Brian O'Dea (right) with friends
From 1972 until the late 80s, Brian O’Dea was one of the world’s most successful drug smugglers. Then he got addicted to coke, and although he cleaned up following an overdose and a heart attack, the DEA tracked him down. So, throughout the 1990s, while everyone else was enjoying grunge (and coke), Brian was in prison.
Nowadays, he’s a big, reformed hit on Canadian TV as a host and producer, and he continues to work with addicts while advocating the legalization of drugs. Far from being a grizzled ex-con, Brian’s an erudite, hip kind of guy. Apparently, as he told me, guys like him used to be the norm in the smuggling game. Nowadays, it’s all cartels and guns. I caught up with Brian to talk about the golden days of drug running.
VICE: I wanted to ask you about the process of drug smuggling, because it’s obviously a very complex operation. I was wondering if you could sort of talk me through it a little bit. First though, it was mainly marijuana that you were smuggling, wasn’t it?
Brian: Yes. From time to time I smuggled small amounts of coke just to get a stash of money when I was broke, but pot was always my choice because I loved it. How were you bringing it in?
The last deal we did was ultimately 75 tons split over two loads, and we used fishing boats in Alaska. All of our crews were known in the area as fishermen, so we were hiding in plain sight. Do you want me to give you the anatomy of that last deal?
Brian as a kid
If it’s not going to torture you to tell it, then that’d be great.
Well, I thought I was going to give smuggling up. Then I got a phone call from a guy who I was in business with some years ago, a guy I actually grew up with in Newfoundland, Canada. The last time I was involved with this guy he pulled a gun on me, he brought a heavy to break my arms—it was a bad scene. So when he called me he said, "Look, I know we’ve had our issues, but I’ve got a situation that is unbelievable." And I said “Fuck off, not interested.” He called again as I was on my way out of the house to a meeting with some financial fellows and I said, "OK, I’ll mention it to the guys once, if they are interested I’ll call you back; if you don’t hear from me it means they weren’t interested, leave me the fuck alone."
So what did they say?
I tell them and they’re immediately interested. We hopped on a plane that afternoon, went up to Washington State, to Anacortes, where the offload was, and it was the most ideal, unbelievable situation. So we started putting this deal together. It took months; we had to raise $10-12 million to make this thing work. We had 110 people around the world working, and in September 1986 we brought in 25 of the total 75 tons.
How do you move that much drugs?
We had a 100-foot tender vessel, which is a vessel that packs fish for fishermen in Alaska. Now, we had a deal amongst ourselves that there was no coke—if you did coke, you were out. The Newfoundlander who brought me in and introduced us to the deal was with hookers and coke and limousines every night… So I brought a guy I knew in to live with him, be chief engineer on the bats and keep his eye on things for me, because I was in California. The third time he phoned me, he said, “I’m leaving, I’m not staying, this guy is gonna bring us all down so I’m out of here.”
Shit, OK. Did you pull out of the deal? I get the feeling that you probably didn't.
I asked him to stick around, we went up and had a chat with the Newfoundlander and told him to get out. We brought in that first part of the load, the 25 tons, he got word that we had it in and came looking for money and we had to decide how much to give him. The boys decided that they would give him $50 grand. I thought that was way too little and a big mistake. What was the market value for 25 tons?
Around $100 million, the total load was around $300 million plus. So anyway, he took that $50 grand and went right to the DEA. He put the money on the table and said, “I can tell you where there is a lot more of this.” So for the next ten months or so, the DEA watched what we were doing and they saw us build another boat from scratch for the big load.
Brian having a dance
And the DEA was watching you all this time. Did you have any idea that was happening?
No. We had scanners and people in a safe house who were always listening to the police, but we could never get the transmission frequencies of the Feds. We couldn’t get the DEA, FBI, the ATF, or any of those acronym police agencies. The acronyms were after you.
Yeah, and what they were watching, it seems to me in retrospect, is what we were doing in the Pacific Northwest. They weren’t watching us moving that 25 tons of pot across North America. We went over, picked up the remaining 50 tons, offloaded it in the Bering Sea onto our boats, then we hustled those boats up into a fjord and covered them up with tarpaulins, then busted down trees so you couldn’t see them if you were flying over. We repackaged all the pot, shrunk wrapped it and put it in wet lock fish boxes so it looked like boxes of fish. We bar-coded every box so we knew what was in it and we knew what it was worth without opening the box.
