Author strikes 'Jackpot' with book on SC smuggling

In his first book, former The (Columbia) State staffer Jason Ryan has written an entertaining tale of drug smuggling along the S.C. coast in the 1980s. Think "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" meets the "Untouchables," only with S.C. landmarks, reference points and names that ring bells, even today.

The characters in "Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting that Launched the War on Drugs," for instance, graduated from Dentsville High School and attended the University of South Carolina or Newberry College or the College of Charleston. Their smuggling sites ranged from McClellanville -- the state's unofficial drug-smuggling capital -- to docks in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island.

Instead of Butch and Sundance, Ryan gives the reader Barry "Flash" Foy, Les Riley and a sometimes bewildering cast of dozens more.

Like the roles reprised by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Foy and Riley and their mates are principled outlaws, "gentleman smugglers."

They smuggled only marijuana -- before graduating to hashish -- because in that era when personal possession of grass was not even against the law in 11 states, it was a less serious crime in the eyes of some.

It all starts off as something of a lark. College kids making quick money by sailing to Jamaica to load up on inferior marijuana, then graduating to the trans-Caribbean adventure of more profitable Columbian dope and, however implausible it seems, to convoys of yachts, sailing to Lebanon to call a timeout in that country's civil war and load up on hashish.

The good times come to an end, as the book recounts in its Cassidy-like "Who are those guys?" moment, when various federal law enforcement agencies, including the IRS, Customs, FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency form an multi-agency task force to catch the smugglers.

A la "The Untouchables," the good guys seldom are successful in busting an actual smuggling operation. So they launch Operation Jackpot to go for the next best thing, seizing the smugglers' assets, including Hilton Head lots, a state representative's car, a Charleston restaurant and, in one of the book's more interesting tales, a prized sailboat.

The Kevin Costner role in the "Untouchables" goes to former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, then U.S. attorney for the state.

The McMaster portrayed is one that South Carolinians will recognize. He's talkative, self-promoting, has an affinity for dogs and is ambitious. Maybe he'll be a congressman one day or president, he tells friends.

With Operation Jackpot under way, Riley and an ally look for their Butch-and-Sundance-like Peru to hide out, but -- "Who are those guys?" -- the inevitable day of reckoning comes. Riley is arrested in Australia and discovers the posse chasing him has been led by McMaster, who -- South Carolina being small -- he's known since childhood.

At times, the cast of characters can be confusing. Even the smugglers who have turned state's evidence can't keep the names straight of their one-time partners in crime. But there are some sparkling moments as well -- including the escape of one kingpin from the Charleston County jail.

Still, the pursuit never ends, until it does -- in a California airport for one character, a Colorado ski resort for another and, for Barry Foy of Dentsville High and USC, getting off a plane in New York, wife and children in tow.

Ryan has told an interesting yarn. He was able to get the surviving gentlemen smugglers to tell their side of the story, not just law enforcement officials.

"Jackpot's" one-unanswered question? Did the feds find all the gentlemen smugglers' millions, some squirreled away in foreign banks that their drug-addled minds just might have forgotten?

Or forgot to confess.