By Greg C. Yocum with Mark Bryant
Editor's note: Greg Courtland Yocum owes the IRS a quarter of a million dollars from his unclaimed profits smuggling marijuana in the '70s. He's writing a book that he hopes can trim that debt, a book detailing his more than 20 years of adrenaline-pumping experiences flying dope and cocaine, working for the cartels, working for the U.S. government. He believes the decades-old war on drugs is a crock, one that continues to waste untold millions in taxpayer dollars--not unlike that Southeast Asia war that the U.S. could not win. The following is an excerpt from his unpublished manuscript.
THE OCTOBER SUN dawns on a perfect day as I taxi an old A-Model Bonanza down the runway. Thirty minutes after my take-off from Tucson's Ryan Airfield, I land on a sandy strip of desert 15 miles south of the border. Mexican John and six ranch hands meet me, armed with Mac-10s and 9mm handguns. They quickly load six large suitcases, stuffed with cocaine. "That's enough weight," I say. Especially with only 1,200 feet of take-off room and an under-powered, overloaded plane.
Mexican John and one of his men push the plane up to the base of the mountain until the plane's wings stick in the bushes. I hold the brakes and smoothly apply full power, the engine screaming as I release the brakes and begin rolling. The last few feet of runway, I pull the Bonanza up. But fully loaded, it manages only 60 miles an hour. I lose directional control and the aircraft yaws left.
I slam into the side of the mountain, totaling the plane. "God, what a ride," I think. I just lie there a moment and look around. The impact ripped the right wing off the fuselage and tore the engine out. Flames and smoke billow from the fire wall. The cabin door has burst open and I see kilos scattered everywhere. I feel no pain. I'm euphoric, relishing the best high ever. I realize how lucky I am to have a job like this.
I watch the Mexicans running around gathering kilos and feel like laughing. But it isn't funny. A lot of people had been counting on me and I fucked up.
After getting back into Arizona, I apologize to the cartel and ask for another chance, this time with a plane that has more power. Over the next week, we find a turbo-charged Cessna Centurion 210, and a too-narrow dirt road to serve as a runway near Saric, Sonora.
One week after the crash--October 22, 1989--I'm back on Pima County's Ryan Airfield, dawn 30 minutes away, the plane running perfectly. I feel like it's the Super Bowl and I'm heading for the winning touchdown. The air is clean, cool and smooth as I climb to 500 feet. Abeam Kitt Peak, I turn left and drop a hundred feet as I head for Gringo Pass, a well-known gap in the Aerostat radar balloon's coverage that allows me to fly undetected.
Across the border, I soon see the so-called runway and the same faces as last week. They load 400 kilos of cocaine, worth about $100 million. I'm ready to go, but the goddamn plane won't restart. The starter is heating up and the battery draining. I get out and walk around, smoking a cigarette as the faces stare. Another try and the plane sputters to life.
I lower the flaps to 20 degrees, advance the throttle, release the brakes and blast down that thin dirt road. The overloaded plane barely gets off the ground. Thirty minutes later, I'm on my final approach for Ryan Airfield. I land and taxi for the hangers, where Dave Harrington Jr. waits with a van. Undercover agents are everywhere; I hope he won't notice them. Dave Sr., who was flying cover, lands and watches as his son and I transfer the cargo.
Dave Jr. and I drive to the McDonald's on South Palo Verde Road and wait. Gabriel Lucero, also known as Mario, is the middleman who will take the load to Los Angeles.
Mario soon arrives, very pleased, and gives me a big hug. He says I'll be getting $100,000 for my flight instead of the $60,000 agreed upon. Although he gives me only $20,000 in a brown paper sack, he says, "You'll have the other $80,000 by noon. I got to get this shit on the road."
Dave Sr. drives me to the hotel where I'm to await Mario. As I walk into my room, the phone rings. It's Rich Lindback of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, one of those coordinating the multi-agency operation. He's parked in front of the hotel and frantic. "Pack your shit and get the hell out of there. The bust is going down, man, hurry!"
That wasn't the plan. The idea was to bust the load after it reached the L.A. connection. Awaiting shipment to the U.S. is 20 tons of pure cocaine on Jaime Serrano's shrimp boat docked at Topolobampo, about 500 miles south of Tucson. Another 10 tons is sitting at Mexican John's ranch house just over the border. Patience on the part of the narcs could have snared the cartel leaders with 30 tons of coke. Jumping the bust ruined those chances.
The next morning, The Arizona Daily Star quotes DPS Officer Harold Sanders: "It's the biggest bust we have had as a result of the air smuggling detection balloon." A lie, and a politically convenient one.
Long promoted by then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the U.S. Customs Service's Aerostat Balloon Radar System is touted as the high-tech way to seal the border from flying smugglers. The problem is, it doesn't work. But lies are needed to justify its multi-million-dollar price tag, and once again, I'm a pawn.
