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Pushkin. A question was nagging me, who killed truth, this truth problem? It isn't just bad, it's deadly. I'm Jill Lepore and I'm a historian at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. I spent a lot of time trying to solve mysteries like this one, so I decided to start a podcast. It's called The Last Archive. I'll tell 10 stories from the last 100 years, A History of America and of our arguments about truth and evidence.
The last archive brought to you by Pushkin Industries. Previously on Deep Cover, during the late spring of 1985, FBI agent Ned Timmons was deep undercover in the Cayman Islands.
His goal was to spy on Lee Rich, the kingpin of the drug syndicate, as he got closer to Lee and deeper into this world.
He became increasingly worried.
The stress is unbelievable. There's no backup. You're not going to hit the radio and call nine one one in your neck. You're not going to be able to call for help because nobody's coming.
Meanwhile, Lee had problems of his own. He worried that the feds were watching him. And to complicate matters, he says his go to bank in the Caymans was no longer accepting his money.
For Ned Timmons, being undercover in the Caymans meant hanging out with lyrics, guys, he'd chill out on the beach or at the club and listen for clues why he was given something to do, you know, oversee the barbecues or make sure there was no trouble at the bar with any of the guests.
Not exactly the stuff of Sherlock Holmes. But Ned couldn't ask questions, really, because that would draw suspicions, give him away as a narc. So he just kept on listening. And then one day, Lee made a cryptic reference to someone apparently in the organization called the General.
And I just talk not knowing general, of what our general who or whatever and does your whole thing is don't ask questions. Exactly.
You start asking questions and people get suspicious. But what's your reaction to that? Oh, actually. In the middle of this, they realized that I had never been to advanced undercover school at Quantico, which is two week school. And I got orders and you've been to advance undercover school, you've got to go to that seemed like this was the equivalent of a fireman getting called out of a burning building to take a refresher class on how to use a hose.
But this was part of a relatively new effort by the FBI to rein in and standardize its undercover practices.
So I don't make up a story that I can't remember whether it made up something that I had to go someplace for two weeks. And so I had to go back to Quantico and go through advanced undercover school. You know, that's the rules. Whatever. What did you learn to advance undercover school? I don't remember, you know, what to do and what not to do and whatever.
So not especially interested in his classwork, it seems. And perhaps that's because his thoughts were still back in the Caymans. That comment about the general, it got him thinking, was this just some stupid nickname or was Lee talking about an actual general? Was it possible that there was someone above Lee?
That's just the mindset of the FBI. We're going to work this up right to the top, just like the Mafia. We're going to go after the dance. We're going to go to the top of the food chain and crime. Our objective is to work up and kill the head of the snake. I'm Jake Halpern, and this is deep cover. Episode six, The Silent Partner. Ned didn't know it at the time, but the general that Lee was talking about and the revelation of who he really was would change everything in this investigation.
And the story of the general really begins about two years earlier. So we're going to turn back the clock to September of 1983.
At this point, Ned is still hanging out in biker bars in Detroit. Lee Rich, Mr. Beach Club, if you will, is still living the high life in the Caymans. And Stephen Caliche, the gentleman smuggler, has not yet been arrested.
Everything's going great for these guys, except for one thing, they're money laundering. Lee's go to bank in the Caymans. The Bank of Nova Scotia wasn't an option. So now Lee and Stephen were looking for somewhere else to launder their money.
At the time, Stevens says they were trying to move a whole bunch of small bills, about fifteen dollars million worth. Just to give you a sense of how much cash that was in way about sixteen hundred pounds.
So a lot of money. And now they had nowhere to put it. So Lee and Stephen, they start thinking about where else they could take their money and bank it.
Well, the other only other solid banking haven that I knew was secure was Panama in the early 1970s, Panama more or less deregulated, banking, very little oversight, no taxes on foreign income.
And by the time Steven and Lee were in their BINDE, lots of new banks had opened their doors in Panama, which was enticing. Plus, Stephen like to Panama.
I did a book report in the third grade about the Panama Canal.
So it had always held a special place of my Art Stevens summary of its history and his third grade book report.
