Arts & Culture

Former Gazette reporter's book hits 'Jackpot'

Former "gentleman drug smugglers" may attend two Lowcountry book signings of a nonfiction novel that chronicles a decade of importing illegal drugs into Beaufort County.

Jason Ryan, author of "Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting that Launched the War on Drugs," will sign books May 16 from 2 to 3 p.m. on Hilton Head Island and from 6 to 7 p.m. in Beaufort. Ryan said he has been contacted by some of the former smugglers who told him they may return to the scene of the crime for the book signing.

Ryan, a former newspaper reporter at The Beaufort Gazette and The (Columbia) State, describes the real-life characters in his book as gentlemen because they "were loyal to their friends and they wouldn't shoot the cops."

The book follows "Operation Jackpot," a task force of state and federal agencies formed in 1982 to capture the "largest marijuana kingpins in the United States," accused of smuggling in nearly $1 billion worth of pot and hashish in less than a decade.

Bar gossip in the 1980s had Beaufortonians asking who would be the next target of the indictments being handed down in the sting that caught and convicted more than 100 people in the drug-smuggling activity. Some Beaufort and Hilton Head residents were interviewed for the book -- others chose not to discuss their past.

"Some names are left out," Ryan said. "This is not a comprehensive history of 'Operation Jackpot.' We chose the people with the most interesting stories, while others such as those who now have families and careers did not want to talk. I know a couple of Beaufort people will be upset at some omissions or maybe they will want to duck my pen."

For several years, Ryan's research retraced the steps of some of the smugglers. He conducted interviews in the Florida Keys and on a Georgia shrimp boat. Ryan also found some stories by being a pen pal with one of the men who was still serving time in prison.

"The fun part was hearing their stories," Ryan said.

Some of the men became millionaires before they were 25, sailing to Colombia, Lebanon or Jamaica to buy marijuana and hashish to smuggle into rural areas of South Carolina. They chose islands such as Dataw, St. Helena, Hilton Head and Edisto to land. They knew there was little law enforcement and customs agents had to patrol by car because they did not have boats.

Ryan focused on major characters in the sting including the parallel operations of Les Riley and Barry Foy, who both grew up in Columbia and moved to Florida. Some of the smugglers lived on Hilton Head and had homes at St. Barts and Nantucket, Mass. Some simply served as decoys in case law enforcement was watching as others unloaded.

The law enforcement side of the operation also is part of the book. The authorities followed the smugglers' paper trail of money. By using civil forfeiture laws, property could be obtained by the government before conviction. Ryan said land, boats and even a Charleston restaurant, 82 Queen, were confiscated.

"They really only caught people after doing financial investigations and looking into real estate transactions and IRS violations," Ryan said. "They pressured minor players into cutting plea agreements. Once one person started talking, it was kind of like dominoes. Whether people testified was a big deal in establishing loyalty."

Ryan said his book was not written to glamorize drugs.

"None of them knew how to step away. ... Some said they would trade all the money in the world to escape the prison sentences they served, and they paid a steep price."

Some of the smugglers were given up to 20-year sentences.

"I highlighted the people who were successful at drug trafficking," Ryan said. "There's a romance attached to their crimes, and there's a very human story. They took risks and there were rewards, but there were a lot of very heavy consequences to their families."