Dusk at the Rod and Gun Club, and the Baron River swirls by at four knots. The 15 tables of the grand dining room are empty, their doors open to the vast screened porch, and the porch to the river, and the river to the mangroves, through which the currents also pass, carving the Ten Thousand Islands between here and Marathon Key.
The only movement is in the corners of a hundred paper napkins lifted by the slow-turning ceiling fans. Currents in the air, and the water, and in the insular town--where at this evening moment no vehicle, nor any of the 519 citizens, stirs outside.
This is the western gateway to the Everglades, self-proclaimed as "The Last Frontier." Last Thursday, a combined task force of 200 federal and state law officers charged in at dawn with guns drawn, throwing up checkpoints on the roads, kicking down doors, and took away 15 people, confiscated two airplanes, five vehicles and 14 fishing boats ranging in size from 40 to 74 feet. Another 19 persons were arrested just outside the area, and seven remain at large.
Everglades City, one federal agent said, was "a town gone bad"--an entire community drawn lock, stock and barrel, like it or not, into the wholesale importation of marijuana--boatloads of it, semi-trailers full, more than 50 tons at a time. During the past two years, more than 450,000 pounds of marijuana, said to be worth $179 million, have been seized in the Everglades, and 153 people, a third of them locals, have been arrested.
It was about 6 a.m. that Ada Collins heard loud talking and then a crash and woke up to see a man holding a cocked revolver in her husband's face. The man said to her husband, "Don't move." The man with the gun looked nervous, and his hand was shaking, and Ada Collins was terrified.
"Where is your son at?" the man with the gun demanded, and Ada Collins pointed to the couch, where Jimmy, the eldest of her seven children, was sleeping. There were four men in her home, with guns drawn. At about the same time, in another location, two other Collins boys were being taken into custody.
"What happened was 10 men had come in front of the house, and my daughter went out and they held a gun on her and said, 'Open the door and tell them inside it's the DEA Drug Enforcement Administration .'
"So my daughter started opening the door, but she didn't do it fast enough so they kicked it open and came in and woke us up. After they woke Jimmy up they threw him against the wall and handcuffed him. They had already gone to his house and busted the door down, so they came to look for him here."
The Collins boys were taken to Naples, and then to Miami, where they were booked, and where their parents paid their bail. Then Ada Collins went back to work managing Jane's Restaurant in Copeland, five miles up the road from Everglades City, and tried to go about her business. The townspeople were there--sitting around, commiserating. Everglades City is a glass house, and people whose friends and family have been arrested for drug smuggling are not ostracized. There are few families left who can throw the first stone.
"Those agents went around afterwards saying we were nothing but bums," Ada Collins said. "But all seven of my children finished high school and one of them went on to junior college, and if they'd have said they had a warrant for their arrest, they would have surrendered themselves. There was no need to shut down the town with roadblocks. These are good people here."
Everglades City, Copeland, Marco Island, Chokoloskee Island--hamlets floating on a primeval, mangrove-brown sea--are all swept by the same currents, not all of them in the waterways. Here the families have old English names, and they marry and work together and fish together, and if they move away, the Everglades currents are such that they are often swept back a few years later to the place they know and are known. They are a people set apart by history and geography, and what they know best is often the glades around them--they know them as a farmer knows his fields and an accountant his books. The Everglades can be a living--fishing, hunting, gathering bird feathers, and treasure-hunting, and yes, rum-running during Prohibition, and ship-wrecking before that. There is very little petty crime here, and it is a rare family that locks its doors.
In recent times the people here have been swept by two great natural forces. The first was Hurricane Donna, which in 1960 carried a seven-foot wall of water through Everglades City, after which the county seat was moved to Naples, 22 miles west. The second natural force was unleashed about 10 years ago. It was a force not of nature, but of human nature. The people here call it "pot fever," the smuggling of marijuana in large quantities.
Nothing is what it seems. Old families are divided, federal agents swarm, evidence of sudden wealth abounds. The smugglers put on quite a show. People like Willie Santos and his wife, Barbara, who cruised in six months ago in a big black van wearing gold chains, booked into the Captain's Table motel, and disappeared periodically thereafter on "fishing trips."
But Willie Santos seemed to go around unscathed. After all, in the Everglades City phrase, "nobody had actually seen him with a bale on his shoulder."
Mayor Herman Askren's guide boat eased out of the Baron River past the dock of the Rod and Gun Club. Where the river opens out into the mangrove islands he put the throttle up and brought his Shamrock up to 20 knots, so that the wake went flat and straight and the sudden wind flattened his hair and no mosquitoes could keep up. He was headed for the Gulf of Mexico 10 miles away, and leaving behind his office in City Hall.
