David Lauderdale

I didn’t do it: Operation Jackpot drug kingpin talks about Fripp Island cocaine find

When $600,000 worth of cocaine washed up on Fripp Island Sunday, we all started thinking about Operation Jackpot.

That was the $850 million drug-smuggling drama that swamped the South Carolina Lowcountry in the 1970s and early 1980s.

I talked to one of the kingpins of Operation Jackpot this week, and in so many words, he said: It wasn’t me!

Les Riley, in fact, no longer lives on Fripp Island, a resort and residential community in the far reaches of the barrier islands off Beaufort. He has moved up the coastline to Seabrook Island, near Kiawah.

And the “gentleman smugglers” of Jackpot fame smuggled marijuana and hashish, not cocaine.

But Riley read about the Fripp incident. A family of visitors strolling the beach on a moonlit night stumbled upon a black object in the surf that turned out to be 20 kilos of cocaine.

They fished it out, loaded it on their golf cart, took it back to the house and poked inside to find white powder and called police. Authorities said it was 20 bricks of cocaine.

“I heard about it from a good friend of ours when we lived on Fripp,” he said. “She texted me about it, and I texted her back and said, ‘Gosh, I knew I left something when I moved.’ “

He laughed about that.

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Like the police, Riley quickly named a suspect: Dorian. As in Hurricane Dorian, the worst natural disaster in the history of the Bahamas that swept up the Atlantic shoreline last month.

“It could be from Freeport or somewhere with Hurricane Dorian,” Riley said. “They’re finding all kind of stuff washing up on beaches now from the Bahamas.

“I doubt if it was anything being brought into Fripp, or the Beaufort area. I just don’t see that.

“But who knows? It could have been off a scuttled boat, a sunken boat, or any number of things. I could see how that happened.”

Riley spent 17 years in prison for his lead role in a smuggling ring that operated out of Hilton Head Island. He and another kingpin were accused of smuggling 347,000 pounds of pot and 130,000 pounds of hashish, most of it to quiet docks on Hilton Head, Bluffton, Edisto Island and other spots along Lowcountry rivers and islands that have attracted smugglers for centuries.

Because bales of marijuana float, we had so much of it rolling up onshore, or found bobbing offshore, back then that locals called it “square grouper.”

More than 100 people were indicted. Most of them served time.

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The local lore remains alive.

The swashbuckling lifestyle and daring adventure of Operation Jackpot was the subject of a 2011 book by Jason Ryan: “Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting that Launched the War on Drugs.”

An attempt was made to turn it into a movie: “The Gentleman Smugglers: Distributing Happiness Since 1970.” They were called “gentlemen smugglers” because no violence or hard drugs were involved. Few had any criminal past. Most were from South Carolina.

And this summer, River Dog Brewing Co. in Okatie rolled out “Operation Jackpot Hazy IPA.” The colorful label shows bales of hops falling from a plane, and being fished out of the water by a man on a boat.

Now every time a family of vacationers fishes $600,000 worth of cocaine from the sea, our minds will flash back to the high times of Operation Jackpot.

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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