It was called ‘Organized Crime’ because it was just that – organized. Mafia was the name most recognized and ‘the underworld’ was a name used by those who didn’t know any better.
Prostitution, illegal gambling, illegal booze, protection rackets, extortion and corrupt labor unions – ‘organized crime’ had a solid grip on the nation’s vices. But, drugs were where the big money was made. Profits were astronomical and the risks minimal. All they needed was a source for the product, a way to receive the product and a way to make payment to the source. Distribution was left to another ‘lower’ element of society. The Mafia simply made the drugs available, collected the profits and ignored the consequences. It made perfect sense.
Under the Gambino organization, three Mafia families were involved in this massive operation. Family head, Lewis LaForge (L.L.), was in control of New Orleans and most adjacent southern states – except Florida. Mafia family leader Tony Scarsetti was located in New Jersey. With his enormous crime family, he ran all the organized crime activities in states along the eastern seaboard – including Florida. A part of his family, headed by Sam Maranzano, handled transportation of the product to distribution points. Steve Carrollton was head of the Memphis Mafia and controlled the mid-southern states, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri.
It was L.L. (Lewis LaForge) who came up with the idea of bringing shipments in through the massive Everglades; there they could avoid the attention of the FBI. All ports of entry were under a microscope by FBI agents, and getting the product into the country was a real challenge – here enters Everglades City. And along with it, the idea to use disguised normal activity in a depressed area for the gain of ‘organized crime’ and the Mafia.
Everglades City is located 5 miles south of the southernmost East to West Highway in Florida – the Tamiami Trail – US Hwy 41 and SR 90. It runs 79 miles from Napes to Miami/Ft. Lauderdale. A two-lane road sometimes termed ‘Alligator Alley’.
The Everglades encompass almost 2 million acres of land in South Florida. Most is covered by water and very few areas are habitable. One of the exceptions is a place known as the ‘Ten Thousand Islands’ area, which offers one of the few navigable accesses to the Gulf of Mexico. Reaching the ‘Ten Thousand Island’ area can only be accomplished by travel to Everglades City, which is located 5 miles south of Hwy 29. Getting to the real water requires another 3-mile travel across an open causeway to Chokoloskee Island. There the road simply ends. Ahead is the Gulf of Mexico, and to the North, East and West – the Everglades.
This is where L.L. decided to set up operations.
The area is an outdoorsman and fisherman’s dream. It had an abundance of Snook and Redfish in the backwater, and deep-water fishing to fit every angler’s need. These terrific fishing opportunities brought people to Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island by the hundreds every year. They fought mosquitoes and the elements, to fish in some of the best fresh and salt-water areas in Florida. Residents, guides and merchants all prospered – times were good.
Things changed suddenly.
Rod and Gun Club
When the hotel at the Everglades City Rod and Gun Club burned it wasn’t the end, but just the beginning of the end. The obvious loss of employment for the hotel workers and restaurant staff only compounded the situation into a larger disaster. While other public and private businesses tried to compensate, the damage had already been done. The big spenders, the high rollers and the upscale tourist sought other destinations. Guide business went into the toilet, and it wasn’t helped by newly passed fish size limit and catch rules.
Before it all came apart, Robert Earl had made a decent living with his fishing guide business; and on an occasional tourist that just wanted to see the Everglades. His boat was large enough to handle five fishing, and fifteen if they just wanted to see the territory. Life was comfortable for him, his wife and their two young children in this small Florida town – located deep in the Everglades.
His job in the illegal drug business started innocently and with a call from a friend of a friend – it escalated from there. At first he had refused, believing that things would soon return to the way it used to be; but quickly he realized that wasn’t going to happen. He had always been a good provider, and it hurt watching his family suffer. Robert Earl needed money, and was willing to risk everything to get it.
In his new job, Robert Earl was making just two overnight fishing trips a month, and earning more money than he had ever seen in his life. This was easy money.