EVEN AS A 19-year-old combat infantryman slogging through the jungles of Vietnam, I was just another dupe, though I didn't realize it at the time. Back then, I just survived, savoring the unbeatable rush of cheating death every day. We pissed on the dead bodies of Vietnamese warriors, kids no different than me or my comrades. The smell of burning human flesh was the smell of victory.
Just a few days before the 1967 elections, our company was moved back to the Cambodian border, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, under orders to increase the body count. It's the only war I know of that kept score with bodies, not with a sensible measure, like real estate taken. In Vietnam, we'd clean out an area, and a month later, we'd have to retake it.
The Hueys dropped us off about a click from the area we're to secure. Our company was moving in single file when we got hit. We returned the fire, shooting until the fighting ended. The medevac choppers came for the dead and wounded. We dug in for a long night, knowing Victor Charlie was still around. About 3 a.m., I was on guard duty when the trip flares went off. Jungle darkness turned to bright day. Two VC stood silhouetted a hundred feet away. I fired and fired until the flares faded. I messed my pants.
It rained all night. In the morning, we found two dead Vietnamese boys, two more confirmed kills for the company commander to add to the tally.
The war changed me, changed every battle-tested warrior who survived. I was torn from everything familiar and comfortable--family, friends, country. I ended up in a land ripped raw from war, a place that encouraged that ultimate human aggression: killing--an urge so powerful that it turns into an anticipatory thrill just before combat, joining fear, even overriding it. The guilt that follows stays hidden until one leaves the combat zone. Alcohol and harder drugs become medication to tranquilize this guilt.
BACK FROM 'NAM, I get my commercial pilot's license, get married and start selling insurance in Tucson. The job and marriage last six months. I feel empty inside. I miss the jungle, miss the adrenaline high of defying death. So I turn to booze, pills, dope. Cocaine soon follows, and nearly consumes me.
With my pilot's license and plenty of law-breaking friends, I soon fall into flying dope up from Mexico. In the early '70s, I meet Holmes Bevington Jr., who, with some cohorts, rips people off. They either offer to buy or sell drugs. In either case the result is the same; they rob whomever they deal with. Bevington boasts the name of his gang is the Masked Marauders and he's the leader.
I trust him not at all. And I know that he and the other Marauders--Jimmy Wilkey and the Norman brothers, Mark and Michael--work both sides of the law, committing crimes but avoiding prison by giving info to cops. Later, they tip the U.S. Attorney's Office about me. I disappear to Mexico for a while, and then on to Hawaii to clear my mind and body of cocaine addiction. I live there almost a year, working hard as a commercial fisherman.
My mistake is returning to Arizona in '76. While high on cocaine, I had hidden $35,000 in my Tucson house, though I'm not exactly sure where. I need the money for my business. On the way home, a friend and I decide to stop for breakfast. As I step out of the car, I meet a not-so-friendly .357 Magnum. "If you move, you'll be dead," says Pima County Sheriff Detective Michael Click. Someone had tipped off the cops that I was in town.
During my trial in 1976, Bevington takes the witness stand and tells the court and jury about the hundreds of pounds of marijuana he had bought from me. The judge allows the evidence that the sheriff's department had seized from my ranch--without a search warrant--and I'm found guilty of smuggling marijuana. I jump bail.
I give my attorney, Joseph Soble, $100,000 to fight my case and catch a plane to Miami, then head to the Virgin Islands and buy a 40-foot wooden sailboat. My wife and son join me from Hawaii and we spend the next several months hiding from the law.
Bevington, Wilkey and the Norman brothers are cold-blooded killers who have committed more than 26 armed robberies and imported tons of drugs. Yet for their testimony at my trial, plus plenty of snitching to the cops, they remain free men. It's not fair. I never robbed or stole from anyone. I was strictly a businessman who bought grass in Mexico and sold it in the U.S. for a profit.
Neither my wife, Susie, nor my two-year-old son are fugitives, but because of me, they are living the life of one. I call my attorney every few months to ask about the case. He tells me that after I bolted, the judge gave the stiffest sentence possible: 60 years. And those were only the state charges; I face federal ones as well. If they ever catch me, I'll end up dying in prison.
I decide to move the family to Costa Rica. Like Hawaii, it's beautiful country. The lush vegetation, climate and mountains all remind me of Vietnam. After nearly two years and a few more adventures, we end up back in Hawaii. Finally, my attorney says that we've won, that I'm temporarily a free man. There might be bail-jumping charges, he says, and the state would likely try me again, but for now, I'm free.
That night I take Susie to the finest restaurant on the North Shore to break the good news. During dinner, I tell her the court has thrown out the evidence the sheriff's deputies had seized. She isn't surprised. "I knew they would, God answered my prayers," she says. And almost in the same breath she adds, "I'm pregnant and I asked God to give us another chance."
The next morning, I call Mike Click, the same cop who arrested me almost two years earlier. I tell him I want to make a deal. No more charges, no more trials. I've had enough. If he agrees, I tell him I'll help with some drug cases.
