Former Imprisoned Drug Smuggler On Story Of Escape

In the 1970s, American Dwight Worker set out to smuggle cocaine from South America to the U.S. But his plan backfired and he wound up in one of Mexico's most notorious prisons. Worker tells host Michel Martin his story of imprisonment and escape.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a few of my thoughts in my weekly essay.

But first, what would you do if you found yourself convicted of a serious crime in a foreign country without the help of a lawyer and no way to fight the charges against you? What do you think you would do if you were locked up in a violent, stinking prison in that country where you had to fend off attacks from both guards and fellow inmates? Do you think you'd try to escape?

It's a story that sounds too crazy to be true, but according to one man, it is. In 1973, our next guest says he went to Peru with a complicated scheme to smuggle cocaine through South and Central America and back to the United States. But he says that plan went wrong and he found himself in one of Mexico's most notorious prisons.

Lecumberri, also called the Black Palace, was known as a place from which it was impossible to escape. Legend has it that the only person who'd ever successfully done so was Pancho Villa, but after two years at Lecumberri, our next guest, with the help of his wife, managed to do just that.

DWIGHT WORKER: I quickly shaved and double-shaved, did it again and again. Then, I put foundation makeup on. I put eyeliner on. I put everything on. In the middle of this, there's a knock on the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

WORKER: My heart froze.

MARTIN: Here to talk with us more is Dwight Worker. He is the author of "Escape From Lecumberri." The story of his experience and escape from prison is featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad," and that episode premiers tonight.

Dwight Worker, thanks so much for joining us.

WORKER: Thank you, Michel. I'm very honored to be here.

MARTIN: And let me just establish up front - you are not denying at all that you were, in fact, attempting to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

WORKER: Totally 100 percent guilty, shamefully so.

MARTIN: And why was that?

WORKER: My nose got bigger than my pocketbook. I had a job, but I had a cocaine habit and I could not earn enough money to keep myself in cocaine, so I thought, I'll have another nice adventure in South America and I'll smuggle back some cocaine.

MARTIN: So the idea was for your own use. You were basically trying to smuggle your own stash back to the states. You were not trying to set up a business and blah, blah, blah?

WORKER: Oh, I would have sold some to pay for the trip and I really think - this was the first time I had done this. I got busted, but I truly think that, had I succeeded, I would have done it again and again and again.

MARTIN: So how did you get caught?

WORKER: At the time, under the illusion of cocaine, I thought it was perfect. I was an emergency medical technician. I knew how to put casts on and I decided to smuggle cocaine under a velpeau cast, which is the one you use for a broken shoulder, and I had false x-rays made. I had bills and receipts made in Spanish. I even had a false newspaper article printed saying that I had fallen off Mount Chimborazo climbing in Ecuador.

And I thought no one would ever question that and violate a cast and break - potentially do a lot of damage to somebody. This was the cocaine speaking, the euphoria of cocaine. It can't go wrong.

MARTIN: So how did it go wrong?

WORKER: The customs agents have a lot more experience catching smugglers than the smugglers have of going through customs. They were better than I thought.

MARTIN: So you were convicted. You were sentenced to this prison. How long were you supposed to stay there, and how long was it before you realized you just couldn't make it, you were not going to survive this is you didn't do something?

WORKER: I think what convinced me that I had to leave were four distinct stab wounds in my stomach, three hospitalizations, 41 days in solitary confinement, being kept castigar - that's punished - in a dorm of 400 recidivist murderers and myself. And I felt there was a real good chance I was not going to make this physically, that I would be killed.

Lecumberri was built for 800 people. It held 4,000 when I was there and it averaged about 200 murders a year.

MARTIN: You describe, in one point, where these people had been forgotten, they had been there so long. And it's almost like they had lost their human connection. If you could just describe that, if you get my meaning.

WORKER: Lecumberri had to be the hardest joint in North America. To mention it on the street of Mexico scared people. It was a business. It was an enterprise. There was not enough food or resources for the people inside. They fought for what they got. At the back of dormitory A were people who had been completely forgotten, had no visitors, were crammed 12 into a room of perhaps two meters by four meters. They had missing eyes, missing fingers. I saw dry leprosy. There were people who had been there for 30 years without seeing a judge. Surreal is not enough to state it.

MARTIN: And this may be - you explain all this in the book - but why did you never receive assistance from the American embassy? I mean you are an American citizen and one would think you are entitled to visits from the Red Cross. You're entitled to a visit from embassy personnel. Why was the government of no help to you?

WORKER: There was an embassy official and when he finally visited me and I told him I needed help and he said, hey, you're guilty. You did it. Pay. And I said I know that but I need help from the stabbings, the beatings, the extortion. And I said I was going to - it sounded pompous at the - really in retrospect. I said I'm going to write a letter to my senator from the bowels of this medieval dungeon. And then they sent me back to the dorm and I heard a translation in foul Spanish of everything I had said to him. Clearly, he had given that information and they beat me silly, bloody. Beatings were par for the course there.

MARTIN: You spent a little more than two years in the prison. But during that time you met your wife and you got married. How is that possible?