It's basically right, the building of the canal and the failures of the French. I mean, the whole way Panama was actually became a country, you know, stolen from Colombia, basically by the U.S..
When Panama broke away from Colombia in 1903, the United States lent its support. Then the U.S. signed a treaty with Panama and took control of a zone about 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. There was a canal there or the start of one. Anyhow, the U.S. completed it and then stuck around to control that canal and, you know, cash in on it.
So anyway, Panama had a lot of allure. And look, I've always been a risk taker, right? And a guy with a good Rolodex, Stephen, eventually connects with a guy named Cezar Rodriguez. He was a businessman down in Panama with connections to the banking world, a guy who could make things happen. So Stephen plans a visit. He packs for the trip, you know, the usual change of clothes and about three million in cash stuffed into some luggage.
Then he flies down to Panama in a private jet. He lands at the airport in Panama and his contact, Cezar is there to greet him in person. He's a young guy, good looking, very friendly, speaks perfect English, and he has not one but two stretch limos waiting for them.
They all head downtown to the Bank of Boston building where Caesar operated a club and a big sprawling penthouse.
I mean, it's very posh. It's very tricked out. There's a small little nightclub, a restaurant.
And Caesar tells Steven, we have a private club here that's only for elite businessmen and certain military officials that come here for dining and drinking and partying in a discreet environment. Later that night, they sit down and have a meal. They're joined by another guy named Enrique Protect, Cezar introduces Enrique as his partner. And then very casually, Caesar starts to explain what exactly he and Enrique do down here in Panama.
In addition to running the club, their financiers, basically, they loan out money.
And they explained to me that their banker, Boston pen pals, them all their operations going on to Panama. We're all run through their shell company that was owned by three people. Enrique are in a silent third partner. And I said, Really? I said, OK. And they said, well, what do you want to do in Panama? It's a loaded question. Stephen is still not 100 percent sure whether he can really trust these guys.
All I tell them is I have millions of dollars. I need to bank in Panama and I need to fly it in from the U.S. and I need security at the airport and secure banks.
Setzer died in the 80s, so I couldn't interview him. But according to Stephen, Cezar was very accommodating. He tells Steven, yes, we can definitely help you with that. And to prove it, they take him to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, well known then as Becci, to make the necessary introductions. Stephen reels in his cash and makes his deposits. And there's no fee, no commission or anything. Just thank you for your business.
Afterwards, they do the same thing for him at another bank. It's all going splendidly so far. The question is, what is Cezar and Enrique want from him? And the next day, back at the penthouse club, Cezar makes his pitch. He says he has a business that loans money to the Panama Defense Forces.
In fact, the military needs financing for equipment. A two point two dollars million helicopter, it turns out. And maybe Stephen could front the money.
If you're interested, you can make 300000 dollars for setting up the financing and then you can make 10 percent interest annually on that financing. It'll be backed up by a letter credit from the Panamanian Defense Forces. Well, I said, well, it sounds good.
You're basically loan sharking money to the Panamanian military. Pretty much.
They go on to offer, Stephen, a 25 percent stake in their business, which includes the club and the loan sharking business. Stephen pauses a bit and then asks, I go, OK, what's the buy in?
And they go for the grand. And I go, OK, well, what's foreign to grandpa? I mean, they go, well, there's only one catch. You got to meet our partner. And I go, well, who's your partner? And they go, vomits General Noriega and I go, OK, well, who is General Noriega? And they both look at each other like I'm stupid. And I go, look, guys, you know, excuse me, I don't know how things work here.
So you got to explain it to me. So they explain Noriega is the strongman who currently controls Panama and his story, it goes like this.
Manuel Noriega was born in Panama City in 1934, abandoned by his parents. He was raised by a woman called Mama Luisa, who he referred to as his godmother. He was a smart kid, gets into a really prestigious high school. But he's not just smart. He's an operator as a teenager. He joins Panama's Socialist Youth Party, goes to protests and writes articles criticizing Uncle Sam.
Noriega goes on to a military academy in Peru. He returns and joins the National Guard. He then rises through the ranks, eventually becoming a general. And once he's at the top, he maintains power brutally. All this time, he's developing a close relationship with the CIA. He quietly supports the Contras, a right wing military group in Nicaragua. He helps the DEA in the drug wars. He's also close with Fidel Castro in Cuba. This is a guy who plays all sides and all the while he lines his own pockets and little business deals with the likes of Cesar and Enrique.
And at the club and the penthouse overlooking Panama City, Cezar and Enrique tell Stephen you two can be part of our little partnership.
But you got to me, Noriega first hand, he's got to sign off on you being part of the company.
So I said, OK, well, call me Noriega. So they just said, well, you might ought to take him a present. And I go, What do you mean take him a present?
He goes, well, you know, as a sign of respect and a sign that you're serious about wanting to stay in Panama, Antipas, Panama, you might want to give him something of value.
So he stuffs three hundred thousand dollars in a briefcase and heads over, janoris his house.
This would be just a three hundred thousand dollar gift separate from the four hundred K he'd already put in. It was like, well, a sweetener.
Stephen hoped that it would do the trick. When we come back after the break, Steven meets the general. What interferes with your happiness is something preventing you from achieving your goals. It happens to the best of us and better help is here to get you back on your feet. Better help will assess your needs and match you with your own licensed professional therapist. Connect in a safe and private online environment where you can send a message to your counselor any time you'll get timely and thoughtful responses.
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Hi there, I'm Michael Lewis, host of Against the Rules, and we're back for our second season, we're talking about coaches. It wasn't that long ago that we only had coaches in sports, but now there are life coaches and coaches. You can even hire a coach to improve your online dating performance and your charisma. But coaching has become an odd source of unfairness.
Who has access to these coaches and who doesn't find against the rules wherever you listen brought to you by Pushkin Industries. So Stephen Caliche, the gentleman smuggler, you know, the hippie kid from Texas, he gets a ride over to General Manuel Noriega's house with his briefcase filled with cash.
Oh, he's got high walls with ivy growing and lots of military personnel walking, patrolling the area. It's a beautiful home. I miss Gordon in his office and I sit down and I set the briefcase down next to his desk. Noriega is dressed in his military uniform. His most unusual feature is the skin on his face, which is badly pockmarked. Some people even called him pineapple face, but always behind his back. Never, ever to his face, to Stephen.
He's very friendly. They start chatting, small talk, and eventually Noriega ask him why he's in Panama.
And Steven kind of boldly says he's looking for a new home, a place that I can live in peace and quiet out from under the prying eyes of the U.S. government. I said I. I earned a lot of money. I'm not interested in paying U.S. taxes. And I want to thank my money's in Panama.
According to Stephen, Noriega quickly tells him not to worry. He would personally look after Stevens needs. And that was kind of it. Stevens says thank you and he gets up to leave without the briefcase. Noriega noticing this calls after him.
I turned around, said, no, it's party. I said it's for you. And he goes, look at me. You know, pretty serious face. And I just smile. The gift goes over well, Stephen thought he might make some money by joining this little partnership, but he slowly realizes that what he'd really get was an ally, a very powerful ally. Later on, Cezar gets a call from Noriega, he wants Stephen to join them at a private party that night at the offices of the Panama Canal Company.
We go to the offices, I don't know, around six, six thirty. And it's like I'm Noriega's best friend. I mean, when I show up, he he gives me an open embrace with both arms and says that I'm welcome in Panama and he'll make sure that everything goes away. I wanted to go.
The party is mainly military people. A dozen or so colonels, a few majors and a bunch of beautiful women, lots to eat and drink. It's a scene that Stephen very much enjoys. At some point, Noriega offers to show him around.
Noriega takes me near his own office. And it's a beautiful office that overlooks with picture windows overlooking the Panama Canal. To Noriega, goes back to the party and closes the door to his office and leaves me sitting at his desk watching ships go by in the Panama Canal. Thinking about that third grade report I wrote, making outlines of cocaine on Noriega's desk and starting the lines right, thinking, OK, I think Panama is going to work out just fine.
And it did Stephenson returned to Panama with another couple million dollars and per Noriega's instructions, landed at his Air Force base.
And there was no customs. There was no immigration. There was no inspection of anything. Baja taxied over to the Air Force base and every day literally climbed out of the plane into the limousine. They know if we win in time, Steven manages to get multiple Panamanian passports, including a diplomatic passport, it was a money launderers dream, especially for Steven, who is still a fugitive for his entire adult life.
Steven Caliche had been running from and evading the law, and now he was protected by a man who was seemingly above the law.
Steven was untouchable.
For me, it was not enough. I mean, I wanted more because of, you know, the evolution from having money becomes having power. And Panama was an opportunity to have power. Real power, so I asked myself what it would take, you know, what's it going to take for Noriega to really to trust me and for me to solidify this relationship?
So next, Stephen makes it his goal to get closer to Noriega, literally.
I want to find home. You know, in close proximity, you know, in close proximity to what I mean, are you actively thinking I want to become Noriega's neighbor?
Well, I want to live in the same area. Yeah. And he does it within months of their first meeting, Stephen finds a house just three blocks away from Noriega and the relationship just grows. From there, Stephen introduces him to women, wrangles an invitation to Noriega's ranch, even gets the general to station soldiers outside of his house to stand guard.
And when Noriega gets invited to Washington, D.C., in November of 1983 for an official visit, Stephen loans him his personal jet to use while he's in the U.S..
On this visit, he met with a host of top level U.S. officials, including the secretary of defense. He also met with William Casey, the director of the CIA. Noriega described their meeting as a leisurely for our lunch. In his memoir, he wrote, I had been the U.S. contact person throughout the 1970s. I was well known to everyone in the CIA. Now, with Casey, the relations would become tighter. After his time in D.C., Noriega took Stevens jet to Las Vegas, where he shopped, drank and played roulette.
Then we came back to Panama. Well, he insisted that I be it is receiving line when he was returning to Panama. Right. So I'm waiting in line. Is he getting off of my job?
Stevens says that Noriega makes his way down the receiving line and then stops when he gets to Steven.
They have a quick chat. Noriega says the U.S. wants him to do two things.
One, keep helping the Contras, that right wing militia in Nicaragua, and to open up the banks in Panama for inspection. Stephen was hanging on Noriega's every word. Inspections would mean trouble for him.
But Noriega puts his fears to rest because I told him I'd help him with the Contras, but I'd never open the banks.
Stephen, let that sink in the top power brokers in the U.S. wanted to clean up Panama's banking sector, which would ruin Stevens money laundering scheme. And Noriega says he rebuffed them, told them no. This is all according to Stephen and Noriega's memoir. He doesn't mention meeting caliche, making this deal or using his plane. But then again, why would he? This is not the kind of relationship you want to advertise. In any case, Stephen was pleased.
I'm thinking this is what power looks like, I've never felt safer in my life. I have this great home, I have great staff, I got military guards outside my house. You know, I feel pretty untouchable at the moment, Stephen soon began planning a 400000 pound load destined for New York City disguised as a shipment of plantations from Panama.
So it's full steam ahead. As a token of his gratitude, Stephen started lavishing Noriega with gifts, but what exactly do you buy for the dictator who's got everything?
Stevens starts by giving him two gold plated rifles and some ivory handled pistols, collector's pieces worth in total about thirty thousand dollars. But he was just getting started.
I bought Noriega a presidential plane. I actually pay the millions of dollars for it and got a letter credit from the Panamanian government for just to be clear here, what Steven really did was provide the financing.
Nonetheless, it was a grand gesture and naturally he had an ulterior motive. Stephen just wanted a small favor to occasionally have his plane fly to Washington, D.C., where Stevens guys would load it up with some trunks of drug money marked with diplomatic seals. The SEALs would mean no one could open them. In return, Noriega would get a cut, according to Steven Noriega. Agreed. At this point, you may be wondering what happened to Lee Rich, Mr.
Beach Club, wasn't he the guy in charge? He did make at least one trip to Panama with Steven.
But this whole Panama thing, it was Stevens baby and one Steven was buddy buddy with Noriega. Everything began to change. Steven was now handling the smuggling and the financing. Lee wasn't entirely comfortable with this arrangement, but there wasn't a lot he could do about it.
They needed Noriega.
Now, as for Steven, I've been a fugitive for years. He finally felt like he could breathe a bit easier. He didn't need the Kamins or the U.S., for that matter. He could just chill in Panama, but he was still handling the logistics for his massive op, America's Heartland.
