Now It Can Be Told

Spectator — April 2001

By Tom Fexas

Now It Can Be Told
My brief career as a smuggler.
 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Dirty Deed
• Part 2: Dirty Deed
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This is a story of greed, adventure, and deception that can only be revealed now because, I am told, the statute of limitations for the deed I am about to reveal has expired.

Back in the ’80s, Rex Yacht Sales, purveyor of Midnight Lace Cruisers, organized a number of Midnight Lace rendezvous. This particular caper occurred during the Boca Grande extravaganza in 1982. Thirteen boats had gathered in Stuart, Florida, for the trip across Lake Okeechobee that was scheduled for the next morning. I was aboard a client’s 44-footer. That night I’d stayed up late and noticed some rather strange activity on 10 of the boats. A panel truck had backed up to the dock from which plain brown cardboard boxes were being unloaded and stashed in compartments below each boat’s saloon. I really didn’t think too much of it, figuring the owners had gotten a deal on motor oil or canned goods or something. When I was told what was really going on, I was shocked—so shocked that I was reluctant to carry on with the trip.

They were stashing boxes of drugs! When I spoke to the owners of the “mule boats,” they told me quite a bit of money was involved and that they considered this a real adventure. They figured the boats were an ideal cover: 13 fast, black, snarky boats crossing the state en masse. It was so obviously a group of “contraband runners,” no law-enforcement official would ever think that smugglers would be so blatant. They were right. The first night we stayed at a marina in La Belle, and the next day we made it to Boca Grande completely unmolested by the fuzz. We docked at a marina just north of a deserted railroad bridge, and I stayed up late that night to watch exactly how they were going to get the stuff off. Unbelievably, around 2:00 a.m., a railroad handcar quietly crossed the bridge to the marina area. The cardboard boxes were then unloaded onto the handcar, which was silently propelled back across the bridge to a deserted railway station inland where the stuff was to be offloaded into trucks and distributed.

But this is only the beginning of the story. To really understand what was going on here, we must delve deeply into Florida’s west coast culture.

As many of you may know, from Naples in the south to Homosassa Springs in the north, the west coast of Florida is predominantly populated by tens of thousands of older retired folks. Many of these retirees are extremely old, so old that doctors determine their age by carbon dating (just as they do for fossils). As with any large group of people living together, the retirees have developed their own unique culture. This involves, among other things, men wearing white belts and shoes, walking before sunrise, driving Mercury Marquis automobiles, and upholding a revered tradition known as "early bird dinners."

Early bird dinners are cheap meals offered by restaurants to increase traffic. They’re usually available from, say, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and the discount can be hefty—50 percent or more just for eating your dinner right after lunch. But early bird dinners were working too well. Retirees like to be in bed by 7 or 8 p.m., so there were few takers for the prime time meals off which restaurateurs could make real money. The restaurateurs were in crisis. Many restaurants had closed, and more would follow unless something drastic was done. So in July 1981 the members of the WFRA (West Florida Restaurateurs Association) met to come up with ideas to fill tables during prime time. Eventually an ingenious but nefarious scheme was hatched by one of the members, a sleazy-looking guy named Nick Pappas, who favored shiny suits and gold chains.

Next page > Dirty Deed! > Page 1, 2

This article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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