schouten agreed to testify against his former bosses in exchange for a sentence of a year and a day.
Schouten fingered Pinder and Roberts as the ringleaders. But after his arrest, Roberts agreed to testify for prosecutors. He quickly blamed the whole deal on Pinder, and federal prosecutors ran with it. In arrest documents, prosecutors claimed that Pinder controlled a network of 150 smugglers and said he was responsible for importing ten tons of pot in the 1980s. They claimed his ancestors had ties to rum-running in the 1920s. Federal authorities seized Pinder's home and family property worth $4.1 million.
Roberts spent three days on the stand testifying against his former partner. Thanks to Roberts' testimony, Pinder got 30 years in prison.
The use of unidentified snitches to get search warrants tripled in the 1980s and early '90s, according to a National Law Journal study in 1995. If anything, the practice has increased geometrically since then. It's so common that there's even a website whosarat.com dedicated to snitches. The site shows photos of informants and has information for the targets of snitches to beat trumped-up charges. The reason more accused criminals are agreeing to testify is that federal sentencing guidelines offer explicit breaks to those who agree to turn state's evidence. But perhaps as an even greater incentive, federal drug agents often pay informants, sometimes six-figure salaries. Former DEA agent turned defense expert Celerino Castillo III says those informants are often liars simply looking to get out of prison time. Often, drug agents know they're lying and are told to feed the informants more lies to get better convictions, Castillo says from his home in McAllen, Texas.
"As an agent, I was told regularly by my supervisors to get the informants to make things up," Castillo says. "The government will do anything for a conviction in the war on drugs."
Pinder got out with good behavior three years ago and now lives in Jupiter, where he's working as a salesman for a food company. He says his role in the deal was nothing more than to watch over the pot while it sat in a fishing boat in the Bahamas. Pinder claims he never met with Roberts at the Best Western to plan the operation, something he says Roberts fabricated. "They painted me to be the kingpin, and guess what? It was Mike Roberts," Pinder says. "He keeps getting busted and keeps getting away with it by blaming it on other people."
Pinder says he's surprised that his former partner had the nerve to rat out some tough characters and that none of them have looked for revenge. Pinder doesn't want retribution, but he doesn't want to see Roberts walk away this time either, he says. "I ain't in the killing business, but I tell you, I don't want to see this happen to nobody else," Pinder says. "I'm not an angel, now, but I'm not what they made me out to be."
Thanks to Roberts' testimony, prosecutors charged 25 alleged members of the "Pinder Ring." One of the accused boat captains, Frank Wyatt, maintained his innocence and took his case to trial in 1990. Roberts claimed to have seen Wyatt take a shipment of dope into the Fort Pierce inlet, but on the stand, he admitted he had never actually seen Wyatt before. For his part, Wyatt says he was at the inlet that day but was fishing with his son. "He testified against me, and I had never seen him before in my whole life," Wyatt says. The lawyers barely had time for a bathroom break before the jury returned a verdict clearing Wyatt of drug-smuggling.
Wyatt, a 76-year-old retired golf course manager in North Palm Beach, says he doesn't hold a grudge against Roberts. He says he knows that Roberts just cut a deal to avoid prison. "I'll tell you right now that I could go down to the penitentiary in Miami and get a dozen guys who, for a couple of cartons of cigarettes, would swear you assassinated John F. Kennedy," Wyatt says. "Roberts lied to get his freedom. That's how the system works. I can't blame him. Wouldn't you do it if they said you were going to walk away?"
Before he cut his deal, Roberts faced up to 30 years in prison for the weed he says he imported with Pinder. He got three years' probation.
Afterward, Roberts moved to Myrtle Beach and took a job as a night manager at the Holiday Sands South hotel. He saved money and bought a boat repair business in the early 1990s. He says he stayed clean for a decade, but the easy money wasn't something he could stay away from for long.
In June of this year, Roberts sold his repair business and made enough cash to buy a used 48-foot Soverel sailboat named Barefoot. It was nimble and quick and perfect for Roberts' retirement cruise to the Caribbean. He planned to spend a year there before island-hopping to the South Pacific. He just needed a bit of spending money, so Roberts set sail for Jamaica. It didn't take long for him to find a load of dope to run.
