In the summer of 1982, Eugene Fischer, a 42-year-old Miamian in the import and export shipping business, watched as two tugboats guided his barge into a dock at the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. Minutes later, a crew hired by his clients, Randy Lanier, Ben Kramer, and George Brock—who at the time went by the alias "Tommy Alonzo"—opened secret compartments inside the ballast tanks at the bottom of the barge that stabilized the vessel at sea, as Fischer recalled in an interview.
"We unloaded 150,000 pounds of marijuana right under the noses of the US Coast Guard," Fischer told VICE. "One third went to Randy, one third went to Ben, and one third went to George. Back then, a pound went for $200 wholesale, so the entire load was worth $30 million."
For supplying the barge and handling the logistics of bringing the weed in from Colombia, where it was harvested, the trio paid Fischer a little over $1 million in cash. By his own account, which is bolstered by 28-year-old news reports and court documents, Fischer ended up bringing in several more loads of 100,000-plus pounds each in places like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Redwood City, California, during a five-year period. Lanier, Kramer, and Brock would then transport the weed to Florida, New York, and other parts of the country by truck.
"Gene was very crucial to the operation because he owned the equipment," Lanier recalled to VICE in a phone interview. "He was also the one paying off the people that cleared the vessel through US Customs."
For perspective, that's at least $150 million worth of Colombian pot that hit the streets of America just as Ronald Reagan was ramping up his war on drugs.
The pot empire crumpled in 1987 when the four men were indicted in southern Illinois federal court for being a criminal drug enterprise trafficking in marijuana. At the time, it was the largest marijuana trafficking case in American history, according to the online resume of Michael Carr, the assistant US attorney who prosecuted Fischer and his associates. They were convicted a year later. Their indictment alleges Kramer and Lanier cleared about $60 million in drug profits, while Fischer and Brock made $30 million.
Thanks to the federal "drug kingpin" statute enacted during the 1980s, the quartet received harsh sentences. Fischer, Lanier (who was the 1986 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year) and Kramer (a 1984 world offshore powerboating champion) were hit with life sentences. Brock, after nearly 20 years on the lam, went in for 15 years. (Kramer was also convicted of more serious crimes, and got sentenced to 19 years in state prison for manslaughter in 1996. He was accused of orchestrating the execution-style slaying of his boat racing rival Don Aronow in 1987.)
In July 2012, after serving 25 years, Fischer won his release following a bruising battle with federal prosecutors. Ever since, he's been on a mission to help prisoners in similar predicaments get released early.
As the US government prepares to release 6,000 nonviolent federal prisoners this fall, Fischer's ordeal, along those of the inmates he's trying to help, sheds light on how hard it is for nonviolent marijuana traffickers serving long-term or life sentences to win back their own freedom. Criminal justice reform may seem within reach these days, but while lawmakers debate and federal bureaucrats make tweaks at the margins, there are plenty of drug war prisoners getting lost in the fray.
People like Fischer are trying to help them sooner than later.
Four states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 23 states and Washington DC have approved pot as medicine. So it makes no sense to keep people incarcerated for long periods of time for dealing weed, regardless of the amount, said Anthony Papa, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York nonprofit organization seeking to end the drug war.
"We definitely get a lot of requests for help from people facing life in prison for marijuana," Papa said. "I don't think the quantity should matter, especially today. For sure, they should not be in prison for life."
Fischer said public perception about marijuana usage has dramatically shifted since the 1980s when programs such as DARE cautioned parents and children that pot was the gateway drug to harder, deadlier illegal substances. "Today all the good marijuana is grown domestically in large part because some states have legalized it in some form," he said.
While he was incarcerated, Fischer said he never stopped fighting for his release. During the first 23 years of his sentence, he filed dozens of appeals to get a time reduction and all failed, according his federal case's court docket. He said he finally caught a break in 2010, when he filed a civil lawsuit against the US government alleging the feds owed him $9.2 million from accumulated revenue at the Bell Gardens Bicycle Club, a California casino owned by Kramer and Lanier that was seized following their arrests.
Fischer insists he was never a partner in the casino, but that federal prosecutors listed him as a co-owner on forfeiture documents offered a plausible claim against American coffers. According to a January 10, 2011 order written by federal administrative judge Christine Odell Cook Miller, the US government kept a 55 percent equity stake in Bell Gardens after it was seized; in 1999, it sold its shares.
