Federal agents interrupt a smuggling operation in the San Juan Islands, seize two tons of marijuana, and arrest six men on October 22, 1978.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 5/27/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7331
On Sunday evening, October 22, 1978, federal agents conduct drug raids on Barnes Island in the San Juan Islands and at a stash-house in Sumas, Whatcom County, arrest six men and seize 91 bales of marijuana. Two men escape from the island in a 28-foot speedboat. A Customs patrol boat and a Drug Enforcement Administration aircraft pursue the vessel south into Admiralty Inlet but soon lose sight of it in the darkness. The following day, authorities locate the speedboat, beached on Whidbey Island and find six bales of marijuana floating in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The marijuana, a potent variety known as "Thai stick," is valued at $12 million.

A Month to Meditate?

In early October 1978, a Bellevue attorney told the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Seattle that he had rented his two cabins on Barnes Island, a privately owned 25-acre island in the San Juan Islands, two miles northeast of Orcas Island, to a man who claimed he wanted to be alone for a month to meditate. The man said he was from Boston and gave the attorney a phone number in Bellingham as a reference. The attorney said later,  "I was so taken with the young man, I didn't even ask his address" (The Seattle Times).

When the drug agents started investigating, they discovered a series of suspicious circumstances indicating a smuggling operation. In July 1978, four men from the East Coast arrived in Western Washington to arrange the final stages, choosing Bellingham as their base of operations. They were Dennis Moriarty, 30, of Nahant, Massachusetts; Joseph Israel, 30, of Boston, Massachusetts; Dante Sassi, 30, of Waterbury, Connecticut and Robert Fiorini, 30, of West Springfield, Massachusetts. Over the next several weeks, they were joined by at least four more men: Albert R. Kollack, 30, of Zephyr Cove, Nevada; John W. Noell, 28, of San Diego, California; John Nolan, and Michael Bradley.

Agents found that on July 19, 1978, Joseph Israel rented apartment No. 312 at the Seholm Terrace Apartments in Bellingham, then Dennis Moriarty rented a home in Sumas, in rural Whatcom County northeast of Bellingham, presumably to use as a "stash-house." The smugglers also brought two large 4 x 4 pickup trucks and two speedboats on trailers.

Sleek, Fast, and Without Fish

The boats were sleek 28-foot fiberglass cruisers called Skipjacks, made by the Jack Cole Company in Costa Mesa, California. Each vessel was powered by twin 225-horsepower V-8 engines with matching out-drive units capable of doing 45 knots. They were known in Southern California to be the vessel-of-choice for marijuana smugglers, able to carry bulky loads at high speed. A used Skipjack with trailer could be purchased for about $30,000 but could make millions. It was the modern equivalent of the Prohibition-era rumrunner's launch.

The smugglers took the Skipjacks to Bellingham's Squalicum Marina for engine work and tune-ups.  Personnel at the marina told agents that there was no fishing gear or food on the boats, the windows were covered inside with plywood, and the men always paid the bill in cash.  Now, the agents knew they had uncovered a large-scale marine smuggling operation.

The Plot Thickens

In the middle of October 1978, the smuggler's level of activity increased considerably and more agents arrived in Bellingham, reinforcing surveillance efforts. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service patrolled the San Juan Islands, looking for suspicious vessel activity and monitoring the area around Barnes Island.

On Friday night, October 20, 1978, agents observed two men arrive at the public boat launch in Fairhaven in one of the Skipjacks. After pulling the boat from the water onto a trailer, the men drove away with the boat in tow. They returned Saturday morning with the boat, launching it into Bellingham Bay. After parking their truck and trailer in the public lot, the men left in the Skipjack. This routine was repeated on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Lady Hamilton's Cargo

On Sunday afternoon, October 22, 1978, a U.S. Customs patrol boat delivered two DEA agents to Clark Island Marine State Park, a one mile-long, 55-acre island about a half-mile east of Barnes Island. After landing on the beach in a dinghy, the agents took up a concealed position across from the cabins, watching the smuggler's activities with binoculars and taking pictures.  At about 5:30 p.m., a Skipjack with the name "Lady Hamilton" on the stern, arrived in the small cove on the northeast side of Barnes Island. As the agents watched, four men carried several large burlap bales from the cabin area onto the vessel.

