Dennis Burn wasn't doing much of anything with his life, just installing burglar alarms in Queens and feeling bored, when international drug trafficking raised its adventuresome head.
An older friend proposed it: free sightseeing in Europe, the chance to make some money and have some fun. Burn said sure. "The experience," he would explain later.
The first time he anticipated trouble was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when he lifted the false-bottomed suitcase; empty, it weighed 25 pounds. The second time was in Moscow, which was supposed to be a transit stop, but where they inspected the luggage just the same. "What's this look like?" the Soviet police asked Burn, confronting him with several plastic packages of white powder. "Looks like fish food," Burn said.
He and two others were carrying a total of 62 pounds of heroin. They gave him seven years. When the man from the U.S. Embassy came to see him, and said he could send a wire back home, Burn kept his short.
"Thanks for the memories," it said.
Last month, after serving the longest prison term in the Soviet Union of any American in recent years, Burn was released and flew home to New York. A statistic in the international drug war, he was a relative innocent at the time of his arrest in 1976. But having spent the prime years of 26 to 33 in prison, he is an innocent no more--though there is an odd contrast between the laid-back way he tells his tale and the tale itself, which takes place, for the most part, in a labor camp east of Moscow.
"I saw unbelievable things," he says. "Women with their babies, going back to camp, right? A guy coming from the hospital, he had both legs amputated, okay? He was met by a convoy, consisting of three or four soldiers with machine guns and a dog . . . food, for breakfast they gave us fish soup; just water with some fish boiled in it, the worst thing to smell at 6 in the morning; I always gave it a pass . . . Or they'd give you some black bread. Don't think it's like what you have here; it's like matches in it; first of all it's not made with yeast, it's made with sourdough; very sour; sometimes you'd find lumps of rock salt in it . . ."
"It was unreal," he says.
"The Moscow Connection," the newspapers called the Burn case after the arrest June 26, 1976, referring to Burn and his two codefendants as "amateur couriers." It received attention not only because it was the most serious crime Americans within the Soviet Union had been charged with in several years, but because of the amount of heroin involved: 62 pounds with an estimated street value of $2 million at the time. At the trial, all three pleaded guilty to heroin smuggling. During the trial, Paul Brawer, a construction worker and father of four from Las Vegas, said he had become involved with the drugs for fast money and excitement ("like a Hollywood movie"); Burn said he had come to Europe "for sightseeing and the purchase of heroin"; the admitted instigator of the plan, Gerald Amster, said he was a heroin addict who had been undergoing withdrawal while awaiting trial. His lawyer also reportedly cited psychiatric problems at home in the United States.
Brawer was released after serving 4 1/2 years of his five-year sentence; Amster was released 2 1/2 years ago, after serving only four years of his eight-year term. Amster now says he was never a drug user, but that he lied to the Soviets because he thought they would go easier on him if said he was an addict. He says he was released early after he escaped from prison in Moscow and was protected in the loving embrace of a woman doctor. State Department officials here say they never heard of an escape. Burn served his full term.
Such are the problems with this sort of a story. Much of it took place within the Soviet Union and cannot be confirmed; and though Burn and codefendant Amster, who is also a New Yorker, corroborate much of each other's stories, there are various contradictory elements. Burn, who agreed to talk to a reporter shortly after being released from prison, says, for example, that Amster was using drugs in Europe, which Amster denies; Amster, who since his release from prison has pleaded guilty to possession of stolen credit cards, says the same of Burn, who also denies it.
Nonetheless, their stories give a special glimpse of both the life of the small-time drug courier and life in a Soviet labor camp. It's a tale that has less to do with the glamorous drug smugglers portrayed in the movies than a couple of small-time guys who suddenly find themselves in over their heads. And a cautionary tale, finally, about when nothing is making a whole lot of sense, and you get to feeling bored.
Dennis Burn's story begins in Queens, the bedroom borough of New York City, the place where the secretaries and the sanitation workers go home to sleep. He lived there with a sister and an aunt, having, according to some reports, been moved from relative to relative after his parents' divorce when he was 6. "A lost soul," one of his aunts told the papers after his arrest. But Burn is not one to go into painful feelings in depth. Asked why his aunt might have said that, he sidesteps.
"Looked good in the papers, I guess," he says.
Likewise, he does not care to discuss his feelings about going to live briefly with his father, rather than his mother, when the marriage broke up.
"Didn't bother me," he says.
As he describes it, his life at the time of the drug deal was one of odd electrical jobs, some dope smoking and a great deal of boredom.