WORKER: Before you're sentenced to the final prison that they send you to they allow two visita days and Barbara came with an old friend of mine. And I was, as I was talking with my friend, we were looking at each other and I thought what an interesting person but there's no chance. I'm going to be here five, six, seven, eight years. Forget it. And then they left and then I began receiving letters from her. And in the course of the summer of 1975, we sent each other 150 letters-plus, every day a letter or two, and we made some decisions from those letters.

MARTIN: You say that it was escape or die and that if you didn't have a successful escape then you would die trying. Why is that?

WORKER: Mexico in a certain sense has a sane policy on escape. It is not illegal to try to escape from Mexico if you do not do violence to people or destroy state property. It's almost like they give you a running chance in that sense. But they have La Ley de Fuga, the law of escape, and that is, basically, you have one chance to escape. If we catch you we kill you.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with a man who is believed to be only the second person ever to escape from a notorious prison in Mexico. My guest is Dwight Worker. The story of his experiences and escape are featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad."

So you did. It involved - as we said earlier - dressing up as a woman. Your wife, of course, had to help you. When was the moment at which you realized that you were in fact free?

WORKER: When I actually got out of sight of the walls of the prison and I didn't get shot in the back. I have no doubt that they killed many people who tried to escape because when I was in the hospital they brought in at least four people whom they had killed. For me, I didn't believe any of it until I got into the taxicab with Barbara and we drove off. At any point I could have imagined being shot.

MARTIN: How did you get back across the border? Or was it not so difficult back then?

WORKER: Well, I didn't have much identification, we had a few forged pieces of paper. What I did first is reverse psychology. Barbara and I split up. There was no sense for her to be with me at all and she went her separate way immediately north and I went southwest. I figured they'd have border checks. I escaped on December 17, 1975 and Christmas season was coming. I had a safe house, a friend of a friend, to go to and I stayed there for a few days. And nothing was in the newspaper for a few days. Nothing. I thought what's going on? And finally, on December 20th, there were articles in every newspaper in Mexico that someone had finally escaped from Lecumberri - and to add insult to injury it was a gringo.

MARTIN: You know, forwarding quite a bit to the present day, you actually were able to reclaim a normal life - I don't know if I can use that term - a normal life.

WORKER: Sure. Oh, that...

MARTIN: You know, he became a software engineer. You became a professor. And you actually wrote about your life 30 years ago and then the book went out of print. Why did you decide to talk about this again?

WORKER: OK.

MARTIN: You could easily see where somebody would say leave that in the past.

WORKER: Well, I didn't talk about it for 30 years. The publishing house went out of business shortly after the book was published and I thought I wanted to be quiet about it because what kind of resume did I have, Michel? Drug addict, international drug smuggler, prisoner escapee. I had the worst resume in the world, so I was silent about it. I worked many jobs not ever mentioning it at all. But National Geographic contacted me and I thought I can't make this decision myself so I asked Barbara, the mother of our children, and Jessie my son, what they thought about it. My son was very affirmative and Barber said go ahead and do it.

And another reason was we had a few copies of the book - the original book - completely falling apart and we thought there's all sorts of things that they left out of the book that we should put in and we can tell the true story now because we don't have to worry about protecting people. So with some cajoling, I thought OK, I'll tell the story now. Also I'm retired. It doesn't really hurt my present job - although, I can't say it ever did. I'm...

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask about that. I mean there are a lot of people who find, you know, that long-ago convictions - even not so long-ago convictions - really doom them for the rest of their lives, even just in the psychological sense because they just feel burdened by the fear that someone will find out. And that didn't happen to you?

WORKER: Oh, well, mine was worse because there was a book out with my name in it that said true story.

MARTIN: Oh.

WORKER: And then they made a made-for-TV movie. I worked for one company five years and then I come into work one morning and everyone's staring at me. And they said was that our Dwight Worker on television last night? So I had an obvious hole in my resume that I never mentioned. What I decided to do afterward is to become very good at a skilled technical job, computer programming, software engineering. And then I hoped they could forget about the past and just measure me by skill set.

Now teaching at the university, when they asked me, it was about four years into teaching they realized my past, and at that point I had established myself. I said to them, well, I don't recall in the form are being a checkbox saying have you ever escaped from a Mexican prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What would you want people to draw from your story? You can see where people can hear you even now - and you sound like a very nice person. You've done your time, as it were. You've raised a family. You've contributed to society. Presumably paid your taxes.

WORKER: OK.

MARTIN: But you could still see where there might be people listening to you who just think this is outrageous. You shouldn't be profiting from or talking about this chapter because what you did was wrong. And I just wonder how do you, what do you want people to draw from this?

WORKER: Well, what I did was very wrong and I didn't profit much. I would want to state this, you know, I have guilt or the rest of my life - especially, I mean what I want to state is family stood up so much better than the ethereal friends of the drug culture. I am so grateful that my family was there for me and I was so happy to have an ordinary life with wife and children and a job that was great, which I would've dismissed 10 years previously at how cliche-ish, how white picket fence. At the personal level I would say that that would be the most important thing.

MARTIN: Dwight Worker is the author of "Escape From Lecumberri." The story of his escape from this notorious Mexican prison is featured on National Geographic's "Locked Up Abroad." The episode premieres tonight and he was with us from Bloomington, Indiana.

Dwight Worker, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WORKER: Thank you very much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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