Askren, a former sandblasting contractor, came to Everglades City 19 years ago, when it was a sleepy fishing town. He has been mayor for four years. Now, when somebody asks him about the economy of his town he says "Tourism, commercial fishing, and now, as the whole world knows, contraband." He is deep-tanned, amiable and disappointed. Not in the tarpon fishing, or the pelicans, or the hungry catfish that rise when he cleans his catch at the dock, but in the fellows with the gold chains and the flashy pickup trucks, and the "cesspool" of smuggling. Every phone in town has been tapped for years, he believes, including his own. "I hear the clicking. I've been cut off three times just trying to talk to somebody in Miami.
"I know the drug people, yes. You can't ignore them if they're all around you. I don't socialize with them, but it's obvious who they are. Their cars, their jewelry, their nice new homes. The fact that they do lots of drinking and very little working. They flaunt it so openly. I told them--you guys are just stupid."
This mangrove water, and the Gulf sea, is perfect for fishing--and for smuggling. No stranger could possibly navigate it. There are uncounted passes, among the out islands, dead ends and thoroughfares, and many canopied over by mangrove. Tourists have been lost for three days 20 minutes from Everglades City.
But through this tidal swamp, populated by manatees and mosquitoes, the native Everglades ride at 70 miles an hour in twin-engine outboards, or zoom on airboats driven by aircraft engines, or charge on tank-treaded swamp buggies, or maneuver in their mullet boats and stone-crabbers, picking their way by sense and memory night and day, following a trail that isn't there and leaving a trail that isn't there.
In the night offshore, a mother ship, perhaps from Central America, slips in against the steamy shore. Perhaps a shrimper, heavy laden with bales. That day, at the tiny airport on the Chokoloskee road, there may be a run on aviation fuel--not for planes, but for airboats. That night, about 11 p.m., the airboat fleet rides out, unloads the bales, and brings them in. Perhaps the bales are hidden in a tree-canopied pass; perhaps to take straight to the fish trucks, or the trunk of a car that will later be parked in its owner's driveway.
All night and day, on no set schedule, the stone-crabbing boats ply in and out of their fishing grounds 50 miles offshore. The little fleet of mullet fishermen, in eccentric skiffs with outboards in forward wells, move busily back and forth. Trucks come and go, transporting the catch. At the airport, planes land and take off, carrying men with briefcases.
A fisherman, if he works hard and has luck, can make a decent living out of a 14-hour day. A fisherman, if he works at night unloading a mother ship, can make $10,000 cash.
Last year, right on the dock at Everglades City, where everybody knows everybody, semi-trailers containing 53 tons of marijuana were seized.
Askren anchors offshore, and in a few hours he and his fishing client have pulled 20 sea trout on board. Out there, with a light morning breeze cool and the fish well filling up, it is like it should be in the Everglades. There are no bearded men with gold chains, no stupendously ostentatious pickup trucks riding on five-foot-high tires with ultra-shade tinted glass, no fathers being hauled off to serve 15 years, and none of the cruel jokes of gloating South Florida neighbor towns.
Guiding his boat back through Sandfly Pass, running flat out toward the curve of the shore, headed back to his desk with the unopened letter from Salt Lake City on it, an envelope on the outside of which was written "Don't Smuggle," Herman Askren said that he really didn't want to be the mayor anymore.
The law in Everglades City is Deputy Sheriff Charlie Sanders and his six officers. He is a muscular man, his uniform spotless and pressed. His pistol is pearl-handled and gold inlaid, and when he shifts position in a chair he gives off a subtle squeaking of uniform leather parts. He used to race cars, and he has wrestled an alligator to impress a girl, and ridden 400-pound loggerhead turtles for the fun of it ("grab him behind the head, buddy, and you can steer him anyplace you want") and he is, by virtue of his job, right smack in the middle of the trouble in Everglades City.
"I've been here 18 years and I know everybody. I know their sons. I've seen a lot of friends go because of pot. I've arrested a lot of friends. But I will tell you this, these people would do anything in the world for you down here. They have been courteous to me for years. The trouble is they just don't believe smuggling pot is immoral. And the money is so good, they have to do it. One fellow gets a new car, some gold chains, and he's not working very hard, and his friend comes back from 14 hours pulling stone crab pots and he gets the idea that he doesn't have to work hard either."
Sanders was not told about the task force raid last Thursday until 1:15 a.m. that morning. Newspaper reporters had been told two days before--in fact, one of them called up Mayor Askren and asked him for an advance comment, which was how Askren got clued in. Sanders was not told earlier, according to Sheriff Aubrey Rogers in Naples, because "we had a situation with certain local people tied to it and we didn't want just everybody talking about it."
At this moment Sanders was eating lunch at the Captain's Table restaurant, the only restaurant open for lunch in Everglades City in summer. He was saying he was concerned that Ada Collins not be mad at him, not blame him for what happened to her sons. A young man came up and asked him where to find a carburator, and Sanders told him, and the young man lingered a moment and then went on.
