Bait And Switch

Brian O'Dea is a big time drug smuggler on his way out of the game when he gets a call from his sworn enemy, with the deal of a lifetime. Buckle up for an international ride of shady characters and the true tale of a man who always had to keep one step ahead.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Now then, you've heard that there's no honor among thieves, right? And maybe you've heard as well that for some people sometimes something is always going to pull them back in. Our first story deals with folk who live outside the tired constraints of law and legalities and the right thing to do. As such, it does reference illegal drugs and ill-gotten gain, but the squeamish innocence shouldn't worry too much - this is public radio.

O'DEA: My name is Brian O'Dea and I am 64.

JAMIE DEWOLF, BYLINE: In the '70s, Brian was making good money at his job.

O'DEA: I lived comfortably. I didn't live extravagantly. I mean, I had nice cars and I had a nice country house and I had a home and I had a nice boat. I had the toys. But I didn't live extravagantly. I live a very private life.

DEWOLF: Brian was a kind of guy that you could go to when you were in a jam.

O'DEA: I had a lot of money and so I gave away millions of dollars, and I got stiffed for millions of dollars. But I had a great time, you know. I was just having fun, I had kids.

DEWOLF: Brian lived the sweet life because his day job was drug smuggling. He started out small time in Canada, but quickly evolved into an international player who moved tons all across the world.

O'DEA: I started bringing coke into LA, and how I was doing that was I would go to South America and dissolve the coke in methanol. And then I would pour that methanol solution into fabric, ruanas specifically or ponchos. And then I would just hop on a plane and fly those ponchos right into LA Airport. And they'd go through my luggage, now as long as they didn't pick their nose or something after going through my luggage and their nose when numb from handling coke-laden material, I was safe. I

I'd take that material, soak it in methanol, flash evaporate it off and be left with the pure cocaine back on the U.S. side.

DEWOLF: But after a decade of the high life, Brian wanted out.

O'DEA: 1984, I just - I had such a bad habit, I had to quit. For a couple of years, I kept trying to stop and trying to stop, and I'd make it stop and start. And I realized I got to get out of this business. If I get out of this business I have a chance of quitting. As long as I'm in this business, I'll never quit this. So I checked into a hospital, got sober, finished the 30 days, I pulled out of there in my motorcycle and got hit by a truck and lost my memory. Had to go back in and do the program again.

DEWOLF: Now that he was clean and sober, he only needed one thing.

O'DEA: I need money. When I got phone call from this guy who grew up with in Newfoundland, who I had serious issues with a few years earlier, and he brought someone to break my arms, he took a shot at me. And this is a guy I would never ever do anything with ever again. He phones me and says, look, I know we've had our issues in the past, put I want to put all that behind us 'cause I have got the offload of a lifetime.

And an offload is a place where you can bring in drugs, from the sea or air, into a very safe location and transport it out of there without getting caught. And I said, look, I'm sorry, I'm getting out of the business. And he said, look, you got the connections, I know you do, I know the boys can do it from Southeast Asia, just hook it up. You don't have to do anything - hook it up, you'll get a huge payday here. This will be the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, just give it a shot and take a look at it. I couldn't help it. As much as I knew I shouldn't do this, I got sucked back in.

DEWOLF: Against his own instincts, he joined forces with his old enemy to pull off the score of a lifetime.

O'DEA: That afternoon, we were on a plane to Washington. And it was every single thing that he said it was. He was hooked up with this fisherman in Anacortes, Washington, it was a dry dock facility. It was private, it was huge, we could sail right in there, tie up, be looking like we were shipping fish from Alaska.

None of us had ever seen anything like before so we said yes, yes, yes. And we began putting together a 75 ton buy of pot in Vietnam. We went out and raised about $15 million for equipment, expenses and product purchases. We put together a team of 110 people all around the world and we began the procedure by organizing to bring in 25 of the 75 tons in the first shipment. They picked the load up over there was the plan. We would meet them in the Baltic Sea and then go up into a fjord in Alaska, hid our boats, repackage everything, do the quality control, barcode everything, package it in wet-lock fish boxes so it looked like fish and then come down, bring it down into Washington. This was the plan.

DEWOLF: But when your score is worldwide, it's hard to control it.

O'DEA: Now 110 guys is a big herd of cats to keep in line. There was one condition that we had to bring into play here - nobody did cocaine. If you did coke, you're out.

DEWOLF: Everyone agreed, let's keep this professional except for the guy who brought the deal to the table in the first place.

O'DEA: Well, this guy, this Newfoundlander, couldn't stop showing up at that house 'cause we put money in his pocket with limos, cocaine, 2 in the morning, making a lot of racket, drawing heat.