How did the offload go?
Just before we were getting ready to bring it down from Alaska, we brought a guy up from San Diego. He had a spectrum analyzer, which he used to isolate the transmission frequencies of the DEA and all of the federal agencies. All of a sudden we could program our scanners to listen to the Feds. We bring the captains of two of the boats down for a final conversation about the offload in person. Up until this point, all the communications back and forth were over radio using dictionaries—so, for example, if I wanted to meet you at 4 PM on Tuesday at a certain longitude and latitude, I would look up all of the words in the dictionary that I wanted to put in that sentence and I would get the page number and the number of words down on the page. So, "102" is page 102. "Dash 14" is the 14th word down on that page… So you would sort of say “102-14-195-12”?
“We need you to check the following parts, part number 102-3, we need to replace that.” We needed to have a conversation in person before we got the load down though, so we flew in the boys, but at a certain point we had a vibe that we were being watched. We pulled in the guy who ratted us out to see if he had talked to anybody and he swore he hadn’t. When we had this conversation with him, the cops were listening. We didn’t know that at the time, of course. I picked the two captains up at Seattle airport to drive them down to Anacortes, 90 miles away, and en route my radio lit up with “We’re on ‘em, they are in a brown suburban.” I looked in my rear view mirror and I freaked. I saw them back there buddy and I just hit the pedal and took off.
Brian and his smuggler buddies
Did you manage to throw them off your tail?
I drove for around eight hours, just everywhere, dirt roads, wherever. Finally, I settled in Spokane, way over in eastern Washington. I picked up a pay phone and called the safe house and eight of us arranged to meet in a parking lot in this country milk store. We immediately phoned one of our lawyers out in LA. We hired an ex-DEA agent, who was now a private detective, to see if we could find out what they knew. He came back to us and we realized the key critical ingredient. What it ultimately came to was this: We knew that they knew, but they didn’t know that we knew they knew. Had they not been tipped off slightly by your crazed escape in the car?
You know what, I don’t know what they were thinking then… The DEA just didn’t look at anything but the sea transportation, and they were so sure they had us. They were listening to us, flying up and down the inside passage, which is the route down from Alaska. We realized we had a choice. We could dump the load and bring everybody back. Because we had 50 guys up there on three ships all in jeopardy and so we needed to do something about it.
So, we went to a friend of ours and got a 260-foot boat that’s used to carry small fishing vessels up to Alaska. We borrowed his boat, gave him $300 grand for the use of it for a little bit, and took off. We pulled the load off and put it on our ship and started back down the inside passage. When we got near the Canadian border, we had our boats in Alaska pull out into the open and tie off together like they were doing something.
So it was a classic decoy manoeuvre?
Buddy, within an hour the friggin’ radios lit up like “We got ‘em!” They were on that like stink. We weren’t going back to our old offload because that was done. That was no good. So we came into downtown Bellingham at 6 AM on a Saturday. We came right into the harbor and started offloading these boxes of what looked like salmon into the back of five tractor trailers. We covered ourselves by having boxes of fish that we dropped as if it spilled and there was big salmon laying around everywhere. Anyone who would come and look, we’d give them one of those fish and it was fine.
Brian (right) in his college days
What happened next?
By 11 o’clock that day all those trucks, with their stack cars following them, were gone. Off to California… We used aromatic cedar in the back of all of the trucks because it smells so strong and kills the smell of the pot. We got those trucks down into California, kept our boats tied off while they were looking at it and the moment the last box of pot was in a warehouse somewhere, we brought those boats down into the United States. The moment we crossed the Canadian border, the Feds hit us. And all the cops found on the boats was coffee and donuts. That’s it. Everything had gone days before; it was all in warehouses. They freaked out! Amazing. And the coffee and donuts—a little gag at the expense of the cops?