Fischer claimed in court documents that the money the government derived from the sale "exceeded the $30,000,000 forfeiture against him" and "that the excess proceeds realized by the United States from the forfeiture sale constitute an improper taking that entitles him to money damages."
He apparently convinced Miller, who denied the federal government's request to dismiss Fischer's complaint as frivolous. Rather than have him take the case to trial and potentially draw undesirable publicity about Bell Gardens, the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Illinois offered him his freedom instead, Fischer claimed. (A spokesperson for the Southern Illinois US Attorney's Office declined comment.)
"I dropped the lawsuit and got my release," Fischer told VICE. He was freed on July 16, 2012. One of the first things he did was to get in touch with Lanier to help him win an early release. (He went free in October 2014.) "He got out by doing the exact same thing I did," Fischer said.
"I followed the same avenue as Gene," Lanier said. "It was an ingenious way to get out of prison. We were both handed [a] natural death sentence by having to live the balance of our lives in prison. Luckily, things turned around for us."
Helping Lanier get out inspired him to help other prisoners serving long sentences for marijuana trafficking, Fisher said. Now a 75-year-old activist living in Tamarac, Florida, Fischer started a nonprofit group last year called Voices of the War (VOW) with four women who advocate for the release of prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Every Sunday, Fischer and a woman named Kristin Flor host an hour-long program on Blogtalk Radio that focuses on human rights for incarcerated convicts. He travels to California and Washington to speak at marijuana conferences and seminars about his drug war experiences.
Flor, a 40-year-old from Kent, Washington, told VICE she became an activist following the death of her father, Richard, in 2012 while he was serving a five-year sentence for marijuana trafficking. His Montana medical marijuana dispensary was raided by federal drug agents. At the time of the raid, her dad was taking 32 types of medication, Flor said.
"During the four months he was in prison, he had undiagnosed colon cancer," she claimed. "The prison autopsy showed he only had three of his meds in his system, he had broken bones, osteoporosis, and dementia."
She met Fischer about a year ago when they were both volunteering for Human Solutions International, another nonprofit that helps inmates with nonviolent drug offenses. They formed VOW to help people serving long-term or life sentences for marijuana trafficking. Earlier this year, VOW joined dozens of prisoner advocacy groups in successfully petitioning the US Federal Bureau of Prisons to grant clemency to Larry Duke, a 68-year-old Vietnam Veteran who was convicted by a Dallas federal jury in 1989 of conspiring to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. Duke was released in March.
Fischer and Flor said some of the inmates they are helping include:
- Craig Cesal, a truck driver and mechanic who in 2001 was convicted in a Texas federal court of knowingly and intentionally conspiring to possess with intent to distribute approximately 610 kilograms of marijuana. Fischer said VOW is trying to find a lawyer to represent Cesal pro-bono, and also filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to obtain documents from Cesal's investigative file.
- Thomas Geers, who in 2013 started a 20-year term in Florida state prison after serving 22 years in federal prison for his involvement in a marijuana-smuggling operation. As the Orlando Sentinel reported, prosecutors alleged his scheme "involved dummy corporations, phony names and a mythical religious retreat on 250 acres of secluded Madison farmland." Geers was arrested in 1984, and Fischer said VOW and Geers's siblings are lobbying Florida Governor Rick Scott to grant Geers clemency.
- Bill Dekle, a 65-year-old ex-Marine and former pilot who was sentenced to life without parole in 1991 following his conviction for importing marijuana. VOW is starting a letter-writing campaign lobbying the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to grant Dekle a compassionate release. (That's a process by which inmates may be eligible for freedom on the grounds of "particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing," such as a terminal illness that can't be treated in prison.)
- Kenneth Kubinski, a 68-year-old former Vietnam vet who won three Purple Hearts who has been serving a life sentence since 1993. Prosecutors accused Kubinski of being the leader of a large-scale conspiracy to distribute hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and tons of marijuana over a period of several years. VOW is trying to help Kubinski find a pro-bono lawyer to work on his appeal.
Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:
"We are working with them and their families to find ways to get them out," Flor said. "For some, we are trying to get compassionate releases."
She also raises money for prisoners' commissaries—the accounts inmates use to pay for goods inside—by selling raffle tickets and hitting up dispensary owners in Kent for donations.
Fischer, who was his own jailhouse lawyer, doesn't hesitate in ascribing broader significance to this work on behalf of convicted drug offenders.
"I believe this is the most important thing in my life now," he said. "We are starting a movement."
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance investigative journalist based in south Florida. Follow him on Twitter.