"I get bored very easy. The longest job I ever had was for two years with the phone company," he says.
Relief came in the form of Gerald Amster, then 33, whom Burn had known for some years. Though he was described in the papers as an "amateur courier," Amster now says he had in fact been running heroin between West Germany and Amsterdam for two years "quite regularly," and brags that he was doing quite well. He had a Mercedes limousine. He flew, spur of the moment, to South America or Ibiza. He had "expensive dates." He ran "with the international jet set." He was not merely a courier; he was in business for himself, usually carrying about a pound of heroin on his body, "dressed like Mr. International Corporate Man; I was never stopped."
His run had been strictly within Europe, but by 1976, the drug business had begun to shift to Asia. Orientals had been working as couriers in this new route, according to Amster, but Interpol was aware of that, and many were getting caught. There was a demand for Caucasian couriers.
Amster decided to give it a try. He called New York and contacted Burn, who had always seemed to "have adventure in his heart." Burn said yes.
They went to London for a few days, where Burn did a little sightseeing and Amster got the Mercedes fixed; then on to Amsterdam. In a sidewalk cafe, the contact was made. A Chinese man, with the unexceptional name of Mr. Lee, approached and asked them to make a run from Kuala Lumpur, carrying about 100 ounces of heroin between them, for about $8,000 a person. The contact wanted a third person, however, so Amster called up an acquaintance, a construction worker from Las Vegas named Paul Brawer. Brawer had had an unhappy life--his wife and sister had been killed in an auto accident. He was also a generous man; after his sister's death, and his remarriage, he had taken in not only his nephew, but also his elderly mother. He told a reporter later he thought the trip would be an adventure.
The three set off on their trip, flying first to Singapore, where they were met by an Oriental escort, then on to Kuala Lumpur. To Burn, staying first at the Hilton, then at a local hotel "that was maybe better than the Hilton," the trip was a lark.
"I was carefree, I wasn't worried," he says. "I figured there was a good chance we'd be caught, so I lived it up."
There were meetings with the contacts but Burn declined to go; what did they need three people at the meeting for? he figured. Later, he regretted that decision.
"I was down by the pool, and I came up, and they'd dropped off the first suitcase," he says. "I picked it up; it was very heavy, maybe 25 pounds . . . I thought maybe if I'd been there; maybe those two guys weren't aggressive enough . . ."
Amster tells it somewhat differently: the deal was changed--and they were saddled with much more heroin than they expected--once they were in Kuala Lumpur, he says, but at that point it seemed unlikely they would be allowed to back out of the arrangement; they knew too much. Instead, ever the businessman, he recut the deal; the couriers would now receive a piece of the shipment as well as their fee.
They booked a flight to Paris, through Moscow, on Aeroflot, which was at the time offering discount fares. They had at least two Chinese escorts. At Sheremetyevo International Airport, to the consternation of the couriers, all passengers were ordered off the plane. Their luggage was pulled off as well. Amster and Brawer got through the check, but Burn did not. Amster blames Burn's demeanor: "His eyes were red and glazed . . . he had been drinking vodka on the flight . . . in Amsterdam he'd been snorting the stuff"; Burn denies this and blames the heft of the luggage. "The top was so heavy," he says. That answer exasperates Amster; Burn had placed his luggage on the custom table wrong side up, Amster says--an error that should not have occurred because the customs procedures "had been rehearsed."
The other passengers, including the Oriental escorts, went on their way, never to be heard from again. The Americans were arrested. At the trial, Amster and Brawer pleaded guilty to charges of drug smuggling, including conspiracy to smuggle drugs through the Soviet Union; Burn, who has something of an individualistic streak, told the court he was guilty of smuggling, not conspiracy--he had not planned to end up in the Soviet Union, he said.
Amster was a rather dramatic character in the proceedings, according to U.S. newspaper accounts. In court, he said he had been a drug addict who had undergone withdrawal in his cell, and praised the doctor who "treated me very humanely for a problem which I never thought was dealt with humanely in the Soviet Union."
Amster now says his "addiction" had been a fabrication, which he hoped might lighten his sentence, and that "never in my life" had he been an addict. Before his trial, he says the Russians sent him a physician "who gave me some sort of replacement drug every day for 30 days." One cannot avoid taking prescribed medication in a Soviet prison, he says; "they stand there when you open your mouth; they use a flashlight." The drug made him woozy. As for telling the Soviets he was an addict, it was an unfortunate ploy: there was a statute in Soviet law, Amster later learned,that says addicts could never be considered for early release.
