Pushkin. Hey, guys, this is Jake Halpern, host of Deep Cover, we're currently working on season two and we'll be sure to let you know when it would be coming out. But in the meantime, we have our first bonus episode for you, the supply side.
Today's bonus episode, it's actually a story that I really wanted to include in season one, in fact, to tell you the truth, I had this big debate with my producer, Karen A.G. I kept saying, look, we got to include this story. She was like, it's awesome. But it's kind of a tangent, like a crazy side trip and it just doesn't fit. Karen, she was right. Kind of annoyingly, she's almost always right.
But fortunately, this story, it's perfect for a bonus episode because one thing that we really didn't get into during season one was the suppliers, the Colombians, the guys who actually harvested all those crops of marijuana. If you recall, that's where Nedd ultimately wanted to go down to Colombia. He had a source named Simon, who had all kinds of connections down there.
These are the people that were supplying the drugs to likely rich. They're the people that controlled everything on the north coast of Colombia.
But in the end and spoiler alert your guys. So if you haven't heard Episode nine yet, hit pause because Ned ends up leaving the FBI and the suppliers, well, they just kind of slipped away. Naturally, this was one piece of the puzzle that still really intrigued me, so in this episode, we're going to do a deep dive into the marijuana industry down in Columbia. And our guide, interestingly enough, is a guy who once helped supply Mike Vogel back in the day.
Remember, Mike, I had it in such a way that I really control the marijuana industry in Michigan, in Ann Arbor and all the rest.
He was the grocery guy, the distributor with the big warehouse. Anyway, I heard about the supplier from a customs agent and I was intrigued. I had this one question in particular that I wanted to run by him, if you remember, from season one, are Smugglers' had all this product stuck down in Colombia, one million pounds of marijuana.
And so I'm kind of wondering what is a million pounds of marijuana looked like a fucking mountain. That's Tommy Powell.
My name is either Tommy, Tom or Thomas, depending on who I'm talking to. Tommy is to my friends. Tom is people that don't know me. And Thomas is for the government. I'm 72. I'm a lifelong vegetarian. I'm in great health. And I look forward to another 30 or 40 years. Tommy was a self-identified smuggler and salesman for about a decade. He started in the early 70s. He was this American expat, used to live and work down in Colombia inspecting marijuana crops.
He's responsible for bringing in over three hundred thousand pounds of marijuana himself. Not just that, he estimates he helped supply a bunch of other smugglers who brought in somewhere in the range of two to three million pounds.
But Tommy was the guy. He would be on the ground in Colombia and would often find himself in some pretty dicey situations. He's lived a crazy life, even by the standards of the characters you got, you know, and season one. Jake, I can't describe the walk into the mouth. I mean, so treacherous, so treacherous, there was this one section. It's probably a hundred yards where there's a walk. It's probably about three feet wide and it's over this cliff.
And the drop is probably a thousand feet or five hundred feet or something. Some seriously scary. If you look over the edge when you're walking, you really don't want to do that.
So how does Tommy, a dude from Michigan, end up living down in Colombia inspecting marijuana crops? Turns out it's kind of a wild story. Initially, he was a dealer in Ann Arbor around the same time Mike Vogel was getting started.
Mike Vogel, I'm familiar with the used to sell my reefer in Detroit before he got involved with those other criminals.
At the time, Tommy says he was smuggling his reefer, as he calls it, in from Mexico. But the product wasn't so great. Nothing to brag about. Eventually, Tommy gets in trouble with the law. When a drug sniffing dog named Bomber finds a footlocker of weed at the airport, police played Sly and follow the footlocker as was picked up and then taken to a house. The cops eventually barged in and made arrests. Tommy. He was at the house.
He got arrested. We found news articles documenting all this, by the way. Bottom line, this is bad news for Tommy. But Tommy says that his case was thrown out because the judge ruled it was an illegal search and seizure bomber apparently was not authorized to sniff that footlocker. Still the close call. And so Tommy decides to go clean for a while anyhow.