There were a few things he still had to do, like closing down his safe house in Tampa.
So he returned stateside and that's when the feds nabbed him.
This was the big arrest at the airport in Tampa that we told you about an episode for. So when I finally did get arrested, I figured, well, maybe I'll figure this out somehow and I had. Millions of dollars stashed in Panama and. There was from that day forward that I started working on a way how to get up, get myself out of my problem.
Meanwhile, back in the Cayman Islands, Lee Rich, Mr. Beach Club, was left to clean up the mess, he now had to juggle it all, smuggling, money laundering and just trying to stay out of jail.
All the while, Ned was just one step behind him. When we come back, Ned starts to connect the dots and so does the CIA. Hey there, I'm Ashleigh Ford, host of the Chronicles of Now podcast Chronicles of Now commissions, amazing authors like Roxane Gay, Colum McCann, Carmen Maria Machado and Curtis Sittenfeld to write short fiction inspired by the headlines.
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But then Ned recalled another clue that Lee had dropped a couple of days later.
He referred to him as old pineapple face.
Pineapple face. That's what did it. Eventually, Ned realizes who this must be.
He didn't know all the details or politics surrounding Noriega, but he knew enough.
Noriega was the CIA's boy into Castro and into the Russian's big boy's club. OK. Nedd worried that his discovery would stir up trouble in a big way. The CIA, in my mind, really didn't give a shit about. Drugs or what was going on, they're focused on their mission, which was. Intelligence and. Big picture by exposing Noriega as a bad guy, that would be interfering with the CIA's mission, and that's not something Ned wanted to do.
He was already pretty worn out. Remember, he had just returned home from a stressful time down in the Caymans and now he had a new potential enemy, the CIA. He began imagining how this all might play out. CIA always has contract people that work for them. They'll kill you. And I didn't trust them, I was constantly leery of them, a bit paranoid maybe, but his worries about pissing off the CIA were well-founded.
Over the years, Noriega had worked hard to cultivate an image as an ally in the U.S. war on drugs. These efforts got him friends in Washington. Noriega had a whole stack of letters from his U.S. admirers, like one from the U.S. attorney general written in nineteen eighty four, which said, Thank you for your continued support in our mutual efforts to suppress illicit drug trafficking and to ensure a safer and healthier environment for all of our citizens.
So if this got out that Noriega was, in fact at the very top of this massive drug smuggling operation, well, that would be a huge embarrassment to the American government at large.
The CIA did eventually get wind of Ned's investigation. At some point, they contacted another FBI agent who worked closely with Ned, I spoke with this agent. He's now retired, but still, even all these years later, he didn't want to go on the record.
He told me that two CIA agents invited him to lunch and then very casually started asking him questions about Noriega.
He understood immediately what was going on. They wanted to suss out what the FBI knew about Noriega. They were apparently concerned because he was their asset.
The agent told me he managed to brush off the CIA guys, but soon enough, all of this would come to a head. After two stints down in the Caymans, Ned eventually goes back home to Detroit to his wife, Kathy Timmons. He was beat at this point. He'd been working on the case for about three years. During that time, he'd been living as two people, Ed and Ned, switching back and forth again and again until even in his own mind, it all kind of got jumbled, Cathy said.
Ned sometimes confided in her that he felt trapped, stuck in the role of undercover agent, but that he also couldn't imagine returning to the life of a regular agent.
And he said, you know, I just I can't go back. I don't think I can go back to just, you know, working cases in this. And then I said, of course you can't. And he's like, no, I don't think I can. And, you know, I was looking at these pizza places.
I was like, I don't want to run pizza places. I'm an FBI agent, you know?
Cathy says Ned actually drove them over to a pizza parlor that he had his eyes on.
He pulled into the parking lot. And I mean, I never even got out of the car, said, Ned, I'm not going to go into the pizza business like stop.
Strangely, when I mentioned all of this to Ned, the plan to open the pizza shop, the conversation with Cathy, his desire to get out, he didn't remember it, any of it.