At the marina in Port Antonio, Roberts came in a bit too fast and struck the bow into a concrete dock. The marina recommended a repairman Richard "Rasta" Hudson who Roberts said became his supplier.
Reached on his cell phone in Jamaica, Hudson says he did nothing more for Roberts than repair his boat. "Me? Not me, man," Hudson says, when asked if he is part of the smuggling ring. "Mike Roberts, that man came to the marina, and I do some work for him. That is it."
Roberts claims Hudson gave him 75 pounds of weed in June. Just like the time he got busted in August, he was told to take it to West Palm Beach, where he was to wait for instructions.
It's no surprise the Jamaicans have been using West Palm as their main destination, says David Rasmussen, dean of the Florida State University College of Social Sciences and an expert on the drug trade, who refers to federal drug agents as warriors. "In the war on drugs, the warriors have assumed that drug traders will continue to do what they've always done and use big ports," Rasmussen says. "The smugglers do what any entrepreneur would do and find a more profitable place." Rasmussen says drug smugglers have learned that big ports like Miami are too controlled, while smaller cities have fewer Coast Guard patrols. "You start shutting down Miami and nearby smaller ports become popular." There's no way to track just how much drug smugglers are using West Palm, but it's clear federal drug agents concentrate their efforts on Miami. Since January, the U.S. Attorney's Office has announced 14 drug busts for South Florida. Of them, only one was in Palm Beach County.
As soon as he had sailed into West Palm back in June, Roberts says he called the Jamaican cartel ringleader, a man who identified himself only as "Big Man." Using a New York City cell phone number, Big Man told Roberts to wait at the Days Inn on 45th Street. There, Roberts says he met up with 40-year-old Donovan Brooks, who Roberts says was the Jamaicans' distribution man.
Brooks is a Jamaican-born chef who had immigrated to Toronto a decade earlier. He made a living catering weddings and parties by roasting fish and ribs on open charcoal pits. Brooks was well-known for the brand names like Gucci or Fubu that always crossed his chest. He wore bleached-white running shoes and gold watches that hung luxuriantly on his wrist. Roberts says Brooks paid him by pulling from his pants a heat-sealed package of $100 bills. The cash totaled $26,000 for a couple of days of sailing.
Roberts says he used the money on debts and to get his sailboat ready for his trip with his son. By the time he needed money for a bribe to get Michael Jr. out of jail, he had only a few thousand left. Roberts says he found Hudson at the same marina in Jamaica. This time, Hudson had a lot more dope for Roberts. Once again, Roberts says, he was instructed to take the weed to West Palm, where he'd wait for orders from the Big Man himself.
So when the Coast Guard busted Roberts back in August, he knew exactly who to finger. He named Hudson, Brooks, and the mysterious Big Man. With a few phone calls, Roberts set a trap for them.
The Customs agents wanted the deal to go down with some authenticity, so when Roberts called Brooks on August 4 and told him he had arrived, he immediately demanded more money, a frequent gambit employed by drug smugglers. He complained that the packages weighed more than the 400 pounds he had agreed to ship.
"I work on commission," Roberts said on his cell phone at the Customs office. "I want more money."
Brooks had the Big Man call to settle it. "I will get you a bigger boat next time," the ringleader promised.
Roberts capitulated, and they set up the transfer for that night at the Days Inn. Brooks was heading down from New Jersey with the money supposedly hidden in a rental car.
Driving Brooks that night was 23-year-old Mickey Miles, a truck driver who had met Brooks at a barbecue a couple of years ago. Miles has eyes underlined by dark lines and a shadow of a mustache above his lip. Miles speaks in near-whispers with a grin that makes you want to believe his story that he had nothing to do with the drug deal. Miles says he was headed to his uncle's house in Miramar when Brooks called him up and asked him for a ride. He says he agreed to drop Brooks off at the Days Inn. Miles, who spoke to New Times while at the Palm Beach County Jail, says Brooks brought along a pair of empty duffle bags that he explained were for souvenirs. He admits now that the bags seemed suspicious, but at the time, he says, he didn't ask about them. "I didn't know anything about any drug deal," Miles claims.