Back in Tucson in the spring of '78, I meet with undercover agents for the state's Narcotics Strike Force. If I help with three local drug cases, the state will drop all charges and I'll have complete immunity. Doing three cocaine deals for them will be easy. I have connections from Arizona to Florida and know the big wholesalers in Mexico.
I fulfill my side of the bargain and I trust the state and federal governments to keep their word. A few months and three busts later, I'm a free man.
Now 29, I return to flight school and become a flight instructor for a Tucson company. The money's not great, but I don't care. I'm free of drugs and living well. Then, in the summer of 1979, my cousin, Jeff Long, offers me a deal. He wants to give me a million dollars in counterfeit money to buy a large amount of cocaine--a perfect way to clean the money and make a killing in the cocaine market.
I turn him down flat, but when he tells me the Masked Marauders are the counterfeiters, I smell payback. I tell Jeff to count me in, then I call Neil Tietjen with the Arizona Drug District's Narcotics Strike Force and say, "Get the boys together, I got a deal I think you'll like."
The next morning, I meet with Tietjen and two others. I show the counterfeit $50,000 that Jeff had given me up front and tell them there's plenty more where that came from. I don't tell them who's behind it.
The following day we meet to talk money. The Strike Force wants this bust in a big way. I tell them I need $50,000 minimum, and if any screw-ups happen, I might need more to start a new life elsewhere. But the only way they can raise the money is to involve the Feds, a step they are loathe to take.
I soon meet with U.S. Attorney A. Bates Butler III and Secret Service Agent David W. Harrington. If this deal works out, they say, it could be the biggest counterfeit organization ever busted in Arizona, maybe in the country. I would get my fifty grand and whatever police protection I and my family need. I believe every word. After all, I'm in the presence of the biggest law-enforcers in the state.
Gung-ho after the meeting, I call my cousin and tell him, "If the price is right, I want to buy the entire product." Jeff and I meet an hour later to haggle over price. We finally agree on 10 percent; I'm to put up $100,000 real money for $1 million counterfeit. The deal is set, except for one thing--Jeff wants to see the hundred grand first.
The next morning, I meet with Butler and tell him I need a hundred thousand for flash money. He says, "No problem."
Tietjen calls the following morning with bad news. We meet at the Holiday Inn coffee shop and he says there's no buy money, and warns me to watch out. He says the Feds are already clashing over who'll get credit for the bust. "It's fucked," he says. "But it's them or us."
Turns out, it was us.
Because there's no buy money, I tell Tietjen we'll use the fifty thousand counterfeit that Jeff fronted and put it in a bank bag. We leave to meet the feds at the hotel room. Butler and Harrington think the idea is stupid but offer no alternatives.
Tietjen dumps the money on the bed and starts wrapping bank bands around the cash. As I start to leave, Tietjen looks over and says, "Greg, you better get something in writing." I ask Butler and he goes ballistic, telling Tietjen to mind his own business, and telling me I'll get only $15,000, not the $50,000 as promised.
I take the counterfeit money and go to meet Jeff, the eyes of the law following closely. This is no different than the war I fought in Vietnam; it's just another body count and I'm just as expendable.
I flash the money at Jeff, watching his eyes go wide. "Follow me to Li'l Abner's," he says. When we arrive, the cops surround the place. Mike Norman comes out, his hands up. A member of the SWAT team notices some loose dirt outside, hiding garbage bags stuffed with a million in phony fifties and hundreds.
Butler asks me to set up another bust. Troubles with back taxes force me to agree. In return, he'll see about clearing up a civil matter with the IRS.
After a few days of asking around, I find a low-life drug addict willing to sell a pound of cocaine. The next night he's busted at the Motel 8 along Interstate 10. The following day, I visit Butler, expecting a clean slate with the IRS and a fresh start. Instead, he says, "Gregory, I hate to tell you this, but I have no jurisdiction in civil matters concerning the IRS. My job is to use guys like you."
Once again, I was just the mercenary used to get another body.
IN THE MANY years since that bust, nothing has changed, except the taxpayers' bill grows larger.
Much like the Vietnam war, the war on drugs has long shed its original aims. Politics has turned it into an industry, one that bleeds taxpayer dollars to fund more law enforcement, more prisons, and to line the pockets of politicians vowing to win an unwinable war.
This so-called war on drugs has corrupted even our prized Constitution, overriding our rights against unreasonable search and seizure as law enforcement across the country seizes money and property on a mere whiff of suspicion. The question for everyday citizens is no longer innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven innocent.
The simple fact is this: More drug arrests mean more money for state and federal governments. Our law enforcement agencies have become addicts, and we will all suffer as a result.
Cover Photo by Sean Justice
Photo 1: The aerial view of Mexican John's ranch south of the border.
Photo 2: Drug smuggler Greg C. Yokum has often found himself in troubled waters.
Photo 3: Yokum with wife Susie and their two sons, Gregory and Nathan.
Photo 4: Yokum used his pilot's license to transport marijuana and cocaine across the border.
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