"Now that young fellow there," Sanders said, "I arrested him last year for smuggling, him and three other boys with 17,000 pounds of marijuana, and he was convicted, and his appeal was just denied, and he will be going off soon to jail. And yet he is still a friend of mine, who will come to me for help."
Sanders said that the boy's father had been a member of the sheriff's department, and that the father had been involved in contraband.
Collier County sheriff's department Capt. Ray Barnett said yesterday that two officers had left the force "under a cloud" in the past few years. In both cases, Barnett said, the officer's name had turned up in drug investigations, after which they had left the force.
"I could have been a rich man," Sanders said. "They've come to me, yes they have. They've come to me several times, but I have set them straight, and they respect me for it. The truth of it is, they don't even need to bribe me. We have six officers working a seven-day week. Anyhow you make up that work schedule, we'll be uncovered a lot of the time. Or all they have to do is wait for a wreck on the highway. That's where my men will be, and there won't be anybody to bother them."
Nevertheless, Sanders is a continual presence in Everglades City, his white cruiser poking around the palm-lined corners. He has made arrests for contraband, including a van loaded down with marijuana that he says he stopped because "I knew that vehicle unloaded is seven feet high in the rear, and this one was riding flat." But he has also "lain on a stakeout many a dark night, eaten alive by mosquitoes, and got nothing for it."
Sanders says he gets along pretty well with everybody. He has to fight sometimes, and doesn't like it, but is used to it. He can even shrug off rumors that he himself is in on the smuggling.
He is still annoyed, though, about the fisherman who went into a combat crouch with an AR-15 rifle last Halloween night and put two shots through the windshield of his cruiser while he was doing a 60-mile-an-hour "power sweep" turn designed to apprehend this fellow.
"It went to a jury and they took it down to aggravated assault and sentenced him to only three years," Sanders said. "Sure I knew him. He apologized afterwards, said he was drunk. Even so, I was a little disappointed in the verdict."
Harold Enquist manages the local airport, and owns some apartments, can be seen daily at the Captain's Table, and is universally known as "Happy Harry," for his nonstop banter and his scenic airplane rides.
After Willie Santos had been in the motel a while, the local deputies asked Enquist what he knew about Santos. Enquist in turn asked the deputies why they didn't just arrest him, because he was obviously a smuggler. He was told that nobody had yet seen Santos "with a bale on his shoulder." It was a typical case of the obvious in Everglades City.
Harry Enquist had already seen a lot of the obvious in Everglades City. Two planes at his airport were confiscated last week, and he remembers the day a twin Beechcraft landed there "packed full with marijuana right up to the ceiling." Enquist was on his way to Marathon Key, and when he got back there were some guys standing around the plane, and the seats were back in it, and it was like nothing had happened.
"The federal guys asked me if the people I fly ever carry briefcases. They sure do, but I told them, I'm not Customs. I don't tell them to open them up so I can look inside.
"I know what's going on, but I'm also in business. I fly tourists in and out, fishermen, anybody who needs to go. Sometimes it's a fake-out. A couple of guys chartered me, and said, file a flight plan for Key West. Okay, we get up there and they say, Harry, fly over that way for a while, so I do. And we fly for a while and pretty soon we're looking down at all these bales of pot floating on the ocean, and I look back at these guys and they've got tears in their eyes.
"You really can't miss them anyhow, because the gold chains are like a badge of membership."
Happy Harry, engaged for a scenic ride, turns his plane over Chokoloskee Island, about three miles from Everglades City. Here is a good view of nice new waterfront homes which have arisen among the house trailers, and of sleek speedboats, and of swimming pools half hidden under backyard canopies.
The sudden wealth is as obvious as Willie Santos.
The day of the big raid caught Mayor Askren unawares, even though he'd been tipped off by a reporter.
Reba Wells Rupsis, editor of the Everglades City Echo, went to the post office, then to the convenience store, and didn't realize what was going on until she saw "helicopters landing in soggy old vacant lots." Then she went and wagged her finger at federal agents, upbraiding them for not giving her more notice.
Travelers on the road earlier that morning were stopped at roadblocks, and at least one guide lost his clients when, seeing all the excitement, "they got nervous and just turned around and went back."
Charlie Sanders and his deputies did the best they could to help out the swarming federal agents, who worked fast and with their guns out, and who had completed their haul by mid-morning.
They didn't get Willie Santos, or his wife Barbara. But they did get Happy Harry's 24-year-old daughter Kim.
"It was 5 a.m.," Enquist said. "They came to my door and just pounced on her. They arrested her ex-husband too. I said to them, why are you taking her in? And they said to me, 'Conspiracy.'
"She had been seen with people, and she had been talking a lot to Barbara Santos. You know what my daughter said to me? She said, 'Dad, what's conspiracy?'
"And then I took the title to my house over to Miami and bailed her out, and by this time everybody realized that of course Willie Santos and Barbara Santos were federal agents all along. And when she heard that, my daughter said to me, 'Gee dad, you know the thing is, I really like Barbara Santos.' "