The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 3.
1978 Colombian Air Load
Ronald Barker would be involved in another interdicted marijuana air-smuggling venture approximately one year after the Virginia seizure while on bail. According to an appeals court case, Barker was arrested in 1978 for the importation of 12,000 pounds of marijuana smuggled from Colombia into Mississippi. Arrested with Barker were Billy W. Gray, Lee Andrew Fennell, Roger Lee Wright, and Vance C. Dyar.
The defendants flew the six tons of marijuana into Stennis Field in Mississippi early on the morning of July 24, 1978. The defendants loaded the marijuana onto waiting trucks and drove to somewhere near Mobile, Alabama under constant law enforcement surveillance, where the trucks were searched and the men arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The defendants were tried for the smuggling violations in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.
Barker, Gray, Fennell, Wright, and Dyar were convicted for the four charges of distribution and possession with intent to distribute marijuana; conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; importation of marijuana; and conspiracy to import marijuana. They received concurrent prison sentences on all counts.
The defendants appealed their convictions in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, contending eight legal points. The eighth complaint or issue alleged that the prosecution prejudiced Ronald Barker in its closing arguments. During the trial, Richard Brown was identified as an alleged member of the conspiracy who avoided arrest. One witness momentarily referred to Richard Brown as Richard Barker. In his closing arguments, the prosecutor referred to Brown as Richard Barker several times and made one reference to “the Barkers.” The attorney for Ronald Barker objected and the trial judge dispelled any prejudice by telling the jury that there was little evidence to show that Brown used the name Richard Barker. The prosecutor was instructed by the judge to discontinue the reference.
The appellant court found no reversible error in the eighth complaint. However, the conspiracy convictions of Ronald Barker, Fennell, Wright, and Dyar were reversed by the court due to a legal error and returned to the lower court for review. All of the other convictions were affirmed by the court.
The federal trial itself resulted in several interesting allegations regarding the defendants and overall criminal case. The trial was postponed in November 1978 to determine whether the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as the defense claimed, was involved with the narcotic smuggling venture. The judge reportedly met a CIA representative in private before authorizing a postponement. Dyar, while pending federal sentencing and additional drug-smuggling charges, was permitted by a judge to travel to El Salvador to search for documents regarding any improper CIA involvement. As a serious flight risk for his pending cases, this was an astonishing decision by the court. Without any supporting information found, the trial was able to proceed to the conclusion as discussed above.
As per a newspaper article, there was a sixth defendant indicted in the 12,000-pound marijuana smuggling venture named Richard Brown, who was allegedly truly Richard Barker using an alias name Brown/Barker was reportedly in a Costa Rican jail at the time of the federal prosecution, something confirmed by later interviews regarding the whereabouts of Richard Barker at that time. It was Brown/Barker that allegedly provided a suitcase full of cash to the persons in Colombia who loaded the marijuana on the Douglas DC- 4 aircraft. At a rather young 26 years old, Richard Barker apparently continued to be the logistics man in Colombia for air smuggling loads when not in jail in Central America.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons records, Ronald Barker was released from custody on July 30, 1984. The other defendants were also released in the early 1980s: Billy W. Gray on February 4, 1983; Lee Andrew Fennell on May 8, 1981; Roger Lee Wright on May 8, 1981; and Vance Dyar on October 19, 1980.
The Smuggler and the Politician
Vance C. Dyar was previously convicted in July 1977 for smuggling 4,300 pounds of marijuana in Florida. He was sentenced to four years in prison, but was free on bail pending an appeal when arrested for the importation of the 12,000 pounds of marijuana in Mississippi. Dyar’s appeal was later denied and he began his federal sentence in January 1979.
Interestingly, Dyar was conducting business dealings with Alabama State Treasurer Melba Till Allen while he was free pending appeal for his Florida marijuana case. Allen had actually appeared as a character witness for Dyar at his Florida smuggling trial. After initially fighting a subpoena to produce financial records in a public corruption investigation, Dyar flipped and became a state’s witness in an ethics trial against Allen.
Among several violations, Allen had deposited state tax funds in specific banks in exchange for loans directed to her and her business associates. Many of the virtually collateral-free and failing loans were overdue and switched between the banks to avoid detection by federal bank examiners. Allen and corporations under her control had borrowed almost $3,000,000 through 130 loans from 58 state banks.
Allen was convicted and removed from office in 1978. She was sentenced to three years in prison for conflict of interest charges. Allen was the first person convicted under the Alabama ethics law that she previously assisted in adopting in 1973.
The Den of Smugglers
Through the lens of the three interdicted marijuana air-smuggling loads from Colombia involving the Barker Family, it was apparent that south Florida was a prime source for pilots, crew, conspirators, and aircraft. A review of the other interdictions and cases involving suspects associated with the Barkers demonstrated the important role of south Florida in drug smuggling in the 1970s. According to media reporting in 1975, federal officials had arrested more than 80 suspects with ties to south Florida connected with 22 air drug-smuggling loads since 1972. The flights carried approximately 33,000 pounds of marijuana and 69 pounds of cocaine from Colombia and Jamaica. The cocaine tsunami had apparently not started yet.
