Meet the Americans Serving Life in Prison for Weed

Meet the Americans Serving Life in Prison for Weed

Finishing off the end of a joint, the DeLisi brothers slid into a 7-Eleven parking lot just off Sample Road in Pompano Beach. It was the end of 1974, and they were ages 30 and 38, full of New York swagger, and feeling invincible. Tucked into the yellow 1965 Porsche's passenger seat was Teddy, a sweetheart who looked like a mix of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison. Turning off the ignition was Richie, a streetwise guy with a criminal mind who often bossed his brother around, despite being almost a decade younger and an inch shorter.

Inside the 7-Eleven, the two cotton-mouthed hustlers fished two Cokes from the store's back cooler before heading to the counter. Drag racers as kids and auto mechanics as adults, they were primed to always look at anything car-related. As they checked out, Richie set his sights on an auto-trade magazine resting near the register. Bleary-eyed, he asked his brother what the text on the front was advertising. A dyslexic who couldn't sit still inside a classroom, Richie had never learned to read or write. When he found out it was a coffee plantation in rural Colombia for sale, the man, decked out in his trademark suede jacket and faded dungarees, positively lit up.

Under fluorescent green and orange light, the DeLisis then crowded around a pay phone outside. They were both over six feet and had to crouch to make the call. When a middle-aged man in the Midwest picked up, Teddy asked the name of the place, jotting down details for his illiterate but insistent brother. Had they ever been out of the country? The man on the line wanted to know.

"It took big balls to do what me and my brother did."

"Don't worry; we'll find it," Teddy assured before hanging up the phone. He wasn't so sure. Still, the two headed down to Miami to apply for passports. Without knowing a lick of -Spanish, they soon boarded airplanes for the first time and set off on a journey to locate the 30-hectare farm. Besides the clothes on their backs, the self-described hippies were armed only with a black-and-white picture and a personal stash of weed.

"We headed up into the mountains," Richie DeLisi remembers today. "It took big balls to do what me and my brother did."

The DeLisis had come to South Florida in the late 1960s as the result of a freak accident. Back home, their father, Theodore Sr., was considered a villain for causing the accidental death of a teenaged girl. Exiled from their home in Queens, they booked it to Deerfield Beach for a fresh start.

But they never escaped their reputations as roughnecks. Not long after opening a Volkswagen repair shop in Pompano, they started using the business as a way to flip dime bags of weed. Eventually, they began moving ounces up the East Coast to their native New York. When they stumbled upon the magazine at 7-Eleven, they finally considered heading to the source.

Deciding to go big time, they purchased a place in the Rio Hacha desert, the one they'd seen in the mag, for $9,000. A fleet of airplanes came next -- an investment that would turn a side business into a $55 million drug empire over the course of four years. When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took the DeLisi brothers down in 1980, the agency would describe it as one of the biggest investigations in its history.

But even though newspapers declared them "armed and dangerous," the DeLisis were never accused of any violent crime. Even when they were arrested a second time, in 1989, they were charged only with trafficking, conspiracy, and racketeering. Although Teddy got out on an appeal last year, Richard DeLisi has been in prison for 26 years and counting. He's one of more than a dozen nonviolent criminals around the country currently serving either life sentences or de facto life sentences for smuggling pot -- and one of the seven who were tried and convicted in Florida.

Reformers say the long sentences handed out to relatively harmless pot dealers during the War on Drugs should be revisited. In the 1980s, when crack cocaine ravaged the nation, lawmakers introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and tough prosecutors tacked on conspiracy charges that could add decades of prison time. Now, however, 23 states plus Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, and polls indicate that 80 percent of Floridians will follow suit by voting for a constitutional amendment in the November 4 election. Why are taxpayers still footing the multimillion-dollar bill to incarcerate guys peddling a substance we've come to think of as medicine?

In December 1989, Richard DeLisi was sentenced to 90 years behind bars: 30 for trafficking marijuana, 30 for conspiracy to traffic it, and 30 more for racketeering. If he'd been convicted after 1995, when Florida enacted a Truth in Sentencing Law, he'd have to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, which would have been 76 and a half years.

As it stands, DeLisi has earned years off of his sentence for things like good behavior and getting his GED. His release date is set for 2026, meaning the 65-year-old will be 77 when he gets out, if he lives that long. Though he is not an entirely sympathetic character, he is now in his twilight years and in poor health. Since he's been incarcerated, his family has fallen to ruins amid poverty and drug addiction. A hearing set for November 7 will determine whether he has one of his felony conspiracy charges reduced to a second-degree misdemeanor. If not, DeLisi will become the nation's longest-serving inmate for a nonviolent, marijuana-related crime.