Absolutely! And you know, it was noticed. They freaked out and spent the next few years putting together a case. It was a few years later they eventually showed up. I'd had a coke problem and a heart attack and an overdose in the interim, but I'd gotten sober by this point. I was working in a drug and alcohol rehab hospital in Santa Barbara as a counsellor and the DEA showed up and said, “This ain’t about change and rehabilitation, this is about crushing your life motherfucker, now do the right thing.”
Brian in prison
And so what they wanted was for me to cooperate. But out of 55 people who were indicted, two people didn’t talk. I didn’t talk and my buddy, the chief engineer, didn’t talk. Everybody else talked. The life of a drug smuggler seems so exciting. Is it really like the movies?
Listen, Oscar, I’ve got to tell you that, without a doubt—I mean, I did a big TV show last year, a primetime show with a huge Canadian star, and I was his co-host and I was the producer. It was great. But it was only the second greatest time of my life. What is it about smuggling that was so great?
It was about the camaraderie; somehow we managed to put together 110 guys who all loved each other. They were all family guys who had wives and children. Who all went to university, who all had brilliant abilities and who were just lovely guys… we didn’t have guns. We did $225 million worth of business over two years and I never saw a gun once. I would pick up $10 million from a stranger in the Garment district of New York City in my 34-foot motor home. I knew where to go, I’d pull up there, open my door, he’d get in and put in the suitcases full of money and we’d talk for a sec, drive around the block, drop him off, and then I’d head back to California with the money. Are drug smugglers of your ilk a thing of the past?
Pretty much. The risks are way too high now. People get killed. They arrested all the low hanging fruit—guys like us who didn’t carry guns. I got into the business by accident. I got into it because someone turned me on to a joint in university and I liked it and I blew my tuition and my rent and my food money on pot for me and the boys. I started selling what I got on and holding a little back to keep me in weed, and that’s how I translated from a pot smoker to a pot seller and it just somehow took over my life. It took over everything about my life. It became my hobby, my habit, my job.
Brian and Otis
Did you feel like pirates?
You know it’s funny you should ask that, because here is the greatest story of them all, buddy. We are up in southeast Alaska, in a Dutch harbor called Ketchikan and a fucking parrot flies on our boat. And it stays. It stays for two years. And it is never caged. This parrot flies off of the boat and will go for an hour and a half and come back again. This is in the middle of the Bering Sea. So we called him Otis, after Otis Redding. He was a pain in the ass. He’d get on your shoulder and just start pulling your hair, pecking at and screaming in your ear. So my buddy, the chief engineer, used to put Otis in the microwave and threaten to turn it on. He never did. You know, Otis was sacred, buddy. Imagine a parrot flying onto a pirate ship. That’s unheard of. And in Alaska! This was an omen from the pirate gods. Everybody loved Otis for what he represented metaphorically and mythically. When we transferred all the stuff off our boats and the deal was complete, Otis took off and never came back. His work was done. Once you went straight, you famously posted an ad in a Canadian paper listing your skills and talking about your experience as a dealer. You even listed the district attorney who arrested you as a reference. What kind of response did you get to that ad and what was the thinking behind it?
My prison sentence had expired and I was struggling. So I sat down and just started to write, and basically the ad came out. I phoned The Globe and Mail, Canada's main newspaper, read the copy out to them and the guy choked—“Uhhh… I’m gonna have to get back to you.” They didn’t take it. I called the National Post and they ended up doing a front-page story on it. I got 600 responses from all over the world. Every police agency in the US wanted me to come and work for them. I got all kinds of whacky and interesting offers, including some from organ smugglers, but ultimately I ended up on a television show. I know you’re arguing for the legalization of drugs. Do you think there’s a chance that will ever happen?
No. The facts speak so loudly, but you see we’re locked into a punitive mindset today. As the various governments around the world gain more and more control, they relinquish it with greater and greater reluctance. It’s a depressing prognosis. Thanks very much, Brian.
No problem, buddy.
Follow Oscar on Twitter @oscarrickettnow
Brian O'Dea is winner of The Arthur Ellis Award for Best Non-fiction Crime writing, Canada, for HIGH: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler (Virgin Books, UK). He’s also a film and television producer.
Want more feats of remarkable personal heroism? Try these real-life tales: