Skip Steele and the Cannabis Crew Fly-in
“November three zero four nine Lima, to Cuban Ground control, over.” Will spoke into the mic of the Cessna 310.
“Cuban Ground, go ahead Captain” was the reply, in broken English and fading across the dash mounted radio.
“We’re approaching your airspace to transit the Heron Corridor, inbound from Grand Cayman” Will replied.
“Squawk 964, over,” was the reply from the Cuban Ground Control, instructing us to switch radio frequencies.
“Squawking 964”, Will repeated. To the Northwest, the Sun peeked through impressive clouds over the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, as the trusty Cessna winged its way effortlessly across the Northern Caribbean.
The silence was broken by crackling static, “Roger Captain, we have you, maintain 10,000; you are cleared thru Heron Corridor, over.” Cuban Ground control answered, approving our transit across the beautiful island of Cuba.
“Maintaining 10,000, thank you ground, over.” Will signed off and casually drifted back into his Captain’s seat, adjusting his wristwatch to note the time while settling in for the remainder of the flight.
Will Knox was an impressive figure; in total control of his airplane and filled to capacity with the confidence that 217 missions over Vietnam instills in a pilot. His striking eyes darted from instrument to instrument as he guided the airplane to a gentle cruise over Cuba.
In the co-pilot seat, his partner, and Air Force Academy roommate, Eric Spatz, reclined and treated himself to a well-deserved nap as the aircraft drifted from cloud to cloud, closer to their destination.
Eric’s well-manicured, standard issue Officer’s haircut stuck out from the top of the seat as I sat in quiet contemplation in the rear passenger area of the cramped aircraft.
From my vantage point, I watched my two best friends, older “brothers” and partners in the newly burgeoning Caribbean Cannabis Smuggling trade, as we soared back into US airspace from another jaunt to visit our private bankers on the island of Grand Cayman.
From surfer to smuggler
As a twenty-one-year-old surfer and adventurer, I sat casually in jeans and collared shirt contemplating the past several years. My hair fell heavy against my shoulders, as I recounted in my mind some of the amazing adventures and successes that I, as a young kid from middle-class America, had witnessed in such a short period of time.
Will and I had already established our first (and THE first, to my knowledge) Colombian Connection for high grade, first generation Colombian Gold on a large production scale. With our profits already in the high seven figures, we began to plan for the importation of our first 100,000-pound load out of Colombia’s North Coast.
At the time, Colombian cannabis trafficking was in its infancy. The trade began in the mid to late 1960s and became one of the major U.S. suppliers by the mid-1970s. By the end of the decade, 70 percent of cannabis smuggled into the US would come from the green mountains of Colombia.
Little did I know that in the coming years, our adventures would lead us to three different continents in search of the finest cannabis. I could never have dreamed of the insane adventure filled with fun, excitement, intrigue and danger that would ensue in the coming decade.
From teaming up with legendary pot smuggler Raymond Grady Stansel to import massive amounts of the highest quality South American cannabis to experiencing adventures across the globe in Five Star Hotels and untouched tropical paradises.
Thinking of Will’s calm and assured gaze as we flew through Cuban airspace, it is difficult to imagine the series of events that would unfold.
But, in this moment, expectations and worries about the future were pushed aside for musings of the past and the quiet tranquility of the flight.
A Gentlemen Smuggler’s Code of Conduct
While our first focus was Colombian Gold, our empire expanded rapidly after our first few 100,000 pound loads. First Morocco for some of the finest hash I had ever seen, then, onto Thailand and the beautiful Thai Sticks of the late 70’s.
On that day in our Cessna, we had already established a gentlemen smuggler’s code of conduct in our inner circle to protect and respect the herb, each other, and our freedom.
First and foremost we believed passionately in peace and respect for your fellow man. Members of the Cannabis Crew never carried guns or resorted to physical violence to resolve business matters. If a load went bad, we all chipped in to cover it. If a peripheral partner ripped us off, we simply cut off communication with those individuals.
Partners were bound by their word on business decisions, which relied on a strict code of silence & trust for gigs to become a success. Millions of dollars were exchanged on handshakes, without the need for lawyers, guns, or violence.
As a commitment to this peaceful perspective and as passionate lovers of the gift that is marijuana, we made a commitment to only smuggle cannabis. We believed that the game of international cannabis smuggling was truly a “gentleman’s sport“ that offered a safe and connected method of mind expansion to the masses.
While we were offered many opportunities to import other substances, including cocaine, to America, we repeatedly declined anything other than cannabis on our boats. We were committed to the magic of cannabis as a plant for restorative, health, and inspirational means.
Finally, the one condition of every gig we smuggled together was that there had to be five to ten pounds of the very best cannabis set aside for the core founding members of the team. This special, top-end reserve of every load was known among the crew as the “Green Angel“.
In time, Green Angel became the stuff of legend in the upper circles of the crew and was celebrated and revered as the best strains known in the early 1970s.
By contrast, today’s cannabis industry is a far cry from the grass-roots counter-culture of its 70’s heyday. As more “Green Rush” pot businesses spring up under a “corporate” mindset, we seem to get further and further away from much of the “head” mentality that is truly born out of experiences with cannabis.
It is up to all of us to set the herb free while respecting the powerful clarity it bestows.
Arriving into Palm Beach
It was nearing dusk as we approached Palm Beach International. Will greased another landing and we taxied slowly to what was the old terminal building on the south side of the Airport. The United States Customs Office was located there and we parked the Cessna right up front.
“They’re closed, do you believe that shit?” Eric saw the sign in the window before any of us.