"I've watched murderers, rapists, and child molesters all get out of jail before me," he said last month via phone from the South Bay Correctional Facility. "When I was smuggling, I always knew the consequences. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would end up like this."


Beth Curtis registered the domain lifeforpot.org in 2009. Her brother, John Knock, had just lost his last appeal. Indicted in 1994, he would be forced to wrangle with his sentence: two life terms plus 20 years. At the time, Curtis wanted to satisfy her own curiosity and find out who else had been given the same deal, either federally or on a state level. "Plus, people didn't believe me when I told them my brother was in jail for life over pot and hadn't also killed someone," says the blond woman, who lives in Zanesville, Ohio. Her tally lists 22 people sentenced to life for nonviolent pot offenses, and she says she's not sure it's entirely comprehensive. DeLisi is one of the people for whom she advocates.

 

Teddy DeLisi and Carmen Celeiro kept in touch throughout his incarceration and reunited after he was released last year.
Teddy DeLisi and Carmen Celeiro kept in touch throughout his incarceration and reunited after he was released last year.
Courtesy of Teddy DeLisi

Although her scrappy-looking site is a web designer's nightmare, it caught the attention of two New Yorkers, Michael Kennedy and David Holland, attorneys for High Times magazine. In 2012, they put together a petition asking for clemency for five elderly inmates on Curtis' list and sent it to President Obama. It went viral online among activists and brought these drug smugglers to national attention. In the petition, the attorneys ask Obama to recognize "the sea change in attitudes toward life sentences without parole and the change in societal beliefs about the benefits of marijuana and its potential for harm." The petition asks the president to use his executive power to grant them immediate release.

Dennis Cauchon, a former USA Today reporter, runs the Clemency Report, a website he hopes will draw attention to the barely publicized cause. The website's list contains a combination of 25 state and federal prisoners but also advocates for the release of 1 million prisoners, which would make the number of Americans in jail comparable to the number incarcerated in 1980. Before the drug war took off, Cauchon explains on the site, one out of every 500 Americans was behind bars. Now it's one out of every 140.

"The drug war has moved me for my entire life," he explains. "I tried to find a way to articulate it that the public would understand. When I first created the list, I called all the people who've been working on this issue for a long time and asked, 'Who moves you the most?'"

For years, Richard DeLisi has been the number-one person on Cauchon's Florida list, and last month DiLisi was "promoted" to the nation's top ten, Cauchon says.

Richard DeLisi was born February 10, 1949. He never much cared for school. Quick-witted but learning-disabled, he displayed an entrepreneurial edge at a young age, making money slinging newspapers he couldn't read in the summertime and, when it got colder, working on food trucks. His father was a mechanic, and his mom was a typical Italian housewife.

Growing to a whopping six-foot-one by age 14, Richie managed to keep his illiteracy under wraps using brute force. "Nobody but my close friends knew I couldn't read," he says now. "If somebody tried to goof on me, I'd go off on them."

He dropped out of school at age 16. That was also the first time he smoked pot -- in the back of a '55 Chevy with his brother-in-law on their way back down Flatbush Avenue from Burger Flame. In his 20s, Richie became a professional drag racer for the National Hot Rod Association, driving a car called "One Waco Kid." He had four children with three women.

If his reputation was for being a burner with a temper, that of his father's was much worse. One day in 1965, Theodore Sr. was out in Jamaica Bay on his fishing boat The Peg. He and four buddies were throwing chum off a boat and shooting the sharks that came for it with British military rifles. An errant bullet ricocheted off the water and hit a 17-year-old girl who had just gotten her license as she sped down an adjacent causeway. The girl was shot in the back of the neck, which caused her brain fluid to leak out and her brand-new Camaro to crash through a railing. The neighborhood searched for the Knapp Street Sniper, as the suspect was known, until Theodore Sr. turned himself in. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, although the charges were dropped due to it being a freak accident.

"He had to get out of the neighborhood because he killed a neighborhood girl," says Chuck DeLisi, Teddy and Richie's middle brother, who would later serve as a lieutenant in the family's smuggling operation and eventually spend three years and two months in jail. "He was really upset about it and didn't want to live with it, so he moved down to Florida." That was in 1967. A Reader's Digest article titled "A Bullet From Nowhere" would be the family's first press, long before their drug-smuggling escapades would dominate headlines in the Sun Sentinel and beyond.