And I have no recollection of a pizzeria or any interest in a pizzeria. I have no idea. You have no memory of that. No. Ned did acknowledge that he knew Cathy felt frustrated and concerned that his undercover life was getting out of control.
Kathleen, maybe, you know, I mean, she's very smart and she's very credible and always has been. And if that's what she remembers, that's what she remembers.
And that's pretty much all I got from him.
If what Cathy said was true, then it was almost like he'd gone back and edited his own memories, remove the moments of doubt and frailty that didn't fit into the Hard-Boiled detective narrative, almost like he and the ghostwriter had done in the novel.
In many ways, Ned and Kathy seem to exist in two parallel but entirely separate realities, and perhaps the ultimate example of this involves an incident that occurred a few months after Ned got back from the Caymans, when both of their lives came to a screeching halt for Kathy.
It all began at the firing range. She was there doing some target practice. When she heard an announcement. They called out from the tower for me to, you know, get off the firing line. And they said, oh, come on, you got to go with us. I'm going to take you home. And I said, oh, my God, what happened? Her colleagues who came to get her laid it all out. That Ned's undercover identity had been compromised and that someone in that motorcycle group had a meeting and that they had put a hit on Ned and they were going to lure him to a location and give him a hot shot of drugs and and kill him.
And that they also knew where we lived. They escorted her home so she could pick up some stuff by the time I arrived home, I mean, the SWAT team was all, you know, hanging out around the house and inside the house. And Meg was in there packing. And then we just like I said, we packed up. We got in the car and and we started heading up north. So Ned and Kathy had to be filtrated, whisked away immediately because they were in grave danger.
That was Kathy's reality. Now, I also talked to Ned about what happened, what is going through your head as they stand on your doorstep and say you've got to leave your house, huh?
I had them in and had coffee with them. Ned listens to the agents and realizes he has to flee his home and said, OK, perfect, me and only one of my best friends is going to lodge in northern Michigan and the salmon fishing is hot and I'll go there.
You seem pretty like blasé or kind of unruffled by this. A lot of people have threatened to kill me, so it's part of the turf. Eventually, they get up to a little house way up in northern Michigan. No one is around and all they can really do is hope the FBI finds the biker guys who are out to kill Ned.
They just wait for the call, the call that tells them it's OK. We've got them.
You can come home now. As Kathy recalls it, the time up there was tense, Ned's initial blasé attitude apparently didn't last. He left just to stew in his own thoughts because everything has finally stopped. And in its absence, the anxiety just pause in like a dam had broken.
He was drinking just so hard. He was a nervous like, not nervous, like, oh, I'm scared, nervous, like, I could see that his he wasn't getting enough sleep. He wasn't his nerves run and Kathy wasn't certain what to do. And so I was always wary of saying too much or pushing too much back because I didn't want anybody to know, I didn't want to go to his supervisor and say, you know, what the hell kind of oversight is this?
You know, you need to pull him in just for a second.
Were you not doing that out of a sense of loyalty to him? What was what?
Why not why didn't you go to the supervisor and say, like, well, because he was my husband, you know, I loved him. I kept telling him, you need to stop just that that this has got to stop, that all of this intrusion into our personal lives has to stop.
This is crazy. Here we are up in northern Michigan for weeks on end with nothing to do, waiting for phone calls, you know. This this is not any kind of a life that I want to lead, and this isn't what any of us signed up for. Next time and deep cover, did I sit down, have lunch or dinner with them? No. OK, I was aware of them. I was very aware of them. I rue the day that Natoma's ever got involved with me.
I wish I had never heard my name. Deep cover is produced by Jacob Smith and edited by Karen Mukherjee, our story editor is Jack Hitt. Original music in our theme was composed by Louis Scarra and Flora Williams is our engineered fact checking by Amy Gaines. Mychal Bell is Pushkin's executive producer. Ned's novel is read by Walton Goggins special thanks to Julia Barton, Heather Fain, Carly Migliore, Lee, Tom Allard, Maya Kerning, Eric Sandler, Maggie Taylor, Kadija Holland, Zooey Gwinn and Jacob Weisberg at Pushkin Industries Special.
Thanks also to Jeff Singer at Stowaway Entertainment. I'm Jake Halpern.