He knew what was in the bales being delivered by the airplane, but he didn’t care. It wasn’t his problem. They paid him well, and he intended to keep making the overnight fishing trips for as long as possible.
After each trip, they would dock the boat in its normal spot and secure the cargo below deck – away from curious eyes. Then Robert Earl and his two associates went home to their families. In the morning the bales would be gone and replaced by a small plastic bag containing $15,000 cash. He kept half and his two associates split the rest.
One night, after their run, Robert Earl became curious and wanted to see what happened after he and his crew left the boat, so he hid near the dock to see who retrieved the bales. He was just curious – that’s all. An hour before daylight, two large men drove up in an old dark colored 1948 Ford Van, went quickly to his boat and loaded the bales. It only took a minute; then they were gone.
Although Robert Earl didn’t know, or care, the two men in the van were James Henry King and Johnie Gibson. They worked for Tony Scarsetti and were currently located in Miami.
After pickup, James Henry King and Johnie Gibson made the 3-hour drive to South Miami, delivering the bales to a sugar warehouse located along the docks. From there, the precious cargo was distributed across the Southeastern United States and the Atlantic Seaboard, including New York and New Jersey. Some of it traveled by boat, some traveled by car, some traveled by plane and some even traveled by rail; but travel was quick and the resulting distribution extremely profitable.
With each delivery, the Mafia ‘masterminds’ had to find a way to pay their vendor, and it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Only cash was accepted, and transporting large sums of money out of the country was both difficult and dangerous. The money carrier was always expendable, but the cash wasn’t! They needed a way to silently, discretely, and most importantly, safely move large sums of cash out of the United States to pay their drug suppliers.
When the solution was found, it seemed so obvious they wondered why no one had thought of it before. With only a few exceptions, the ability to carry un-inspected baggage out of the country and through foreign country customs was limited to those who needed this privilege. One group that had this privilege was the crews of the airlines that regularly made those trips.
The execution of this plan was relatively simple. Since it was dangerous to involve any of the traveling airline personnel in their scheme, they would have one of their people put the cash cargo into the personal luggage of an unsuspecting airline employee at the departure point. Then, during airport to hotel transfer at the destination, someone else would remove the cash cargo from the personal luggage. It was simple. The unknowing carrier of the cash would never be wise to the operation. And, better yet, if something went wrong and the cargo was discovered; the Mafia boys were in the clear, and someone else was arrested. These Mafia ‘masterminds’ even gave this unknowing carrier a name – they called them ‘A Mule’.
San Juan, Puerto Rico was their favored port to transfer the cash payments. One reason was the regular direct flights from Memphis to San Juan and, most importantly, their casual customs activities.
The key player in San Juan was the controlling ‘crime lord’. He usually took more than his allotted share, but always made sure the principals were properly paid for the goods they had delivered.
The ‘crime lord’ in San Juan was Jose Luis Chavito – a gentle looking man with ice in his veins and no hesitation for aggressive and brutal activity.
Everyone had their role and everyone shared in the profits.
L.L. controlled the Everglades drug pickup using Robert Earl and his men.
Tony Scarsetti and his men handled the pickup in Everglades City and sorting the drugs for distribution. Tony was the controlling family head for all operations.
Sam Maranzano and his organization handled transportation of the drugs to distribution points.
Steve Carrollton and his men handled getting the cash payoff placed in the ‘mules’ baggage at the Memphis airport for delivery to Puerto Rico.
Jose Chavito and his men were responsible for retrieving the cash when it arrived in Puerto Rico. He was also responsible for its delivery to the Colombian drug provider – the payoff.
All systems worked as planned until Hurricane Ella in the fall of 1962. While Ella never made Florida landfall, she spent days churning up the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Robert Earl and his two friends were three unnamed causalities of Ella. But, before it was all over, the damages done by Ella would claim many other victims.
The discovery of the drug bales that washed ashore from Robert Earl’s boat was just the beginning.