As the DC-4 made its third swoop above the makeshift runway, John Beserany groaned. It was a January night in 1980, and the 29-year-old with a head of curly black hair and a handlebar mustache was crouched on top of a farmhouse roof in rural Hardee County, about 60 miles east of Sarasota. As the designated lookout, Beserany remembers watching the plane's front beam cut an incriminating swath of light through the orange groves that surrounded him and his 29 partners in crime.

The group had gone over the plan meticulously. If there were any deviation, the odds of safely landing the plane filled with 7.5 tons of marijuana would be almost nil. Police had been on high alert for low-flying aircraft, so the team needed to be as stealthy as possible.

Three weeks earlier, however, pilot Jim Wilson had refused to practice, say multiple people involved in the plot. Teddy DeLisi remembers how they had driven out to a secluded airstrip -- a route that didn't pass over any roads, homes, or strip malls. Along with brother Richie, the two scoured the area under the guise of a dove-hunting trip. The group had even gone so far as to secure permits and pack shotguns to avoid suspicion from police. But after taking a look around, the veteran flier decided he didn't need to do a test run. "He said he knew the area like the back of his hand," Teddy says.

But when it came time to execute the plan, Wilson's confidence was gone. He squinted into the inky night, trying to locate the tiny lights his coconspirators were using to illuminate the 200-foot-wide dirt runway.

What happened next came to define the DeLisi brothers' lives, and they along with others who were there remember the details: Wilson took a risk by dipping the plane down to get his bearings, but he was still too far north. He circled back again and again. The third time, he descended right over the abode of a forest ranger, who would later testify that the resulting vibration caused the dishes on his countertops to rattle and break.

Suspicious, the forest ranger headed out in a truck directly toward the plane, which had finally landed. About 20 men were urgently pulling bale upon bale of Colombian weed from its cargo bay, knowing the police had probably been alerted.

Teddy DeLisi was supposed to prevent anyone from calling the police. His job was to drive up and down an adjacent road, tying up the area's party line by dialing the farmhouses' numbers from various pay phones. But the forest ranger had a radio, and the next thing Beserany knew, he was watching police cars swarm the area from his bird's-eye view on the roof.

 

According to the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, about 30 men were connected to the major smuggling ring, including three DeLisi brothers and lookout John Beserany.
According to the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel, about 30 men were connected to the major smuggling ring, including three DeLisi brothers and lookout John Beserany.

"Abort, abort, abort," he yelled into his radio before chucking it off the roof and then jumping. Beserany, as well as the men unloading the bales, ran into the nearby woods. The smugglers hid for a good 12 hours before Beserany decided to peek his head out onto the main road. As chance would have it, a cop car was passing. Beserany, who was bleeding from his palms, told the officer he had just gotten into a fight with his girlfriend.

His unconvincing story got him booked into the Hardee County Jail, which would precipitate a series of events that ultimately landed 29 men behind bars. Law enforcement was able to trace the DC-4 to Paul Pettie, a Broward County judge who also served as the DeLisis' lawyer. Later, Pettie would flip, becoming a major witness for the prosecution.

The DeLisi brothers were arrested. They bonded out on $400,000 apiece and spent 18 months on the lam. They were eventually apprehended and sentenced to five years in state prison each.

Florida passed its own version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- in 1977. Under that law, the state could file a civil suit alongside a criminal one if the defendant were considered part of an organized crime ring. It was supposed to allow the state to stymie illegal activity by hitting people where it hurt -- in their pockets.

The DeLisi case was Florida's first chance to test that law. Prosecutors hoped that by taking away the brothers' homes, the two would be unlikely to reoffend. "Our ultimate hope is that the people who are dealing drugs in Florida reach the conclusion that they could be using bad business judgment and take their trade somewhere else," Don North, assistant to then-Attorney General Jim Smith, told the Sun Sentinel in 1980. "The RICO statute will be a very effective tool in taking away these illegally gained assets."

When the DeLisis were busted in Hardee County, police confiscated their homes and cars -- pretty much everything apart from their business, 320Automotive in Pompano. The brothers decided to make their money back the only way they knew how.

Eight months after they had been released from their five-year sentences, in October 1984, the brothers were seated inside a Chinese restaurant on 125th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. Richie was there with his girlfriend, Colette; his brother Teddy; and his brother's girlfriend, Carmen Celeiro. Over a plate of beef and oyster sauce, Richie said he knew how to make things square. His friend J.J. White, a pilot, was going to hook them up with one last planeload of 1,500 pounds. And he was going to do it for free, without taking a cut, so the guys could pay off their attorneys' fees, get themselves a new house, and bulk up their business.