DEWOLF: So Brian had to tell them.

O'DEA: You have to leave. We assured him he would be paid and he left. Twenty-five tons, we get it, we transfer it up in the Bering Sea, we bring it up in the fjord, we repack it in wet-lock fish boxes and shrink-wrap, we barcode every box so they never have to be open and we can tell how much value is in each box. And we come down on a Saturday morning right into Anacortes, to the dry dock and I had five tractor-trailers. And one-by-one, we loaded those things up, buddy, and they took off to California. And then we started distributing it all over the country. Twenty-five tons of pot is about $75 million.

DEWOLF: But that was only half the score. And they still had to pay off the loose cannon to keep quiet.

O'DEA: This guy got wind that we had pulled the deal off and showed up in Anacortes looking for his money. So we had a meeting and had to decide what we were going to do with him. We still had another 50 tons over there.

So were we going to put a million dollars or 2 million dollars in this guy's hands right now? Let him go nuts? Or we give him a smaller amount of money, just keep a leash on him until we pull off the other load. And the boys decided that they wanted to give him 50 grand. I thought that was way too little and that was going to be a big problem, but they wanted to do it so that's what we did - gave him 50 grand.

And he was freaked out, pissed off, furious and took that Vons grocery bag with 50 grand in it, went right to the DEA, put it on the table and said I can tell you where there's a lot more that looks just like this.

DEWOLF: Bryan and the crew had no clue that the whole score was now under heavy surveillance.

O'DEA: And so for the next 10 months the DEA followed us. And they watched us put together that entire 50 tons.

DEWOLF: But it's not as if these guys weren't careful.

O'DEA: Now we had scanners, we had safe houses, we had people listening to radios. But we could never isolate the the frequencies of the feds. We couldn't listen to the DEA, the FBI, ATF - any of the federal police agencies, we could not isolate radio transmission frequencies. So we couldn't program them into our scanners.

DEWOLF: But with the right money, you can get the right guy.

O'DEA: We brought a guy up. He had a spectrum analyzer. And so now, finally, here we are just days before we're bringing the load in, we're able to listen to the feds talk on the radio. Now up until this, all of our communications back-and-forth had been done by radio using dictionaries. If I wanted to say something to you, I would formulate a sentence and write it down.

And then I would look up every word in that sentence in the dictionary and know what page the word was on and what number down on the page that word was, and then I would speak to you like this - I would radio you on single-sideband and say - hello, misty two, misty two, this is the KB, KB calling, I want you to check the following part numbers, 102-8, 297-19. And so what that meant was page 102, the eighth word on the page. Page 297, the 19th word on the page. It took a long time to have a conversation like that and we wanted to be completely clear now before we brought this last load down.

DEWOLF: One less meeting, face-to-face. But on they way...

O'DEA: On route, my radio picks up the DEA talking about following me in my brown suburban. I took off and I drove like a freaking maniac for about six hours non-stop. I took dirt roads, side roads, country roads, every road. And if a car was coming a mile down the road, as far as I was concerned, it was a cop. I finally settled near Spokane about six hours later and called the safe house. And she said...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're the fourth today, call back in two hours - we're arranging a meeting.

O'DEA: The meeting was set up in the parking lot of this country store in the middle of nowhere. And we had to make a decision what to do. So the first thing we did was call a private detective, who was a former DEA agent, to go to work for us and find out what the DEA knew. He told us they were flying up and down the inside passage looking for us. They knew we had the load. They couldn't find our boats and they were looking for us hard. We knew that they knew, but they didn't know that we knew they knew. That just blew our minds.

DEWOLF: They had two options, call off the whole deal or make a new plan to bait-and-switch.

O'DEA: We went to a friend of ours and said loan us your boat will you? So he loaned us this 250-foot boat. We took off on that boat with another crew up to Alaska. As we were going up, we're listening to them fly over us not knowing who they're flying over looking for us.

So we get up there, we offload all of the product off of the boats that were hidden in the fjord, put it in our boat, on this new boat, and we sail it back down towards the inside passage where you cross from Canada into the U.S.

DEWOLF: And once they cross the border, it was time to drop the bait.

O'DEA: We pull all of the boats they're looking for out into the open and tie them off together like they're doing something. We let them spot us. The radios light up - we're on them, we got them, stay back, stay away, just - we'll watch them, we got them now, we'll mark them. They are all on these three boats. The moment those three boats cross the border, Canada into the U.S., all hell broke loose, buddy - helicopters, seaplanes, boats, FBI, DEA, ATF, every acronymic policing agency in the United States.