The media analysis did not include at least two of the three marijuana loads associated so far with the Barker Family. The analysis did identify the death of eight persons from south Florida in five plane crashes linked to drug smuggling since 1972. Four of the aircraft were registered to the leasing company Florida Airways International, owned by Kenneth J. Burnstine of Fort Lauderdale. Florida Airways International was subsidiary of Karol Investment Corporation, a national and international seller of light infantry arms, submachine guns, and exotic weapons. The overlapping of drugs, guns, money, and South and Central America would continue through the 1970s and 1980s in several other infamous drug-smuggling stories and national political controversies.
Burnstine was arrested in 1974 for conspiracy to import $18 million worth of marijuana and cocaine from Mexico. He was convicted in 1975 and sentenced to seven years in prison. While free on appeal of this federal conviction, Burnstine was killed in a P-51 Mustang aircraft crash in California in 1976. His death affected up to 64 drug-smuggling cases for which he had agreed to be a government witness and the prosecution of a Florida state representative. The south Florida politician allegedly provided Burnstine with information about a drug investigation and a map of the surveillance locations of narcotic agents in Florida for a $12,000 payment. The charges were dropped against the representative. However, the rumors about Burnstine did not die with him. Was it murder, suicide, or a faked death with a body double? An accident just seemed too convenient.
Beating the Border
Besides being a source of aircraft and pilots, south Florida was a prime smuggling location and training ground for air smuggling. With the old and abandoned airstrips from World War II training days and long desolate county roads, there were many options in such a flat and rural state at the time. Airstrips were carved into the remote Everglades, pine forests, and farmland, which provided privacy and easy countersurveillance platforms. When the heat was too much, the offloadings were just moved further inland or north.
The aggressive south Florida pilots employed several methods to reduce or evade detection to include flying on the deck and piggybacking other aircraft. “On the deck” means flying extremely low along the water to evade radar detection or possibly appear as a fast-moving motor vessel on radar if set to sweep that low. Traveling at 50 feet above the water is a very dangerous move, but can be successful when approaching and crossing the border. “Piggybacking” is when two aircraft fly extremely close to each other as to appear on radar as one aircraft. This is another dangerous method due to the high speeds and possibility of midair collisions.
Both air-smuggling methods do not leave a large amount of room for error. Once successfully crossing the border, landing further inland could increase the appearance of a domestic flight and reduce possible interaction with customs and law enforcement officials. This may be one of the reasons why some of the previously discussed smuggling aircraft landed in Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia.
There was another method or trick that air smugglers used to evade detection and customs inspection. A cooperating defendant identified a trick that his agent handlers did not believe could work with the advanced technologies in the 1990s without detection due to radar and air traffic control protocols. Prior to his arrest for air smuggling and flipping, the cooperating defendant flew drug loads directly into smaller airports near larger ones with designated customs stations. The smuggler would file a flight plan to enter the country at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport or Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport to properly clear customs. The smuggling pilot maintained contact with air traffic control during the flight and appropriately utilized his aircraft’s tracking transponder. When it was time to switch frequency for the airport approach, he would report that he was changing his radio over for the landing. Rather than contacting the tower for the landing, he just turned north several miles and landed at the Lantana Municipal Airport. The small airport in Lantana was most definitely known for suspicious pilots, aircraft, and activities since the 1970s.
If the smuggling pilot was detected, he could always feign ignorance and apologize that he landed at the wrong airport. He was just tired and confused after a long flight at night. By the time anyone could respond to personally chastise him, the drugs and other evidence would be long gone. However, the cooperating defendant was never caught the many times that he reportedly did it.
When undercover USCS and DEA special agents planned to coordinate a controlled delivery (function as the air smugglers) of cocaine and marijuana from the Bahamas for a south Florida smuggling organization in the early 1990s, they tried this unlikely method. The undercover agents were told by the very experienced USCS Miami Air Branch personnel and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials that the plan would never work – the system could not be beaten that way. The flight plan deviation would be immediately noticed. Since the USCS Air Branch was so sure that it could not happen and that the smuggling pilot must be planning to disappear with the load, it assigned two helicopters to support the controlled importation and help the takedown of the offloading crew.
On a day just before midnight when it was quite dark and still a little busy in the sky, the cooperating defendant executed his plan as likely many times before. He picked up the drugs in the Bahamas and headed back to Florida. Rather than landing at the designated Fort Lauderdale international airport, he diverted at the last minute and landed in Lantana. The USCS and DEA investigators watched the aircraft arrive and the south Florida owners offload their drugs into a waiting van. The suspects were arrested and drugs seized on the ramp. Once all were in custody, the UH-60 Black Hawk and AStar AS350 helicopters landed to inspect the scene. The pilots and air interdiction officers were in shock that the scheme worked without detection. The USCS case agent won several rounds of beer from his aviation peers and a meeting was set with the FAA.
The Barker Family would attempt to coordinate one more known marijuana air-smuggling load with negative results. They would end up with criminal convictions though for their efforts.
In the next chapter, read about the intricate criminal world of conspiracy, fraud, and extortion involving the Barker Family.
Robert C. Hutchinson
Robert C. Hutchinson was a former police chief and deputy special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, Florida. He retired in 2016 after more than 28 years as a special agent with DHS and the legacy U.S. Customs Service. He was previously the deputy director of the agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His numerous writings and presentations often address the critical need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in the area of pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies. He is a long-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness and serves on the Advisory Board.