At about 6:30 p.m., it was growing dark and the Skipjack was preparing to leave. The agents left Clark Island in the dinghy and paddled into Rosario Strait, waiting to be picked up by the U.S. Customs patrol boat. They planned to move in and arrest the smugglers, but the Lady Hamilton left Barnes Island before the patrol boat arrived. Hailing the Lady Hamilton, the agents asked the two men onboard to take a message to the nearby unmarked patrol boat, explaining that they had been left on the island. When the Lady Hamilton approached the patrol boat, the Customs Officers ordered her to "heave to," but she fled instead.

One of the patrol officers immediately opened fire with his revolver, hitting the Skipjack several times with no effect. The Customs patrol boat and a DEA aircraft pursued the Lady Hamilton south through the San Juan Islands, along the west side of Whidbey Island into Admiralty Inlet but soon lost sight of it in the darkness. A Coast Guard helicopter found the boat later that night beached on Whidbey Island near Bush Point, but without the crew or bales of marijuana.

Closing In

About 7:00 p.m., a 41-foot Coast Guard patrol boat from Bellingham arrived at Clark Island, picking up the two DEA agents. Meanwhile, the second Skipjack arrived in the small cove on the northeast side of Barnes Island. Hearing a boat approaching, the Skipjack started maneuvering out of the cove but was blocked by the Coast Guard vessel. The DEA Agents boarded the cruiser, arresting the operator, Dante Sassi, and shutting down the engines. Firing illumination flares, the agents and Coast Guardsmen captured two smugglers, Dennis Moriarty and Albert Kollack, near the beach, but one, Robert Fiorini, ran into the woods. Later, when agents searched the cabins and surrounding area for evidence, they found 20 burlap bales of marihuana.

The Bellingham Police Department dispatched a K-9 unit to Barnes Island to hunt the fugitive.  After hiding in a tree for a few hours, Fiorini, cramped and cold, climbed down to refresh himself, only to be greeted by the low menacing growls of police dog, Little Bear. Later, Fiorini admitted his relief at being found, believing he was about to be attacked by a wild animal and left on the island to die.

Meanwhile, Israel's apartment at Seholm Terrace sat dark and quiet, so two agents decided to see if there was any activity at the rented house in Sumas. When they arrived, there was a 4 x 4 pickup truck and an empty boat trailer in the driveway, plus the kitchen lights were on. The agents knocked on the basement door for several minutes, and it was finally answered by Israel, who appeared half asleep. Believing it to be confederates with more bales of marijuana, he opened the door wide and stepped outside. Behind him, in plain view, was a basement filled with large burlap bales. After quietly arresting Israel, the agents searched the house, finding John Noell asleep in a bedroom with a loaded handgun on the night stand. The following day, DEA Agents removed 71 bales of marijuana from the basement of the Sumas house with a moving van.

Marijuana's Mother-ship

DEA knew that a mother-ship was the source of the marijuana shipment, most likely a tramp freighter, fishing trawler, or sailboat. The ship was later identified, but never found. As a rule, the mother-ship hovered offshore near international waters and was visited by smaller, high-speed vessels, shuttling the contraband to stash locations. Mother-ship operations were hard to detect and the vessels could easily escape, jettisoning the cargo into the ocean.

One defendant told the agents that they had transported the marijuana from a mother-ship to Barnes Island between October 18 and October 20, 1978, then began shuttling it to the Fairhaven public boat landing near Bellingham. A Skipjack, with several bales hidden in the forward compartment, was hauled onto a boat trailer, driven to the stash-house in Sumas and unloaded. Then the process was repeated. Moving around two tons of contraband took a lot time, a smuggler's worst enemy.

