1980s Marijuana Smugglers Recall The Glory Days

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Photo: Tim McBride/News-Press
Portrait of the entrepreneur as a young man: Tim McBride at the peak of his pot smuggling days in the 1980s.

​Tim McBride made $5,000 on his very first night as a pot smuggler in 1980.
“Rookie pay,” he said.

He made another five grand the next night, reports the Fort Myers News-Press

“It was the greatest thing in the world,” McBride said, recalling his introduction to smuggling. “Here I am just 21 years old; I got 10 grand in my pocket.”
What began as a crabbing gig based in Everglades City morphed into a marijuana smuggling business that eventually netted McBride about $25 million. Unfortunately, it also got him four years in federal prison and a $4 million fine.

With those days slipping into the distant past, McBride is now a 53-year-old single father with two teenagers. He and some of his smuggling pals gathered for a reunion at Fred’s Food, Fun & Spirits in Naples, Florida, on Saturday night.
“We weren’t saints,” McBride said. “We were breaking the law.”
McBride had plenty of company in Florida’s booming smuggling scene. Two raids in the mid-1980s resulted in the arrests of about 80 percent of the male population of Everglades City; more and more participants had been lured by the promise of big money fast.

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Photo: Steve Whitlock Game Fish Art, Inc.
Steve Whitlock, another former smuggler, is now an artist based in Sarasota.

​Steve Whitlock was another of the young smugglers operating out of Everglades City, bringing in marijuana and stockpiling cash.
“It was fun, exciting,” Whitlock, now 52 and and an artist in Sarasota, said after attending the reunion. “A lot of adrenaline. Running around in the middle of the night, beating the Man at it. It was almost a game.”
The stakes were high in this game, though — Whitlock eventually served 26 months in prison.
Some might have trouble believing that McBride, who became known as the Saltwater Cowboy, really made $25 million. But one drug agent assigned to the case agrees with that figure.
“That’s a good conservative estimate,” said David Waller of Lakeland, then a Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent. According to Waller, McBride had direct contact with foreign marijuana wholesalers.
“He was very good, a very smooth talker,” Walker said.
McBride said he hadn’t intended to become a smuggler when he left Wisconsin for Florida in 1980. When he got to Everglades City, a friend signed him up for a crabbing job.
“He got me offshore and said, ‘Look, buddy, here’s the deal,’ ” McBride said. “He said we’re going to haul pot and I said, ‘OK, let’s go for it.’ And that was my first day of crabbing, and it was also actually my first night of hauling pot.”
Between loads of marijuana, there was actual crabbing, according to McBride.
“It was killer work, but I loved it,” he said. “You get on the boat at 3 or 4 in the morning, get the bait secured and climb in the bunk and fall asleep … You can’t help but fall in love with that way of life and I certainly did.”
He also became fond of the cashflow, averaging between $15,000 and $75,000 a job. Eventually, that number went up to $500,000 and even $1 million.
The nature of the job required lots of exciting trips to places like the Bahamas — and with plenty of money around, McBride showered his friends and associates with generous pay.
But he never got to spend a lot of the cash; he still had $8 million in his house when he was arrested.
McBride said he loved money, not violence. He said he and his circle of friends didn’t even use weapons.
“We weren’t violent by any stretch of the imagination,” McBride said. “We were just a bunch of good ol’ boys. We ran around with no shoes on, cut-off jeans, fishing and crabbing and having a good time just like other kids in their early to mid-20s — but we had this thing going on, this opportunity to make killer money because we all, you know, smoked it, grew up with it.
“That’s how I think I justified what I was doing,” he said, veering dangerously close to a wimpy apology. “I didn’t see it as being damaging in any way. That was my young mind and my young way of rationalizing.”
“Don’t judge me by what I did as a foolish kid,” McBride said, quite unnecessarily.
The long arm of the law finally got McBride at his Naples home in 1988; his arrest was part of a roundup. The story was on the front page of the Fort Myers News-Press with the headline, “33 Netted in Drug Sweep.”
“It almost destroyed my life,” McBride said. “I could be in prison still with a life sentence.”
But he avoided that because he wasn’t a violent offender; he got out in 1993 and became a construction worker.
Now, about a quarter-century later, the old gang finally took the time to get back together to reminisce.
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