1970s Marijuana Smuggler Arrested In Florida Senior Community

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Photos: U.S. Marshals Service
Mark Steven Phillips, 62, was arrested in his senior community apartment 31 years after his original arrest in 1979, left.

​After being on the run for more than 30 years, a member of the legendary Miami-based “Black Tuna Gang,” a marijuana smuggling operation, was arrested by U.S. Marshals Thursday morning in a senior community in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Mark Steven Phillips, 62, had been a wanted man for more than 30 years after he skipped out on his trial for being a member of an operation accused of smuggling some 500 tons of Colombian cannabis into the United States over a period of 16 months in the 1970s.
However, according to Black Tuna Gang leader Robert Platshorn — who is the longest serving pot prisoner in American history, having himself served almost 30 years in federal prison for smuggling marijuana — Phillips was definitely not the “Marijuana Kingpin” prosecutors and their obedient headline writers are trying to make him out to be.


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Photo: Viki Elliott
Black Tuna Gang leader Robert Platshorn (left) chats with Toke of the Town editor Steve Elliott at Hempstalk 2010. According to Platshorn, who was in a position to know, Mark Phillips was no “Kingpin” at all.

​”Mark Phillips was barely a bit player, let alone a kingpin,” Platshorn, author of Black Tuna Diaries, said on his Facebook page Friday. “We bought a few boats from his family boatyard. He fished with our fishing team a few times.”
“He never sold so much as a seed of pot and was insider in the Black Tunas,” Platshorn said. “He is a nice guy and may now spend the rest of his life in federal prison. What a waste! My 30 years in prison was more than enough for all of us.”
Be that as it may, Phillips was arrested in his apartment at Century Village, a senior community where he had been living in recent months, according to a press release from the U.S. Marshals Service.
“The judge wants to see you, Mark,” a deputy U.S. Marshal told Phillips after rousting him out of bed,” reports Jay Weaver at the Miami Herald
“The judge wants to see me from 30 years ago?” Phillips responded, according to the Marshals Service.
Along with 13 others, Phillips was charged in May 1979 in what was then the country’s biggest marijuana smuggling trial in history. The Black Tuna Gang derived its name from the radio moniker for the group’s Colombian source for marijuana.

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Photo: jameslawrenceking.net
U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who presided over Phillips’s original trial, is still on the bench (and is under a cloud of controversy).

​The trial was before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who is still on the bench. Phillips was convicted in absentia on racketeering, possession and distribution charges in February 1980.
At his first court appearance in decades Thursday afternoon, Phillips told U.S. Magistrate Edwin Torres that he has no property, only $600 in a bank account and receives $667 in monthly Social Security benefits, 
Phillips, with shackles around his wrists, ankles, and waist, told the judge he only had a bicycle, so he was not a flight risk and could not afford a lawyer. Already facing sentencing for racketeering from the trial he skipped, he will now face additional fugitive charges.
“I’m retired,” Phillips said. “Your honor, I would like to say something… I have no valid passport — nothing but a bicycle, but I’m not going anywhere.”
A joint DEA/FBI task force in Miami busted the Black Tuna Gang, marking the first combined investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation on the marijuana smuggling trade.
The Black Tunas operated, at least briefly, from a suite in Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel, according to the DEA.
The Tunas invested in yachts, particularly Fort Lauderdale-based Striker Aluminum Yachts. Authorities claim that Phillips, whose family owned the company, retrofitted yachts for maximum carrying capacity, painting water lines on the hulls to give the illusion they weren’t riding low even when they were loaded with tons of marijuana.
The cannabis transported in these modified boats was unloaded at a series of waterfront stash houses in well-to-do neighborhoods.
The Black Tunas used what was at the time state-of-the-art electronic equipment to stay in touch with marijuana-laden boats and to monitor DEA and Customs communications channels.
A DEA/FBI probe of Florida banks called Operation Banco, beginning in 1977, traced the group’s money through South Florida financial institutions until members of the Black Tuna Gang made a large cash deposit in a Miami Beach bank.
In the racketeering indictment, Phillips was accused of showing two vessels in 1977 to a “co-conspirator” that had supposedly been used to smuggle 20 tons of pot into the U.S. He also was accused of going to an address in Miami to pick up a suitcase filled with cash, and paying $223,000 to buy a yacht for future marijuana smuggling trips.
After his arrest, Phillips was released from jail on July 5, 1979, on a $25,000 bond. He took part in his trial for more than a month, but then failed to show up on November 5. Judge King issued a bench warrant charging him as a fugitive.
In 1993, relying on informants, deputies discovered that Phillips was in Santiago, Chile, had assumed a new identity, Marcus Steffan, and had married a Chilean woman.
Eight more years passed before deputy marshals got new info that Phillips was traveling between Chile and Germany. They learned from German authorities that he had gotten a driver’s license and passport in that country as Marcus Steffan.
The fake passport was valid for the next 10 years, according to the marshals.
Knowing his new identity, marshals began running checks on Phillips to see if he had entered the U.S. They found that he flew into New York from London in August 2000, and several other times before than in 1999 and 1998.
In February 2001, they found that he had been renting two New York penthouse apartments for $10,000 a month, using the name of Steffan Marcus, but that he had been evicted the previous year.
Deputy marshals learned that Phillips flew from New York to Miami in January 2001, but they missed him by a month. He had continued on to Chile. He stayed there until 2010, when marshals assigned to the Cold Case Fugitive Squad realized he had slipped back into the U.S., and had gotten a Florida driver’s license under his real name in September.
The address on his new license was the address of a Rodeway Inn.
Deputy marshals continued to track him, this time to West Palm Beach, where they got him Thursday at the senior living community.
“Phillips never attempted to u
se his fake name,” said Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden. “All of his belongings were contained in one travel bag.”
“Yet another dangerous shuffleboard player is off the streets; praise the DEA!” sardonically commented Joe Klare at The 420 Times.
U.S. Marshals Senior Inspector Barry Golden said it was unclear how much prison time Phillips might face, reports CNN.
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