The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 12.
Reactions to the Barker Sentence
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida, the relatively short sentence for Richard Barker for the four alien deaths, along with several other significant cases from around the nation, resulted in changes in federal law and sentencing guidelines for future deaths during smuggling ventures. The Attorney General of the United States was personally briefed on the prosecution and strongly supported the efforts to enhance the sentencing guidelines.
As a result of the Barker investigation and its broad media attention, the U.S. Customs Service (USCS) special agent in charge and deputy special agent in charge (number two for the region) for the south Florida field office in Miami requested a briefing on the Barker case. Uncharacteristically, the two senior leaders traveled north from Miami to the USCS West Palm Beach office to meet with the resident agent in charge, group supervisor, and case agent.
The case briefing was provided to the pair by the case agent. At the conclusion of the approximately 30-minute presentation of the successful investigation, the two senior leaders responded in a surprising negative and rather unexpected fashion. They were not impressed with the case and the arrest of the long-term smuggling coordinator, even with the positive impact on future prosecutions, federal sentencing guidelines, and media reporting.
The special agent in charge made it painfully clear that USCS resources shall not be utilized in the investigation and interdiction of alien smugglers, even with commingled drug loads. The case agent was clearly advised that if he wished to continue to conduct these investigations, he should leave USCS and join U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). With the strong pride that many USCS investigators possessed at the time with their smuggling investigations, this was a seismic and distressing statement for the case agent and the entire office.
This unanticipated career advice or direction would later come to fruition in 2003, when the USCS was dismantled and its Office of Investigations was merged with the INS investigators in the new agency U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). All the USCS investigators joined with INS investigators. After 2003, one agency formally investigated both contraband and human smuggling at the same time.
Decades later in 2016, the same shocked case agent would end up retiring as the acting special agent in charge for the HSI (legacy USCS) field office in Miami – with the responsibility to ensure that investigations focused on all types and methods of smuggling.
Expanded Media Attention
Due to the seriousness of the four alien deaths and colorful smuggling history of the Barker Family, south Florida newspapers began publishing more in-depth articles on the family and the smuggling of aliens and narcotics. The more interesting stories were picked up by the Associated Press for nationwide publication. The articles focused on the family activities in the 1990s with limited references to some of their known arrests in the 1980s. Their entire history was hidden in a world of microfiche and articles archived in other parts of the country, leaving out much of the 1970s and early 1980s.
The Barker Family 1990s cases also attracted interest by entertainment television series such as Arrest & Trial and U.S. Customs Classified. In 1995, director/writer/producer Steven J. Cannell and Grab Productions developed and produced a television series called U.S. Customs Classified. In October 1995, an episode recreated the narcotic and alien smuggling ventures and prosecutions involving the Barker Family. The popular episode was able to illustrate the horror of the alien smuggling offload and other Barker Family activities.
Continued Smuggling Allegations
USCS investigators continued to investigate allegations of narcotic, alien, and other smuggling by subjects linked to the Barker Family. The analysis of foreign travel, telephone toll records, financial records, surveillance, and confidential informant information indicated continued suspicious activities. Richard Barker allegedly continued to be involved in the activities from his prison cell as indicated by numerous telephone calls to and from him involving other known suspects and organizations.
The smuggling was not limited to inbound contraband from the Bahamas. Confidential informant information indicated that suspects were also smuggling currency and merchandise, such as home and marine electronics, into the Bahamas from the United States to evade their high customs duties. An anonymous tip was shared with Bahamian Customs officials for a specific outbound voyage from Lantana.
In December 1994, a Barker Family associated motor vessel was stopped and inspected by Bahamian Customs officials at the Royal Bahamian Defense Force station in Coral Harbour, New Providence, Bahamas. The suspect motor vessel was detained by Bahamian Customs for the failure to clear customs and smuggling unreported cargo to evade duties and taxes pending a $100,000 fine/penalty. A confidential informant alleged that an official check for a $30,000 penalty payment and another after-hours $30,000 cash payment were both delivered by the suspects resulting in the release of the motor vessel to resume activities. It was immediately put back into service by the smugglers.
The captain of the interdicted motor vessel blamed a USCS special agent for the anonymous tip to Bahamian authorities. With the assistance of a confidential informant, the blame was successfully redirected to the poor operational security within their organization. But they still always wondered for many years.
Release of Barker
Richard Barker was released from federal prison in Fort Dix, New Jersey on June 27, 1997 after less than four years to begin his three years of federal supervised release. He received a small reduction in this sentence for good behavior from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He returned to Palm Beach County and allegedly resumed his previous activities in south Florida and the Bahamas.
After a reported positive urine test for cocaine and his strong dislike of any supervision, Barker later fled to the Bahamas, resulting in a federal arrest warrant being issued for absconding from his supervised release on August 14, 1997.
Information and intelligence continued to indicate that Barker persisted with his smuggling activities as a fugitive in the Bahamas under alias names. USCS investigators in Florida coordinated with USCS and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigators stationed in the Bahamas in an attempt to locate, arrest, and extradite Barker back to the United States for the probation violation with negative results.