So I said I'm retiring. So I decided to go to Gainesville and visit my brother Billy. And at that time, waterbeds were real popular. And so I filled up my van with like about 50 waterbeds and drove down to Gainesville and started selling them out of the back of my van. And so I was so successful at it. I mean, I was doing good job of selling thousands.
But as you've probably gathered, he gets drawn back into the marijuana business. He meets a guy who offers him some new product imported from Jamaica, this, by the way, is the early 1970s in the export market for Jamaican weed is expanding in the US. The branding, for lack of a better word, was good. Bob Marley was becoming a household name. Tommy says the Jamaican buds were a real upgrade from the Mexican stuff that he'd been peddling.
So I started taking his Jamaicans up to Ann Arbor and I probably sold Jesus come and go. Well, 40000 thirty thousand pounds maybe of his reefer. So while I'm selling it, I'm getting this. Oh, shit. This stuff is not good. It's it's good. It's better than that Mexican shit, but it's not good. So I put it in my mind, this is me and I'm going to go to Colombia and see what I can get a better reefer out of there.
And the reason that he says this is because at some point he gets a chance to smoke some of that Colombian weed. I think I was at a party in Ann Arbor and these there were some hipsters there and they had some Colombian marijuana and we smoked it and I smoked and I got a whole shipment. We've got to get this stuff. You know, it was that much better. It was two times. Three times better look better, you know.
And it was definitely had a higher THC content for sure. Then one day, two of Tommy's friends, Ronnie and Dave, propose a kind of spur of the moment trip.
They said, hey, let's go to Colombia. I said, yeah, man, let's go to Colombia off the north coast and see if we can find something out up there, you know, on this Jamaican ship. Boring. So we got on a plane, obviously, a flight out of Miami and Ronnie. Comes up by. Ten minutes after the flight's going and says, hey, man, you want to take a hit acid? Oh, my Lord.
I said, Yeah man, I'll take it. ACIS landed in Bogota. And proceeded to go directly to the closest house of ill repute. And got an ounce of cocaine and like five bottles of Opar Scotch and sat in there and drinking and did other nefarious things and I crawled out the front door.
Tommy says that by this point, Ronnie and Dave, his two buddies that had flown down with they were in rough shape.
They were so freaked out, they didn't want to stay. So I don't want to stay either, because I'd be all alone then and I didn't know anybody, you know, so we hopped back on a plane and flew back to Miami. When you went to Columbia that first time, did you actually make contact with any marijuana sellers? Now, just just with the ladies of the night. A few months later, Tommy gives it another go and he has a bold plan, he wants to set up a twenty thousand pound shipment of wheat.
He heads back down to Columbia this time skips the whole acid trip, brothel visit, and actually manages to get an introduction to a reputable supplier of very cool, nice Colombian guys.
The nicest guy you want to run into in the world. And with his nickname, we nicknamed him Uncle and his name was Guillermo Arvilla. He's going up in the mountains talking to farmers. Getting whatever you can from when he's bringing us back samples and stuff like that, so it's the stuff is awesome. So yeah, yeah, we'll take twenty thousand pieces here. OK, I can do 20 thousand as well. Call it when it comes down the loden.
I've only had sixteen thousand, but that's how the Colombian market started.
Tommy says he was the guy like the pioneer who first smuggled really big loads of Colombian weed to the United States. It's a bold claim and one that I couldn't totally verify. But the timing of it is right. Starting in the mid 1970s, weed from Mexico kind of lost its popularity, in part because Mexican authorities began using a herbicide known as paraquat to poison marijuana crops down there. According to declassified CIA documents, American consumers began to, quote, prefer the better manicured and reputedly more potent Colombian marijuana, unquote, quote.
Tommy says he was the guy who first brought in large quantities of this more potent stuff starting in 1972. It's a really big success. He buys the weed for six dollars a pound and sells it for two hundred and forty pound back in Michigan and it's really good stuff. He keeps making trips down there each year.