An affidavit shows that White was actually a Florida Department of Law Enforcement informant and that the agency monitored his contact with the brothers over the course of four months as they set up the deal. On July 24, 1988, at 8:30 in the morning, FDLE officers caught two men offloading bales into a 1985 Chevy pickup and a 1987 Ford LTD near the Lake Wales Airport. Officers later apprehended them during a traffic stop.

The DeLisis had gotten off with a relative slap on the wrist the first time, but changes had occurred since their initial offense.

Crucially, Florida's RICO Act made any criminal conspiracy a first-degree felony punishable by 30 years in prison. "Those laws were set up to go against large-scale operations like the Mafia, and the states retroactively decided to use these charges against people selling pornography and drugs," says Norm Kent, an attorney with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "The states abused it for other things, particularly Florida and Texas, the major nerve centers of the drug trade. And if you look, that's where you see the most draconian sentences."

Also by the mid-'80s, America was square in the middle of the drug crisis. President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory federal minimum sentences for drug offenders -- five, ten, or 20 years, depending on the amount of drugs involved.

That same year, Geraldo Rivera produced American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, the fifth-highest-rated syndicated special at the time. One memorable interview from the show was with Richie DeLisi. Seated at a Key Largo bar in amber aviators and a plaid shirt while sipping a mugged beer, he told the anchor he'd turned $12,000 into $50 million.

"Why'd you stop?" Rivera asked.

"I got busted," DeLisi replied.

That part of the broadcast lasted all of 20 seconds.

DeLisi now says his segment was -edited to make it look as if he were -bragging, and that's partly why Judge Dennis Maloney, who presided over the Lake Wales case, decided to give Richie and his brother Teddy upward departure -- more than the recommended sentence for their crimes. Although a pretrial investigation suggested that Richie serve 12 to 17 years, each of the brothers was given 90. Maloney recently declined to comment.

The cost of hosting an inmate in state prison is $17,338 per year.

"They wanted to nab me after that Geraldo interview," Richie DeLisi says now from prison. He claims that he was talked into doing the deal by White. ("I was set up by a guy who made a deal with the devil and the government") and that he would have done things differently had he not been cursed with dyslexia ("I wanted to be righteous, but I never even learned how to sign a check").

Regardless of who's to blame, taxpayers shoulder the burden. The cost of hosting an inmate in state prison is $17,338 per year, according to the Department of Corrections. Not including medical expenses, that means DeLisi has cost Florida $450,788 so far and stands to cost $208,056 more if he serves his full sentence. A geriatric, DeLisi has also gotten hearing aids and billed a litany of surgeries to taxpayers.

 

Teddy DeLisi is now free.
Teddy DeLisi is now free.
Courtesy of Teddy DeLisi

"Who in Florida is going to be afraid of Richard DeLisi getting out of prison?" asks Greg Newburn, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "This is going to cost taxpayers a lot of money, and you have to wonder what the real benefit is in terms of public safety."


The DeLisis are far from the only ones to cost taxpayers so much money for what might be described as a victimless crime. Although Richie is the only one in Florida facing such a sentence in a state case, on a federal level, more than a dozen are serving either life or de facto life sentences for marijuana. Seven of them were tried in Florida.

There's also Charles "Fred" Cundiff, a 66-year-old who so far has served 22 years of a life sentence. He suffers from arthritis, and taxpayers have paid for his back surgery as well as treatments for skin cancer and vision problems, on top of the cost of incarcerating him.

John Knock, Claude Duboc, and Albert Madrid were all busted as part of a reverse-sting operation for trafficking marijuana and hashish between 1984 and 1993. Knock was sentenced in Gainesville to two life terms plus 20 years. Duboc got life plus 240 months. Madrid got life without parole.

William Dekle, a 62-year-old from Gainesville, was sentenced to life without parole as a first-time, nonviolent, marijuana-only offender in 1991. Andrew Cox, a firefighter, had two prior marijuana-related offenses before his 2008 Gainesville trial and was sentenced to life without parole.

But perhaps the most pathetic case in Florida belongs to Leopoldo Hernandez-Miranda. He's a 75-year-old Cuban fisherman with a fourth-grade education who was sentenced on a possession charge (but acquitted of a conspiracy charge) stemming from the fact that he worked as a day laborer on a house that stored marijuana.

Soon, these men will beg the government for mercy. Kennedy and Holland, the two New York attorneys who petitioned Obama, will see their plan come to fruition. In April, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the government, looking to reduce the prison population, will be recommending reduced sentences for some nonviolent federal prisoners who have already served ten years and "likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today." This criterion was especially appealing to marijuana offenders. Groups like the ACLU and Families Against Mandatory Minimums have banded together under the banner of the Clemency Project 2014 to help inmates present their cases for consideration. Releases are slated to begin in November 2015.

