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January 28, 2017

An object lesson in what not to do when you find a big bale of cocaine in the ocean

A helpful reader flagged this somewhat amusing though still very serious sentencing tale of a not-so-old man and the sea.   The headline of the article provides the essentials: "Fla. fisherman who hauled in $500,000 worth of cocaine faces life in prison."  And here are some of the particulars:

Cocaine, more so than any other narcotic, is the drug most frequently interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In late 2016, the Coast Guard announced it had seized about $2 billion worth of cocaine during a 10-week operation that began in October. (At 26.5 tons, the weight of the seized stimulant rivaled the bulk of four African bull elephants.) Water is the route of choice for drug runners. Some 95 percent of cocaine smuggling operations, a Coast Guard rear admiral told the BBC in 2015, involves traveling via boat.

In the Gulf Coast, a container vessel or freighter may serve as a mother ship, which offloads the drug to sailboats, go-fast cigarette boats, fishing boats and other smaller boats. “Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention,” wrote journalist Erik Vance at Slate in 2013. “And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.” And if the divers sent after the contraband cannot find it, perhaps someone else will.

In 2016, that someone else was Thomas Zachary Breeding. Breeding, 32, was a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. The fisherman had accumulated a few run-ins with the law, including drug and gun convictions, the Panama City News Herald reported. In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Breeding for giving false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prosecutors also alleged he obstructed the agency’s investigation into why the fisherman had entered grouper spawning grounds, closed to fishing; Breeding, they argued, deliberately sought to catch a valuable species of fish called gag grouper. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

But, until Breeding found the 45-pound cocaine bale, the fisherman said that he had kept a previously clean slate when it came to the narcotics trade. “I do not know where the drugs came from and haven’t ever been involved in the drug trade before. I was just a hard-working, young commercial fisherman,” Breeding wrote recently in a letter to the News Herald, penned from Florida’s Washington County Jail. “I was working as a long line boat captain out of Panama City when I found a package containing 20 kilos of cocaine.”

It was a what-if scenario of the type that fuels Florida crime potboilers: A fisherman finds a package of drugs valued at a huge street sum, and makes a decision. In Breeding’s case, he was 50 miles south of Panama City when he found between $500,000 and $650,000 of cocaine floating in the gulf. As impressive as the sum was, in the annals of washed-ashore cocaine — white lobster, as villagers along the Central American coast euphemize it — its street value was not a record. In 2013, five fishermen found $2.5 million of cocaine in the waters off north Florida. A metal tube filled with an estimated $5 million worth of cocaine washed up in Ireland last summer.

But it was an object lesson in what not to do. In December, Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a celebrity Miami fisherman, found a kilogram brick of cocaine. He promptly alerted the authorities. Breeding did not. He instead handed over the 45-pound haul to four other people, on the condition they would sell the cocaine and pay a cut to Breeding. All five were caught in the summer — Breeding, a felon, had a firearm in his car when he was arrested — and faced conspiracy charges for the distribution of a controlled substance. Breeding pleaded guilty Wednesday, the News Herald reported, as did the other members of the network; they are awaiting a Feb. 16 sentencing. Breeding may be punished with up to life imprisonment and a fine in the millions of dollars.

January 28, 2017 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Comments

I notice the lead says he had prior drug convictions yet he claims not to have been involved with narcotics prior to this. I'm really not sure that he should be believed in regard to the story of fishing it out of the ocean with no link to the supplier. OTOH, they probably offered him a deal if he could/would lead them to any such supplier (but if there were a known supplier he might well be more afraid of them then the feds).

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jan 28, 2017 6:13:06 PM

He said he had not been involved in the drug trade prior, not that he hadn't been involved with drugs.

Posted by: Erik M | Jan 29, 2017 12:42:05 PM

Only here -- where trials are rare, prosecutors pick charges/coerce plea deals and legislators grandstand for votes by mandating cruel sentences -- does a small-time loser face life in prison for lying to federal rentacops, fishing in the wrong waters, possesing a gun and trying to fence some contraband he found floating in the sea. Things were never this far gone when judges actually played an active role in the system.

Posted by: JohnK | Feb 7, 2017 2:25:40 PM

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