I try to always get my loads together and make sure they're ready by December or I had a trip together by December because that's when they did the harvest and that's when they had the best marijuana. Anybody else that goes to Colombia and, you know, they all went down there and they would take anything. They'd stash that reefer in warehouses, you know, they'd be like eight, 10 months old, you know, just the trash sweep, you know.
And then they also packed it in bricks, these big 50 pound, which they use, they use of press pressing machine and pressed it all down tight, you know, and screwed up all the bugs, you know. So I started them. I demanded that the son of mine be pressed like that.
I wanted mine to be in pillow's we call them nice fluffy pillows of high quality weed. That was the key.
Tommy ended up making a lot of money, so much money, in fact, that he decides to hide some of it in the ground. He puts three hundred and eighty three thousand eight hundred and forty dollars in a suitcase and buried it on some land that he owned in Michigan. Sometime later, this hunter comes along, finds it, and being a good Samaritan, the Hunter hands it over to the state police. Tommy then tried to get the suitcase and the money back.
He actually shows up with a receipt for the suitcase proving that, hey, I purchased this particular handbag. He even gave a sworn statement saying the money was hit. But he took the fifth when it came to explaining how he got it. No dice. The police wouldn't hand it over the suitcase, though. It made big news. Newspapers in Detroit wrote about it. He was even mentioned an episode of 60 Minutes.
None of his notoriety was especially good for Tommy in the long run, he says, it really put him on the authorities radar. Not long after this, he was indicted by the feds. So naturally, Tommy decides to run for it, become a fugitive. He flies to Europe, spend some time and some money there, and then he bounces around a bit to Morocco, the Canary Islands, down to the Bahamas before deciding where he'll land next to Sohel and might as well get it over with.
I'm just going to Colombia. They're not going to extradite me out of there are never going to get me out of there. You know, I as the world's baddest ass bodyguards. Yeah. So that's kind of how I ended up in Colombia. I wanted to be safe. Well, relatively safe. There was always the danger that he'd fall off one of those cliffs or worse. More on this when we come back after the break. Wherever you are in the United States, your local McDonald's is proud to be a meaningful part of the community, the McDonald's are run by people who don't just work in these communities.
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McDonald's serving here. So Tommy is under indictment in the United States, spend some time on the lam and then moves down to Colombia. He deepens his connections there, makes more trips out to the countryside to inspect the weed that he wants to buy. Now, typically, he didn't do this in the fields, but at these makeshift marijuana warehouses that were set up right at the base of the mountains. And all the while, Tommy says that he maintained his distribution network back in Michigan.
I control the boats in the unloading spots, the trucks and the marketing in Ann Arbor, you know, already at that point. You're telling me that you weren't just working supply side. You were actually like a complete system, like you were there at the quality of vertically integrated, vertically integrated marijuana business. How did it all myself? It's interesting because like with Lee Rich and his group, they basically always just subcontract out the supply they had and supply partners.
If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that like you managed to supply side yourself personally? Yeah, I would go on like three days a week and go inspect marijuana and I would inspect marijuana for other people to. You know, because some of these smugglers, quote unquote, they they didn't know how to get it, where to get it, who to get it from and how it's going to be safe and how much they were going to pay and all that shit, I would take care of that, specially for my friends.
Were you like a consultant when you say you're doing this or other people? Are you are you charging them? Oh, yeah, I would charge them. I get part of the load. You're like the guy like you're the equivalent of like the Costco guy who comes in to check out the coffee beans are like the grapes or something to make sure that they're up to Costco standard. Yeah.
It's on one of these quality inspection trips, the Tommy visits, what he calls a, quote, mountain of marijuana out in the Guajira desert, and that's how he knew how to answer my question. What does a million pounds of marijuana look like?