Amster, Brawer and Burn were shipped off to a prison for foreigners at a large labor camp in the district of Mordovia, about 250 miles east of Moscow.
"A village, really a shantytown," says Burn. "Ever been to Laredo? On the Texas-Mexican border? Dilapidated little structures, horses and wagons . . . it was like the world just ended there."
His day began at 6: "They'd throw us outside regardless of the weather" to exercise, during which "you'd look for a place to hide, or to keep warm if it was winter." After the fish soup and black-bread breakfast it was any number of jobs; off to a nearby factory to make wooden stools for the military; work in the laundry room. You went to work at 7:40, you returned to the camp at 5; in the evenings there were political lectures.
Burn is not one to go on about his feelings in prison. "When I was arrested, I turned off, I went comatose," he says.
But there are still parts of prison life he recalls vividly. He remembers one night when a Cuban prisoner with a crowbar attacked him and another prisoner, both of whom were openly anti-Soviet. (His fellow prisoner, who was attacked first, suffered head wounds; Burn bears a scar on his knuckle, where he fended off the blow.) He recalls the evening political lectures, where he was told that Great Britain was under martial law. He recalls, perhaps more vividly than anything else, the food, which was not the sort of thing an American kid would have encountered before.
"Some kind of cereal, mostly oats, but not like in a form you've ever seen; it must have been right out of the ground," he says; "another thing that had, a kind of bacon, but just white, you know, just the fat; I said, 'Whadaya crazy, you eat that?' "
He was also, though he had not considered himself particularly a patriot, angered by the politics he encountered; and he spoke out, not in any grandiloquent style, but in the style of a punk from New York.
"They'd show you a picture, people lying in the street. They'd say, 'They got 40,000 people without homes in New York.' I'd say, 'Hey, gimme New York' ".
Nor did he simply talk back. Burn was active, according to Amster, in hunger strikes and work strikes, and Amster and Burn agree that Burn may have served his full term because of that.
Amster was not politically active.
"A lot of the agitation was done by the people with three-year sentences," he says. "I had eight years. I didn't want to risk eight years."
He worked as a medic, kept his nose clean. In prison, Amster tended to be something of an operator. Told that Burn said Amster often had fainting fits, he rolls his eyes. "They used to keep us overnight, when they were transporting us, in a box--a very little compartment. I used to fake this fainting spells--call for water, stand in the door, and then just fall, to get out," he says.
When an opportunity for escape came, after 2 1/2 years in prison, he claims he took it. Fog shrouding the camp, the power lines down, Amster says he jumped the prison fence and found refuge in the home of a woman doctor with whom he had been having an affair at the prison. ("Impossible," says Burn.) She provided him with clothes, he fled to Moscow, where he lived for six months, he says. Seeing that escape was impossible, he says, he contacted a U.S. Embassy official named Dennis Reese, who negotiated with the KGB. After a stay in a KGB prison, and a month in the Serbsky psychiatric institute, he was released. The stay at Serbsky, where he was diagnosed as having "recidivist reactive pyschosis," was "just a way of being labeled" by the Soviets, according to Amster, so that they could release him early without embarrassment. In the fall of 1980, he came home.
Amster got a contract from Holt, Rinehart & Winston, for a book on his adventures ("mini-five figures"). He was also arrested for possession of stolen credit cards. (A "set-up," he says.)
The story of his escape is disputed by a State Department spokesman who, while confirming the existence of an officer named Dennis Reese, says nothing in the files "indicates there was an escape" and that if there had been the State Department would have known about it. Amster says this is not surprising--no one knew about the escape but Reese. He declines to waive his right to privacy and allow a reporter access to the State Department files.
Burn got out of prison last month. In the weeks he's been out, he's had trouble eating, had trouble sleeping. Prison, he thinks, has changed him.
The kid who went in?
"He was someone who didn't care much about anything," says Burn, "He was carefree, he didn't think about the future at all."
The guy who came out?
A short laugh.
"Shall we say I'm enlightened?" he says. "I've learned to appreciate things, little things."
"I lost a lot, y'know," he says."I lost time, it's irreplaceable. I came back, all the people I know, they're married, they have kids; for me, it's back to zero, I don't know where to start." He has, Burn adds, no bad feelings toward Amster. He knew what he was getting into, he says. "I wasn't a child." Amster came to meet him at the airport. What did they say when they met? They said hello. He's not sure about his future. Maybe computers. He doesn't mind that Amster, in addition to getting out early, has a contract for the book.
"What's it to me?" he says. "Why should I care?"