Brooks and Miles were late for the rendezvous, and by the time they arrived, it was ten minutes after midnight. Brooks checked in to Room 372 and called Roberts back to set up the deal, according to court documents.
Throughout the sting, Roberts was sitting in a holding room at the Customs office in West Palm Beach. When it was time for the deal to go down, Roberts followed instructions from the federal agents and told Brooks he was sitting in the motel parking lot in a white Dodge Dakota pickup with a camper shell. The truck was parked in the rear of the Days Inn lot, past the IHOP, and in a darkened corner of the dead-end driveway. As Brooks and Miles approached, the inside of the cab was too shadowed for them to know that an undercover agent sat inside.
Listening on his cell phone, Roberts heard the whole sting fall apart in seconds. "It was like a big snowball of shit," he says. "It just went downhill and fast."
As Brooks and Miles came up to the truck, government agents rushed in. They ordered both of them to the ground, where they dropped to their bellies. The cops were part of a drug task force made up of DEA agents, local police, and others. Among them was a Jupiter cop on loan to Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office organized crime bureau, which provided backup for the sting. Authorities won't release the Jupiter cop's name or any details of what happened next.
But what they will say is that as the cop rushed in, his gun fired, perhaps accidentally. Brooks died instantly.
On the other side of the pickup, Miles says he heard the shot and thought he might be next. "I just couldn't believe it," he says. "I didn't know if they were going to kill both of us. I still didn't know what it was about. It was like an execution." From under the truck, he could see blood running across the asphalt from Brooks' motionless body.
The agents arrested Miles on two federal charges of trying to distribute drugs. Press statements claimed that Brooks had paid Miles $500 to take him to Florida, something Miles denies. Miles, who faces up to 40 years in federal prison if convicted, says he won't take a deal if they offer him a chance to testify. "I knew nothing about this," he says.
While the feds built their case against Miles, the Sheriff's Office began investigating whether the shooting was justified. The Sheriff's Office finished its investigation September 26, although the results have not been released to the public. Prosecutors must now decide whether the Jupiter cop shot Brooks improperly and, if so, whether the officer should be charged with a crime.
Brooks' family has claimed the shooting was intentional. His ex-wife, Antoinette "Princess" White, believes the cops meant to kill him. "He was always talking about how he had a partner who is a police in Florida somewhere," White claimed by phone from her home outside Toronto. "I know that is why they shot him. They needed to shut him up."
In Jamaica, a half-dozen of his family members tried to get visas to come to Florida to find out what happened, but the U.S. government refused them. His sister, Juliette Cunningham, speaking by phone from her home in Jamaica, says Brooks' family still doesn't understand what happened. "He was a black man, and police just came up and shot him that is all we know," she says. "What happened to a man innocent until you prove him guilty?"
Meanwhile, Roberts spends his days looking over his shoulder at the jail in West Palm. He says he knows the Jamaicans are after him. "I feel sure they would kill me in a heartbeat," he says with a cold stare from gold-rimmed glasses. "These guys, these Jamaicans, are a real professional outfit. They're some bad motherfuckers. That's for sure."
Roberts didn't get any guarantees for his testimony at least, any that have been made public. The government agreed only to ask a judge for leniency, according to court papers. In exchange, Roberts must testify against Miles the only person nabbed in the sting. Hudson, who allegedly supplied the dope, is still in Jamaica. Big Man is free, still using the New York City cell phone he used in the deal, though he didn't respond to messages from New Times left on the number.
Even if the judge goes easy on Roberts again, he says his idea of sailing the South Pacific is dead. The government seized his boat, and he's penniless again. "Any idea of me retiring now is gone. I'll have to work until the day I die." While he may get off easy again, he says his time in jail won't be easy.
Less than a month after Roberts set up the sting, prosecutors filed court papers indicating that they would seek a stiffer sentence, even with the deal he cut. They're asking for a minimum of ten years and as much as life in federal prison for a snitch who has, at least until now, been adept at ducking prison time.
"If you want to come back after I'm sentenced, I'll tell you what happens to federal witnesses in this place," Roberts said in the jail's visiting area. "It's a horror story that'll blow your mind."
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