|Photos: U.S. Marshals Service
|Mark Steven Phillips was arrested in his senior community apartment 31 years after his original arrest in 1979, left.
More than three decades after he went on the run, Mark Steven Phillips, a former associate of the Black Tuna Gang of marijuana smugglers, will serve five years in federal prison for his part in bringing cannabis into the United States, a federal judge has ruled.
Phillips, 62, was re-arrested in January
while living at a retirement community in West Palm Beach. He was sentenced on Wednesday by the same judge who was over his case in 1979 in Miami: U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King, reports David Ovalle at the Miami Herald
The judge followed the suggestion of defense attorney Edward Shohat, who argued that Phillips deserved leniency because of his bipolar disorder and his minimal involvement in the gang’s dealings.
“Obviously, we’re very gratified,” Shohat said afterward. “We think it was the right thing to do. Assuming his health holds up, he will have a life again.”
According to Black Tuna Gang leader Robert Platshorn
— who is the longest serving pot prisoner in American history, having served almost 30 years in federal prison for smuggling marijuana — Phillips was definitely not the “marijuana kingpin” prosecutors and their obedient headline writers tried to make him out to be.
“Mark Phillips was barely a bit player, let alone a kingpin,” Platshorn, author of Black Tuna Diaries
, said. “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,” Platshorn said.
The feds first arrested Phillips and 13 others in May 1979 in what was, at that time, the largest marijuana smuggling prosecution in history. The case predated the cocaine boom of the 1980s that turned Miami into the bloodiest city in the U.S.; such levels of violence were never associated with the marijuana trade.
The Black Tuna name came from the group’s radio code name used for its drug supplier, a Colombian sugar and coffee grower named Raul Davila-Jimeno. The ring retrofitted yachts to deliver 500 tons of Colombian cannabis at the time to U.S. shores, according to federal authorities.
Phillips was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison in North Carolina for his part in a failed marijuana smuggling trip there. He was later indicted in Miami.
During his Miami trial, Phillips absconded to Chile, where he assumed a new identity and married a Chilean woman. Back in Miami, Phillips was convicted “in absentia” in February 1980 of racketeering, as well as possession and distribution of marijuana.
Phillips lived in Chile and Germany, then New York, before reentering the United States under his own name in 2010. When U.S. Marshals found him in January, he was living in a rented apartment in the Century Village senior citizen community.
Phillips faced life in prison under federal law; prosecutors asked for 15 years. Defense attorney Shohat asked Judge King to follow the recommendation of parole officers, who figured he deserved five years in prison to run concurrently with his sentence in North Carolina.