I Helped Smuggle More Than 27 Tons of Pot in Three Nights
An interview with Kermit Schweidel, the author of 'Folly Cove: A Smuggler's True Tale of the Pot Rebellion.'
(L) L to R: Unknown, Jack Stricklin, Marty Houston, and Jim French of the Colombus Air Force, 1974 (R) Photographer: Chris Roussakis/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Images courtesy of Kermit Schweidel, unless otherwise noted.
Until snitches gave up the details to Boston’s federal prosecutors in 1980, a nearly 30-ton shipment of Colombian weed was the stuff of legend. Folly Cove, an inlet on the tip of Cape Ann, about an hour up the coast from Boston on the North Shore, was the site of the 1975 caper. Kermit Schweidel, an El Paso resident who was among the 42 individuals indicted in the audacious maneuver, remembers it well.
Folly Cove: A Smuggler's True Tale of the Pot Rebellion, a new book out February 20th from Cinco Puntos Press, is Schweidel's retelling of the operation. After a sudden decrease in the quality of the Mexican weed his El Paso crew had been moving over the border, buyers were desperate for better dope. Jack Stricklin, the leader of the contingent for five years, decided to take advantage of the market conditions and facilitate the massive operation.
Running his illicit enterprise like a publicly traded venture, Stricklin promised his investors— lawyers, bankers, doctors, waitresses, and barbers in El Paso—that he would pay them back three-to-one, and raised $400,000 in capital to finance a deal for Colombian product. “Stricklin had 50 people up and down the North Shore [of Massachusetts] working for him in various staging houses where the loads of weed would be stashed after being brought in on the smaller boats that rendezvoused with the mothership,” Schweidel told me over the phone.
It took the better part of three nights to move all of the weed, from getting it off of the boats to getting it out into the market. But by the third night, the first night's worth had hit the streets, paying back the investors and recouping costs. From there, it was pure profit. VICE reached out to Schweidel to find out how he kept a clear distinction between truth and tall tales in his new book.
VICE: Who was Jack Stricklin and how did you get to know him?
Kermit Schweidel: Jack Stricklin was a unique individual, really the definition of charisma. The thing about Jack was that he made every friend he had feel like his best friend, and there was nothing disingenuous about that. It was very real with him, because he was somebody who was very present. When he was with you, he was 100 percent with you. I was 12 years old when I met him, and he was four, five years older. I had two older sisters at the time, and that's kind of what brought Jack into my orbit there. But he took me seriously, and our relationship kind of built from there.
Why did you wait so long to tell his story?
Basically, it never was all my story to tell. It was a story that involved a lot of different stakeholders—Jack Stricklin and Mike Halliday being two of the biggest. Billy Russell is another one. I played an increasingly growing role once I got involved, but it really was their story. Jack Stricklin did 17 years consecutively, his last sentence. When he got out he convinced me that it was time. The way it ended up, there was barely enough time, because Jack died last November, but he lived to see the book completed. I deeply regret that he did not live to see the book published. Jack, Mike, and Billy all very much encouraged me to do it and played a role in it. It was time for us to tell our story.
What did Jack mean to the operation?
Jack just had this ability to inspire people that made everybody want to do things for him. He was the glue that held it all together. Mike Halliday was the guy that got the ball rolling. He found the big connection and was the smuggler. But Jack was the inspiration and the business mind, the entrepreneur kind of behind the whole thing. He did 24 years of his life in prison for pot, and the reason he did 24 years of his life in prison for pot is because Jack refused to roll over on anybody. He was offered deal after deal after deal. He could have got out in a fraction of that time, and all he would have had to do was turn snitch, but Jack wouldn't do that.
Smugglers are known to exaggerate. How did you kind of keep a clear distinction between the truth and tall tales in your book?
Boston was a big part of the book, and I was intimately involved in Boston. I knew the details. I feel really good about the veracity of the story, even after 40 years. The earlier stories from Jack, Mike, and Billy were stories I had heard all my life. I knew them to be true. The events that happened during that period of time were pretty clearly etched in our minds. An interesting thing about that would be Ralph Armendariz. Ralph is the guy that went to Colombia and got the load together and rode back on the boat. Forty years later, as I was writing the book, and I got Ralph's complete story, it was the first time any of us—me or Jack or Billy or Mike—had ever heard that side of the story, and it was the first time Ralph really ever heard about what was going on in Boston. This book kind of completes the story for everyone.
How did Jack and Mike end up smuggling so much pot?
It was really kind of trial-and-error and fits and starts as they got up to the 250-pound level. You've got to have a supplier, and when you get to that level, you've got to have a buyer, somebody that can distribute it. But once Mike made the connection in Mexico with La Nacha, who headed one of the big drug families of Northern Mexico, if not the biggest, they had access to a lot of pot.
Jack attracted buyers, and before they knew it, they were doing a truckload at a time, which was 750 to 800 pounds, and then two trucks at a time, and then two trucks, three or four times a week in the high season. Jack was the one that introduced airplanes to the equation. I would say they went from doing small Jeep loads, bringing it over on their backs, to doing truckloads and planeloads in a matter of six months. It just all happened really fast.
How did the drug trade evolve from the "pot rebellion," as you call it in your book, to the violent industry we have today?
The short answer is cocaine. Cocaine came along and ruined the pot business. In our day, the business of pot was really handled by the culture of pot. It was a culture of cooperation, a culture of trust. We would give people hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pot on a handshake, and they would take it and we'd always get our money. But it was a really brief window between 1970 and 1975 when the culture of pot really dominated the business of pot. Cocaine comes along, which is a lot easier to smuggle, with a lot more money involved.
The money became too serious to ignore. [People] started shooting each other and killing each other and it got bigger than the pot culture could handle. Real, true pioneers like Jack, Mike, and Billy, didn't want to get into the cocaine business. They got into pot because they believed in the product. They used the product. They liked the product. They felt like there was nothing wrong, we knew we were breaking laws, but we didn't feel like we were breaking any big moral codes or doing anything evil or dangerous. Cocaine changed that. I think that kind of begat the violence that ended up just ripping the border apart.
Do you think the Folly Cove operation helped pave the way for legalization?
Well, we're not there yet, are we? Let me say that we were dumb enough, or naïve enough, to believe that we were going to win. Even back in the 70s, we thought this was going to go exactly the way of Prohibition, and the government was going to see the error of its ways and people were going to continue to use this stuff, and eventually it would be legalized or decriminalized. Well, here we are 40 years later and they're only now making those inroads. It's ridiculous to me that we haven't gone further, that we haven't legalized it on a national scale. The government fights it because, face it, drug enforcement is as big a business as drug distribution, and nobody wants to cut drug enforcement budgets—least of all drug enforcement. I think it's a fight that we'll continue to wage. But in the meantime, people continue to be prosecuted and jailed because of it, and that's the real crime to me.