By Rod De Remer
Regular newspaper readers probably remember that spectacular bust last year of a barge with nine tons of pot aboard. It was the first in a series of setbacks for major dealers.
So what happened to the poor bastards whose boats were loaded to the gunwhales with Jamaican and whose heads were loaded with lush green visions of profit?
A fews weeks ago, they were tried in the same courtroom where, a few weeks earlier, the Gainesville Eight had been acquited.
The Gainesville Eight were Vietnam Veterans Against The War who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy to commit violence at the Republican Convention in Miami.
But there was a clear contrast at this trial to that of the Gainesville Eight. There was little publicity and even less sympathy for the defendants.
The “Steinhatchee Seven” were just pot smugglers.
Maybe four or five years ago people could rally around pot as a politically unifying force. Certainly the nine tons the Steinatchee Seven were accused of trying to import would make an impressive rallying point. “Alright, everybody,” shouts the movement leader, “we’re gonna dance around this pile of pot and nobody, not the pigs, not our parents, nobody is gonna take it!” However, it has always been the ideal, the freedom to smoke pot (unfortunately not included by our shortsighted forefather in the Bill of Rights) and not the actual physical substance itself that has been defended. When a group of dudes are playing around with more than nine tons of the stuff they’re after the big cabbage — man, they’re in business. A high-risk, lucrative business to be sure. No, there weren’t many who rallied to the cause and shouted, “Free the Steinhatchee Seven.”
The Steinhatchee Seven are: Barry Korn, 23, David Strongosky, 23, Michael J. Knight, 23, Richard Ericus, 22, and Steven Lab, 20, all from the St. Petersburg area; Floyd Capo, 40, from Cross City, and James Maslanka, 24, from Gainesville.
What they have been convicted of doing is attempting to bring nine-and-a-half tons of Jamaican bush up the small West Florida waterway called Rocky Creek on a barge owned by Capo and then to disburse it at Florida wholesale prices in effect during the spring of the year. Of course, no one is ever convicted of selling nefarious drugs at wholesale prices. No siree, the commonly quoted figure in the press, so often supplied by the prosecution, was that four-and-one-half million hard-earned American dollars would fetch that barge-load to the backdoor of your garage or warehouse or where ever else you could cram that much bush. Roughly, the breakdown is somewhere around $245 a pound. Must be some sort of government subsidized farm program. (Not content with that overblown figure, the Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida student newspaper, used a $9-million figure reportedly obtained from a Steinhatchee narcotics official.)
But the lack of a defendable cause was not the only contrast to be drawn between the Gainesville Eight and the Steinhatchee Seven. In the government’s political hatchet job attempted on its war veterans, it was the defendants, at least some of them, who were famous personalities and even heroes to many Americans. The best the Seven could muster was a well known attorney, Percy Foreman, who has defended the likes of Candy Mossier and James Earl Ray.
Foreman did present a commanding figure to the courtroom observers and, to some extent, the participants. However, one important participant did not seem overly impressed. US District Judge David L. Middlebrooks, while never tagged as a hanging judge, is not a man anyone would pick to pass judgement upon eternal soul were there a prohibition against drug usage in order to rise heavenward, with a key to the golden gates. No, Judge Middlebrooks does not look favorably upon those who sell, use or even think about drugs.
The Foreman-Middlebrooks clash came early in the trial when Foreman attempted to tell the judge how things are done in most of the federal courts he has practiced in. Middlebrooks leveled his eye at Foreman and shot back, “You’re going to follow the rules in effect in this court Mr. Foreman, and if you don’t like it you can go to New Orleans on appeal!” (New Orleans is the seat of the 5th Judicial Court of Appeal.)
Percy Foreman was not enough. He was not enough even though none of the defendants were caught with that mound of weed on Capo’s barge runaground on a sand bar that popped up in the middle of the creek. Not only that, but mild-mannered youthful Robert Crongeyer, assistant US attorney from Pensacola, admitted from the beginning of the government’s case that the evidence was circumstantial.
That circumstantial evidence, he promised the jury in his opening remarks, would “weave a web of circumstances that must fall over all of these defendants.”
That “web,” consisting of the testimony of more than 40 witnesses, would flash on such strong points as the statement that defendants “looked like they had been rolling in hay.” There isn’t that much hay in the Steinhatchee-Cross City region, about 135 miles north of St. Petersburg and around 70 from here. No, those people up there mostly fish and sell mobile homes. Six young dudes with long hair, head bands and other assorted oddities just stuck out like a sore thumb when they were riding around with Floyd Capo on March 4. Seems like everyone they passed took special notice of them.
Floyd Capo sat in the courtroom, in a line behind the defense table facing the jury. He sat there with the others, but didn’t really fit in. Capo is 40 years old, a little portly and graying on top. Unlike his fellow defendants he wore no tie to the proceedings and, once, yielding to an instinct most people refrain from in such formal surroundings, he removed his shoe and gave his big toe a good scratch.
Other parts of that “web” that eventually closed in upon the heads of the Seven were the Jamaican plane ticket in Maslanka’s pocket when the blue Eldorado he was driving near Cross City was pulled over. There was more testimony about the distinctive sound of Capo’s boat, which evidently everyone in those parts could identify. Two fishermen out on the Gulf the night of March 4 heard the boat making runs from offshore up into the Creek from 1 a.m. until dawn. But the topper was finding that barge. And nearby that, on the south shore of Rocky Creek Landing, was a campsite with even more croker-sacks with that grassy substance in them scales, like Southern moss, hung from the trees.
What a time those small county sheriff’s had posing in front of all that marijuana. The following week every little weekly newspaper in the surrounding area carried bad Polaroids of the local heroes under very large headlines. About all the defense could throw back at the jury was that the seven had been illegally arrested, still what they hang their hopes of an appeal upon, and the testimony of character witness John Carroll. Carroll, however, proved less effective in court here than he used to back in the old days in the Southwest when he would surprise bad men and women wearing a mask and carving Z’s with his sword.
Carroll is the actor who portrayed Zorro on television and said he was prepared to make movie stars of two of the defendants.
He may have to wait. Because the strongest contrast that could be drawn between the Gainesville Eight case and the Steinhatchee Seven trial was done so by the jury who found all seven guilty of the four counts against them.
Maximum penalty is five years on each count but Middlebrooks, in a magnanimous show of leniency, announced he would not sentence any of the seven to more than 15 years. They got 20 years each.
So if things seemed to get a little tight this past summer, a little dry, maybe you watched your own plants and wondered why it took so long to grow the stuff. If that’s the case give a little thought to the Steinhatchee Seven who face a very long, dry stretch.
Read the full issue here.