Undercover Meeting for Cocaine Transfer
In October 1998, a USCS marine enforcement officer received information that Richard Barker was looking for a crew and motor vessel to meet him in international waters to receive and transport 500 kilograms of cocaine from the Bahamas to Florida. Through extensive investigation and coordination, an undercover transfer was coordinated with Barker and his associates. Undercover USCS marine enforcement officers and special agents became the smugglers for the last and most dangerous leg of the cocaine smuggling venture for the promise of $200,000 in transportation fees – and the opportunity to arrest fugitive Barker.
A midnight at-sea rendezvous was scheduled with Barker off of the Bahamas. The undercover USCS investigators and a DEA special agent, utilizing an undercover USCS 53-foot Hatteras sport fishing motor vessel, traveled to the designated meeting coordinates in international waters to meet Barker with negative results due to rough seas and coordination issues.
Two nights later, the undercover USCS and DEA investigators traveled to a new meeting location and met Barker and his associates in the middle of the ocean on October 14, 1998. The at-sea transfer almost did not occur when the undercover USCS captain refused to illuminate the interior cabin lights for a visual inspection by Barker prior to the transfer of the cocaine. Barker was experienced enough to ask. The undercover USCS captain was experienced enough to refuse the request as a drug smuggler in a hurry. If the cabin lights were to be turned on, the takedown team could have been observed by Barker and his associates canceling the transfer operation. The undercover USCS captain threatened to return to Florida rather than agreeing to Barker’s demands for visual inspection of the undercover motor vessel.
After a short disagreement and stand-off period, Barker agreed to transfer the large cocaine shipment. Time was money and this was an extended period out in the open to be observed by law enforcement or ripped-off by another organization. Barker tied his 35-foot go-fast boat to the undercover motor vessel and started transferring the 500 kilograms of cocaine to the undercover deck in the dark choppy waters. Two suspects jumped onto the deck of the undercover sport fisher to receive the cocaine from the Barker go-fast. Once approximately half of the cocaine was transferred to the undercover motor vessel, the takedown team swiftly exited the darkened cabin to arrest the suspects and seize the narcotics.
During the takedown, seven shots were fired at a Bahamian suspect with a firearm that remained on Barker’s go-fast boat. Barker immediately dropped to the deck at his center console steering wheel ducking flying fiberglass shards and reached up to push the throttles to full power. One of the transfer suspects instantly jumped back into Barker’s high-revving boat. After some tugging and bumping, his motor vessel broke free and quickly escaped the scene with the undercover motor vessel aluminum deck railing ripped away and surfing behind his boat toward the Bahamas. The unidentified armed Bahamian suspect was reportedly shot in the upper leg resulting in a noticeable limp for the rest of his life. The wounded suspect was never fully identified for prosecution.
A fourth suspect, James Martin, from Barker’s motor vessel was on the deck of the undercover motor vessel at the time of the takedown. The suspect attempted to quickly jump back into the Barker go-fast to get away from the emerging takedown team. Barker’s boat was no longer there at the time and he ended up landing in the very dark and rough ocean.
While attempting to locate and arrest Martin in the ocean seconds after the shooting incident with Barker’s motor vessel still fleeing the area, a shot was fired into the water in the area of the floating suspect. In the immediate confusion of the evolving situation, it appeared that the suspect was armed with his hands disappearing in and out of sight in the water. Thanks to the strong tactical training and discipline during this very tense time on a rocking boat with sliding kilos, no additional shots were fired at or near the floating suspect. It turned out that a member of the takedown team had experienced an accidental discharge with his rifle. The suspect was not armed. The safe location and rescue of Martin was completed by the takedown team. It was a conclusion truly appreciated by all – especially Martin.
When “shots fired” was called out over the USCS tactical radio channel, the tension skyrocketed for the surveillance cover teams and the national communications center in Orlando monitoring the frequency and operation. USCS aircraft, USCS marked motor vessels, and Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) marked motor vessels, which were conducting surveillance for the cocaine transfer, immediately responded to the scene from several miles away to assist the undercover motor vessel. Nevertheless, Barker and two Bahamian suspects fled into the night back to the nearby Grand Bahamas.
Martin turned out to be a Colombian national who was the alleged source of supply for the cocaine. The suspect, a fugitive, was also the subject of at least one federal arrest warrant for narcotic smuggling. The fugitive and cocaine were transported to Florida for processing and prosecution.
Richard Barker, James Martin, and Benny King Darby were indicted on October 22, 1998. Darby had been coordinating the receipt of the cocaine in Florida. Each was charged with four counts of cocaine possession, importation, and distribution conspiracies.
Benny King Darby had been previously arrested in Iowa in 1983 for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States. Darby and three others were locating aircraft to be leased to air smuggle cocaine. Darby, also known as Blondie, was reportedly an enforcer for the group who was willing to shoot police or others threatening the drug load. He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for the 1983 case, with the possibility for parole after one-third of the sentence. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons records, Darby was released from custody for the 1998 Barker Family case on February 10, 2004.
USCS, DEA, and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) officials based in the Bahamas immediately attempted to locate Barker, the suspect motor vessel, and the unidentified Bahamians.
In the next chapter, read about the arrest and sentencing of fugitive Richard Barker and the pursuit of the remainder of the Barker Family associates.
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.