Geriatric weed smugglers are getting sympathy from even the executive office.

Although the Attorney General's Office has conducted mass pardons in the past, Cole's program is unique in that it is geared toward people who would likely have received lesser sentences had they been tried today. That means many of these cases will involve marijuana, a substance that is being slowly legalized across the country. Any federal prisoner facing any crime that doesn't involve child exploitation or violence is allowed to sign up and be paired with a volunteer attorney.

But DeLisi isn't eligible for Obama's program. First of all, he wasn't tried federally. Second, it's relevant only to first-time offenders. Although other geriatric weed smugglers are getting sympathy from even the executive office, DeLisi is left without many advocates. NORML says he's not a priority, given that he's a repeat offender dealing in huge quantities. Ask anyone familiar with trafficking cases and he'll likely say, "I remember that guy: Wasn't he the one bragging on Geraldo?"

Billy Corben, a South Florida documentarian behind both Cocaine Cowboys and Square Grouper, has become a historian of the drug war. Though he has never worked on any projects involving the DeLisis' case, he says there was a big difference between smugglers who sold pot and those who dealt in coke.

"Marijuana was a cash transaction, unlike cocaine, which was a consignment business," he explains. "It was much mellower, and the guys didn't even carry guns. The only examples you see of marijuana destroying peoples' lives is with these prison sentences. You wanna see the destruction of a family unit? Put someone away for 90 years."


Teddy DeLisi got out last year, when a judge decided to drop one of his conspiracy charges, which carried a 30-year sentence. An appeals court -decided that the only evidence against him -- fingerprints found on a map of South America -- wasn't enough to hold him.

Richie, however, was caught talking about the deal on tape and still sits in prison. Ashley DeLisi, Richie's 29-year-old daughter, says the prison sentence ruined her life. Her father was sent away when she was only 4 years old. Her mother, Colette DeLisi, "went off the deep end and was devastated about the whole thing. She was too messed up to take care of us, and I ended up being a child who raises another child."

Ashley, who now lives in Wingo, Kentucky, says she dropped out of Hollywood Hills High School in the ninth grade to take care of her little brother, David. "I started experimenting with drugs and lost myself for a while," she relates. "But I made sure he had food and clothes the best way I could." In 2009, she says, both her mother and brother, in separate incidents, overdosed on OxyContin and died. She thinks things would have been different had Richie been around.

 

Younger brother Richie DeLisi is still serving a 90-year sentence. He hopes to be released after a November 7 hearing.
Younger brother Richie DeLisi is still serving a 90-year sentence. He hopes to be released after a November 7 hearing.
Courtesy of Teddy DeLisi

Carmen Celeiro knows what prison does to a man. Although she broke up with Teddy when he went away the second time and she married someone else, they spoke on the phone for years, and after her husband died, Teddy came to live with her in her Coral Gables home with three dogs and four cats.

"They've been in prison so long that they've grown old but never grown up," Celeiro says. "They didn't have to mature mentally, because they weren't learning anything except what's in prison. [When they get out], it's like coming out of a cave and being in the middle of New York City."

Teddy says he still can't shake the prison routine. To this day, it's bed at 10 p.m. and up at 5. He still can't get used to the way the world is now. He feels like he's still in his 20s. He never saw a cell phone until last year, never mind an iPad. But the most startling change for Teddy was probably realizing that marijuana, the substance he wasted away in prison for, is on the cusp of being legalized. "I still can't really grasp it," he says.

Richie's attorney, Al Smith, explains that on November 7, just three days after Floridians vote on Amendment 2, he'll argue that one of DeLisi's charges should be changed from a first-degree felony to a second-degree felony. This would take years off his sentence. If all goes well, he'll become a free man.

Ashley DeLisi is praying her family can finally be made whole. Although she writes to her father religiously, she's never known him as anything but a prisoner.

"I want him to come home so I can know my father," she says. "I don't know him except for a few pictures." Richie is welcome to live with her on the farm in Kentucky, she says. It's peaceful there.

Today, Richie DeLisi is willing to accept responsibility for his actions, sort of. There's no question about his guilt -- he'll go on and on about stories from the old days. But he remains adamant that his life spent in jail is all the fault of the pilot who set him up for the FDLE.

If he should go free, he wants a book deal. Or a movie. "Something that will make a little money for me if I get out," he says, "because I won't have nothin'."




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