It was it was up in the wall here. And I was looking for a load of sixty thousand, I think, and say, well, we're going to take you to this low here and you can pick out whatever you want. Well, it was late in the day and we decided we didn't want to drive in a while here at night is something you really don't want to do. And because you got him 19 and and if they don't have to, you know, it's just the FBI and Colombian and the the is the CIA, we can just go back and explain this again to help me visualize a billion pounds of marijuana.
Like, what does it look like? Well, when you're driving up to it, it's like a like a big mound or, you know, and it was all piled up into like a peak. And that's where we went and built our little for in the night and. Yeah. Thirty feet. Thirty five somewhere in there. Wow. That's like a three story tall building. That was totally amazing. Wait so so you're telling me you climbed up on top of this mountain marijuana.
You built the force out of the marijuana. Yes. You put up little you know, put up little walls and stuff, you know, and you know, there were like bricks are like building blocks.
Hell, it's like, you know, erector set or something, you know? I mean, what are those with the place where they have all the plastic blocks and they build castles and shit, all of them here in Florida, there's the Danish company. Legos. Yeah, Legos. Yeah.
It's was like a Lego was a mirror for Lego.
It's while he's building his Lego fort that he gets a sense for exactly what kind of weed this is.
So we went up to the top of the mountain and started digging out all the bales. You know, these are all like these were hard pressed bales, you know, really, I never did the hard pressed bales because, well, I did them in the beginning because I didn't know any better. I was spent the whole next day going through the whole damn lot of the shit and there was nothing in there that was any good. You know, it was dry and dusty.
It's out in the middle of the Sahara Desert and the it's probably a hundred degrees. And it was dry and just dusty and some of it was moldy. And, you know, it's just the stuff that a novice smuggler would go ahead and entertain putting on their boats.
So, yeah, the mountain of marijuana was made of really shitty weed. And Tommy, he didn't do shady weed. He did pillow's of the nice fluffy stuff. Tommy has a whole process worked at once. He'd OK to batch.
He had to move it down from the mountains where it was grown and get it loaded up on ships bound for America.
And this was no easy task. Even the CIA recognized this in one declassified report from 1982. It says, quote, The complicated logistics of smuggling Colombian marijuana, which calls for massive quantities to be hauled over long distances for large amounts of capital, attracted a new class of smuggling organizations structured along corporate lines. Yeah, that's Tommy. And to tackle those logistics, at least at the start of the process, he used mules and or donkeys.
Yeah, it takes a lot. I mean, OK, you like it's like a donkeys or more footed and they can't carry as much as a mule. So donkey could probably carry two hundred pounds, maybe two fifty, you know, and then a mule, another matter mule could probably carry four hundred. Wow. So is the mule preferable to the donkey. The donkeys were more sure footed mules.
Well sometimes they slipped and Tommy saw this for himself on one very harrowing part of the trail. They were traversing it at night.
He had all his Heineken's all our Heinicke. And he had like six cases of Heineken's on that mule. And what happened? There's a washout area where the water runs down the mountain and it carved a little V and I was watching it and the mules stepped in that B and went over the mountain with the Heineken's. So you actually see your mule with all the Heineken's go over the edge. Yeah. The end of this ledge, there's there's a little waterfall, you know.
Like a shower built into the side of the cliff at the end, and then there's a pool of water where there's like a if it's like a big Jacuzzi, I mean, from 10, 15 feet across and three or four feet deep. And I was sitting in there drinking some cognac and watching the mule and he stepped off. And I'm telling you, you never heard anything like that in your life. I could never I mean, it was a cross between the horse, I mean, and a donkey band.
I mean, it was terrible sound. He hit the rocks and that was the end of him.
Once it was down from the mountains, Tommy and his associates had to move the stuff to the coast in trucks. There were always some military checkpoints, but they knew the right guys to pay off Tommy's entire business model. By the way, it matches up almost exactly with the intel that the CIA gathered at the time. It's almost as if the CIA's report was describing Tommy's operations. The report mentioned convoys of up to two hundred mules and the fact that smugglers typically placed bribes for each shipment.