DEWOLF: Hundreds of agents swarm the boats with guns out, ready to take down one of the biggest busts in history. And what did they find?

O'DEA: There was fresh donuts and coffee waiting for them on the boat.

DEWOLF: But no narcotics, no contraband and no evidence.

O'DEA: They were freaked. They knew they'd been had. They knew they'd been had. I personally wasn't there, I was with the pot. The total value of the load was about $220 million.

DEWOLF: And the DEA knew it had slipped right through their fingers.

O'DEA: I am no fool, OK. I may have done some stupid things in my life, but fool, I am not. I am not foolish enough to think for one second that you can throw a whole heaping plateful of egg on the face of the DEA and walk away unscathed. I knew that there was a hammer poised to fall somewhere at some point.

DEWOLF: But for now, he was celebrating his last score.

O'DEA: I thought it would be my last, yeah. It was my last. That was the only deal really that I ever did for the dough. That was the problem. I gave up the coke for the two years that I was doing that deal. But the moment the deal was done, I went and bought myself a kilo. Eight days and eight ounces later, kept getting progressively more and more insane.

I'd look out the window and the trees would turn into my wife and my kids. I'd hallucinate and I'd hit the floor and crawl across the floor and peak out the window. Every ashtray in the house had cigarettes burning in it. There were empties of liquor everywhere. I'd walk by the mirror in the bathroom and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and just go into a panic, not knowing who it was looking back at me thinking someone was there and it was me.

It was the most horrific, self-induced hellish time of my life that I couldn't stop. And then all of a sudden, as I was walking by the mirror, I felt like my chest exploded. And the bag of coke went up in the air and I can remember seeing the coke like snowflakes and I just collapsed to the floor. I had a heart attack.

And that ended me in the hospital for a month. I went to NA, AA, CA, Jesus, put anything with an A behind it and I was going to the meeting because I just wanted to get sober. So when I finished my 30 days, I hung around that hospital. And it was three years into working in this recovery hospital with drug addicts and alcoholics when the DEA showed up.

DEWOLF: Three years later, the hammer finally dropped.

O'DEA: DEA showed up and said this ain't about change or rehabilitation, this is about crushing your life, now do the right thing.

DEWOLF: And they thought they had the one man who would break.

O'DEA: They wanted me to cooperate more than anyone else because I was working as a drug counselor and they figured this would be their, you know, their prime witness, and I was one of the management of the group. And they eventually indicted 55 guys - 53 of them cooperated, talked, two didn't. I didn't talk and my chief engineer, Frank, he didn't talk either.

DEWOLF: All the boys who thought they'd all get off scot free all got hit with jail sentences. Brian served his time without giving anybody up, but when he got out he was just another ex-con. It was time for another switch.

O'DEA: April, 2001 - I am struggling. I mean, I'd been out of prison for a while. And my wife said to me one day, you know what, Brian, you need to get a job. And I said, get a job, who's going to hire me? I don't know how to do anything. I've never had a job in my life. And she said, oh, I see, you had 110 people working in a secret corporation around the world, doing $225 million in secret business, and you don't know how to do anything. Sit down and write a resume and take the skills that you think are transferable from that business to the real world and see what you come up with.

DEWOLF: So Brian came up with his next escape plan.

O'DEA: So I sat down and started to write what eventually was to become a classified ad that I ran in the National Post. And it ended up something like this - headline, former marijuana smuggler having recently completed a 10-year sentence incident free for smuggling 75 tons of marijuana into the United States, I am now looking for a legal means to support my wife and my family. I am expert in all levels of security, I am - great people skills, computer expert, speak three languages.

And I put it in the classified section of the Financial Post. It started on a Monday morning, my phone did not stop ringing for 3 weeks. And I got over 600 responses from all over the world. Got offered jobs from customs and immigration, all the police agencies in the U.S. were reaching out to me, smugglers, organ smugglers, dopes smugglers. It was really quite incredible.

DEWOLF: And out of all the jobs he could have picked, he picked the one that fit his drug kingpin past the best - television producer.

O'DEA: Last year, did a big show for CBC Television. It was like "The Apprentice" for ex-cons called "Redemption Inc." It was a giant success. And I'm featured in this film called "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," and it has Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, Eminem, 50 Cent and me. And I realized what great good fortune I have.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Brian O'Dea. That's O-D-E-A, for sharing his highs and lows with SNAP. That piece was produced by Jamie DeWolf, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio and Pat Mesiti-Miller.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: When SNAP JUDGMENT returns please don't look look in the back officer 'cause I swear this is not my car that I'm driving, with the license plates with my name on it. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Trust Me" episode continues. Stay Tuned.

(MUSIC)

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