On Monday, October 23, 1978, the six defendants were taken to Seattle for their initial hearing. A federal complaint was filed with U.S. Magistrate Phillip K. Sweigert charging them with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Also charged in the complaint were fugitives John Nolan and Michael Bradley, who escaped in the Lady Hamilton. Magistrate Sweigert set bail at $25,000 each.

The Jetsam in the Strait

On Wednesday, October 25, 1978, six bales of marijuana were found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter on a training exercise pulled three bales out of the water near Whidbey Island; two bales washed ashore on New Dungeness Spit near the lighthouse, and one bale was turned into the Coast Guard at Port Townsend by a fisherman. Any other bales either sank or were found but never turned in.

The contraband was found to be "Thai stick," a potent variety of seedless marijuana tied to small pieces of bamboo with silk thread, then pulled off the stalk. Many believed that Thai stick was dipped in opium because of its potency, but laboratory testing disclosed only a high content of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active narcotic ingredient in marijuana. The sticks were stacked into kilo blocks (2.2 pounds) and heat-sealed in heavy plastic. Each bale, including packaging, weighed about 45 pounds. The net weight of the seizure was approximately two tons (4,000 pounds) and, at $3,000 a pound, valued at $12 million. Remarkably, agents recovered 97 bales from what was believed to be a 100-bale shipment.

Indictment and Conviction

On Tuesday, October 30, 1978, the federal grand jury in Seattle indicted the six defendants for conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute two tons of marijuana. U. S. District Court Judge Morell Sharp signed a destruction order for all but one bale plus representative samples for laboratory analysis. The following day, agents incinerated the remainder of the marihuana at the Scott Pulp and Paper Mill in Everett, Washington.

On Friday, April 13, 1979, all six defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle marijuana before U.S. District Court Judge Jack Tanner in Tacoma. The leaders, Dennis Moriarty, who made the advance preparations and kept the books for the operation, and Dante Sassi, who procured the Skipjacks, were sentenced to serve two years in federal prison. The crew, Albert Kollack, Robert Fiorini, Joseph Israel, and John W. Noell were sentenced to one year in federal prison. 

As for the two fugitives, John Nolan was later caught and prosecuted; Michael Bradley was killed in a motorcycle accident in Maryland while attempting to elude police.

Sources: "Barnes Island Drug Raid Brings High-speed Chase," Bellingham Herald, October 23, 1978, p. 1; "Bail Fixed at $25,000 Each in Drug Smuggling," Ibid., October 24, 1978, p. 1; "Money Behind San Juan Islands Drug Smuggling Scheme Mystery," Ibid., October 30, 1978, p. 1; "Judge Sentences Five in San Juan Smuggling," Ibid., April 15, 1979; "Three Arrested in Drug Raid; Bullet-Riddled Boat Escapes," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 23, 1978, p. A-3; Will Lawson, "Six in San Juan Raid Arraigned," Ibid., October 24, 1978, p. D-11; "Marijuana Found in Sound," Ibid., October 26, 1978, p. A-16; "More Marijuana Growing in State," Ibid., October 29, 1978, p. A-1; "Six Pot Smuggling Indictments," Ibid., November 1, 1978, p. A-7; "Drug Raid in San Juans Leads to Six Arrests," The Seattle Times, October 23, 1978, p. A-4; Peter Rinearson, "Suspected Bookkeeper for Smugglers Let Go," Ibid., October 27, 1978, p. A-9; Peyton Whitely, "One Doubt Cracked a Drug Case," Ibid, October 29, 1978, p. A-1; "Six Indicted in Narcotics Case," Ibid., November 1, 1978, p. B-6; "6 Plead Not Guilty of Pot Smuggling," Ibid., November 9, 1978, p. D-9.
Note: This essay was corrected on April 15, 2014.

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