The last stage of the process, according to the CIA report, was loading the weed into canoes, bring it out to supply boats. Tommy did this in to Ganga, a little fishing village located on the Caribbean coast of Columbia. Tommy says at the harbor was run by the native tribes and that the chief was a good friend of his. These locals helped him load the weed onto smuggling ships. They pulled into the harbor and they would use these dugouts.
You know, they take a tree and the biggest tree they can find the chop it down and they carve out. Make it into a vote and they have one dog out there, I swear to God, it was the biggest thing I ever saw was like, I don't know, but it was from a big tree. So still got to be one piece. And that thing had 5000 pounds. That's basically a canoe that can hold 5000 pounds of marijuana.
Yeah, it was a one of a kind.
And that was Tommy's business model, finding the fluffy pillows of weed, moving it by donkey, then by truck, and then a giant dugout canoe loading into shrimp boats, smuggling it back to the U.S. and selling it in Michigan.
It all worked really well. But eventually, Tommy says the business warmed down.
He got ripped off on one load. He decided now what time to retire and really retire.
This time he met a Swedish woman on the beach into Ganga and she got pregnant. He decided I wanted to follow her home to Sweden, but first he needed to make sure that he couldn't be extradited from there.
Remember, these are the days before the Internet, and so he decides he needs to go to, well, a law library, a really good ball library.
The International Law Library at Harvard University, you went up to Cambridge, Mass. For this? Yeah. I went there specifically for that. I had a great time to love sitting on that bridge, watching all them guys rolling their boats and shit like that. But I what I did is I had some ideas. I had a forger at that time and he was a really good forger. And he forged some paperwork for me, you know, to that I was a visiting professor from the University of Florida so I could have access to the library.
And every day I'd go into the university and study the extradition treaty case law with Sweden in the United States. And I figured out that according to the law reciprocity, that there's no way they could get me for conspiracy or for the one I was really worried about, the one that had me with life with no parole, plus 70 years was continuous criminal enterprise. Continuous criminal enterprise is based on predicate offenses. This didn't match any Swedish laws whatsoever. It was not extraditable, was not an extraditable crime, and so was conspiracy.
I figure I'm cool in Sweden, so he moved to Sweden, married the woman he met on the beach and became a dad.
That worked out pretty well for about three years until the U.S. entered into a new extradition treaty with Sweden. So much for all of his sleuthing at the Harvard Law Library, Tommy was indicted for conspiracy to import marijuana and extradited back to the United States. He ended up spending six years in prison before he was finally released in 1990.
He says he's very proud that he never cooperated with the government. He now lives down in St. Petersburg. He's reinvented himself as a computer expert. And he actually got a degree in digital forensics at the age of 71. He's working on a memoir called Reefer, recounting all of his life stories. And let me tell you, there are a lot of them. Deep cover is produced by Jacob Smith and edited by Karen Encouraging original music, and our theme was composed by Louis Scarer, Fact Checking by Amy Gaines.
Mia Bell is Pushkin's executive producer special thanks to Julia Barton, Heather Fain, Carly Migliore, Lee Thörnblad, Maya Karnig, Eric Sandler, Maggie Taylor, Kadija Holland and Jacob Weisberg at Pushkin Industries. Additional thanks to Jeff Singer. It's still way entertainment. You can learn more about Tommy Powell on his website, Tommy Powell dot net. And stay tuned to this feed for more bonus episodes and announcements about season two. I'm Jake Tapper. All right, Tommy, I got to run, but my brother, it's been real and we'll get together and drink some.
Hogwood Dante that'll be great. I look forward to it. Thanks. You're at it. No, I haven't got the A. The last time I drank aguardiente, I drank it with the remains of my partner Victor in the Agua De into his two brothers, all three of us. They put some of the ashes in the with DNA and did not survive with anything but his bones. You drank your friend, yeah. How was that drinking the remains of your friend, fucking horrible.