“Yeah, there should be a number we are supposed to call for Customs, right under there somewhere…” Will added, pointing to the bottom of the sign.
“There is a pay phone right there, you call them Will,” I added, knowing that Will would deal with the authorities.
With that, Will plugged a quarter into the phone and dialed the number listed for Aircraft Arrival after hours.
Within moments, I could hear Will speaking to someone, “We are a private aircraft, inbound from Grand Cayman, and request Customs clearance at Palm Beach International. We’re parked right in front of your office, on the tarmac,” Will stated with a casual grin on his face.
I watched as Will exchanged a few more courtesies with the Customs Agent, before hanging and making his way back towards where Eric and I waited on the tarmac.
“Bummer guys, we’ll have to wait for the Customs Agent.” Will explained, adding, “They’re going to be 45 minutes to an hour, so relax…”
We all hung out around the plane for a while, unloaded the bags from the luggage compartment, and were left with a little time to contemplate.
50 years and the war continues
Looking back now, almost 50 years later, it’s amazing that as a nation we are still fighting the same senseless Wars of the 1970’s. From the travesty of the War on Drugs to the continuation of our military industrial complex, our nation continues to bleed the same old wounds that divide and pit countrymen against one another on a daily basis.
Some of our core crew were Air Force Academy officers, and, after years of disillusionment, they saw herb as a chance to repair a fractured nation.
I saw firsthand how the injustice of the War on Drugs has manipulated and divided our great country. After decades dealing with potheads from all walks of life, with millions of dollars exchanged on a handshake, it wasn’t until I was exposed to the “real world” of Governments and Lawyers that I experienced true criminals, but that’s another story for another time.
After about an hour on the tarmac, U.S. Customs approached us and the Cessna.
A dapper crew
Will greeted the Customs guy with his clean-cut Air Force appearance. The officer was about ten years older than Will, in his mid-forties; short and stocky with a big belly and an upside down smile on his face; standard issue for grumpy customs agents.
We tried to be as nice as possible, treating him with the respect necessary to make any border crossing tolerable. He asked us to follow him with our luggage for inspection inside the Customs Office.
There were four bags lined up nicely next to the Cessna. Eric’s trusty beige briefcase, perfect for quick getaways, was already weathered from months on the road in Central and South America.
Will’s Government issued duffle sat disheveled and half full, looking dejected at its current state of general under-usage. Next to it, our dive gear poked out of a large travel bag, the perfect equipment to explain a getaway to the Cayman Islands.
Perched atop the other bags was the newest addition to my travel arsenal: a gorgeous Alligator suitcase that I’d picked up on the road in St. Somewhere.
We loaded up our luggage onto a cart and began the journey into the Customs Area. Will was chatting with the Customs guy non-stop during this entire process. The agent was in Vietnam the same time as Will and he had been to the base that Will had been stationed.
In contrast, however, while the agent’s experiences in Vietnam had led him into service in law enforcement, Will and Eric’s complete disillusionment with the Military Industrial Complex was the catalyst to make them step into the adventure of a lifetime; as Cannabis Smugglers.
Will was tired of seeing friends, countrymen, and innocent civilians hurt and killed for the sake of a senseless war. It was a trying time. The entire nation had witnessed the brutal horrors of human violence and suffering in full glory–many firsthand and most through their television screens.
Eric’s disillusionment peaked when he was forced to break his word and abandon the people that supported his war efforts in Laos as an Intelligence Officer.
With a rapport developed with Will, the Customs guy was not really interested in spending much time inspecting our bags. It was Sunday night, he really didn’t want be working, and he was convinced that these mostly clean cut war heroes were not nefarious characters.
He unzipped the dive bag and looked at the masks and fins, quickly zipping it back together without a second thought.
My alligator bag was next, and I watched as the Customs Officer opened the bag and began to rummage around, looking through my clothes and dopp kit. On the sides of this particular bag, there were pockets with elastic bands, perfect for socks, underwear, and other personal items. He began to probe into the one side of the bag where I had several pairs of socks and underwear.
Then suddenly, the entire series of events went into S L O W M O T I O N…
The Customs agent changed the look on his face and excitedly pulled out a big fat joint of some of our most recent Green Angel reefer, fresh off of one our boats, from the pocket on the side of my shiny Alligator Bag.
I watched as he brought the joint up to his nose and smelled the reefer thru the rolling paper.
“Whoever this joint belongs to has certainly got a lot of this stuff.” The customs agent said with certainty.
The blood drained from my face.
I looked at Will, Will looked at me, we both looked at Eric, and then we all looked at the Customs Guy. It was serious; we had all just been caught bringing marijuana across the border, which was technically the importation of marijuana. The year was 1973, the beginning of the War on Drugs, and this could spell big trouble for all of us.
Nixon was president, and the government had decided to tighten up on both the domestic and international drug front. While the cannabis trade in Colombia was just getting started, Nixon amped up enforcement along the US-Mexico border. Drugs, including cannabis, were becoming the elite society’s Public Enemy #1.
Little did this Customs Officer know who he had in that room that night. As naïve as his statement was, it was in fact, very true. We were the marijuana smugglers that could have catapulted his career…if only he knew.
Everything hinged on the officer’s decision, and next course of action. He could bust two war heroes and a hippie kid for one joint, or he could simply look the other way and unknowingly allow the rising stars of the Caribbean Cannabis Crew to walk away unscathed.
It’s funny how one innocent moment can have such a profound impact on the eventual course that life takes. As any gambler worth his salt can tell you, it’s better to be lucky than good…