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From the Archives: 9 Tons of Pot (1974)

By Rod De Remer

Most newspaper readers will recall the spectacular sinking of an eight-ton barge carrying nine tonnes of pot last year. The first of several setbacks suffered by major dealers.

What happened to those poor people who had their boats loaded up with Jamaican, and whose heads were filled with green dreams of wealth?

They were brought before the same courtroom that had acquitted the Gainesville Eight a few weeks prior, just a few weeks after they appeared in it.

The Gainesville 8 were Vietnam Veterans Against The War and were indicted by the Federal Government with conspiracy to perpetrate violence at the Republican Convention.

This trial was markedly different from the one of Gainesville Eight. The defendants received little sympathy and very little publicity.

The “Steinhatchee Seven” were just pot smugglers.

Perhaps four to five years ago, people were able to rally around the pot as a political unifying force. The nine tons of pot that the Steinatchee Seven are accused of trying import would be a powerful 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. This is a lucrative, high-risk business. No, there weren’t many who rallied to the cause and shouted, “Free the Steinhatchee Seven.”

The Steinhatchee Seven consist of Barry Korn, 23; David Strongosky is 23, Michael J. Knight is 23, Richard Ericus 22 and Steven Lab 20, both from St. Petersburg. Floyd Capo, forty, hails from Cross City. James Maslanka comes from Gainesville at 24.

The defendants were found guilty of trying to take nine-and a-half tonnes of Jamaican bush from Jamaica up to the Rocky Creek, a small waterway in West Florida. They then tried to get it on a Capo barge. No one has ever been convicted for selling illegal drugs wholesale. There was no siree. The prosecution often quoted the number as four-and one-half million American dollars. That would be enough to get that barge-load through your garage, warehouse, or anywhere else that you can fit that much bush. The breakdown costs around $245 per pound. There must be some government-subsidized farm program. (The Independent Florida Alligator was not satisfied with this exaggerated number. The student newspaper from the University of Florida, the Independent Florida Alligator used $9-million figures allegedly obtained from Steinhatchee officials in the narcotics industry.

The Gainesville Eight’s inability to defend their cause wasn’t the only difference between them 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. Percy Foreman who was well-known for his defense of James Earl Ray, Candy Mossier, and Candy Mossier, provided the Seven with the most they could manage.

Foreman was a powerful figure for the courtroom observers, and to some degree, participants. But one participant wasn’t impressed. Although US District Judge David L. Middlebrooks was never described as a hanging judge but he isn’t someone anyone would choose to give judgment upon an eternal soul if there were a ban on drug use in order for them to ascend heavenward with the key to the golden gate. Judge Middlebrooks doesn’t look favorably on those who use, sell or think about drugs.

Mid-trial, Foreman and Middlebrooks clashed when Foreman tried to explain how it works in many federal courts where he had practiced. 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 did not suffice. 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. These people are mostly mobile home and fisherman. When they rode around on March 4, six young men with hair long and headbands, among other oddities, stood out. They were noticed by everyone who passed them.

Floyd Capo was sitting in courtroom facing jury, just behind the defense tables. He sat there with the others, but didn’t really fit in. Capo is forty years old and is slightly overweight. He wore no tie, unlike his co-defendants, and once, giving in to an instinct few people have when they are placed in formal settings, removed his shoe to give his big toe some rubbing.

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. On March 4, two fishermen were out at the Gulf when they heard Capo’s boat running from the offshore into the Creek. It was running from around 1 AM to dawn. The barge was the highlight. The campsite was located on the southern shore of Rocky Creek Landing and had more croker sacks with the grassy substance found in the scales. It looked like Southern Moss.

What a time those small county sheriff’s had posing in front of all that marijuana. Each week, every local newspaper carried negative Polaroids featuring the heroes of the community under huge headlines. The defense only claimed that seven of the defendants had been unlawfully detained. This is still the basis of their appeal and John Carroll’s testimony. 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 was the TV actor that portrayed Zorro and he said he was willing to star in movies with two of the defendants.

It is possible that he may need to wait. He may have to wait. This is because the jury found each of them guilty of all four counts in the Steinhatchee Seven case.

Each count carries a maximum five-year sentence. Middlebrooks however, in an act of magnanimity and leniency, stated that no one would be sent to prison for more than 15 years. Each received 20 years.

If things seem to have become a bit tighter or dry this summer, perhaps you looked at your plants closely and wondered what took so much time to plant them. If that’s the case give a little thought to the Steinhatchee Seven who face a very long, dry stretch.

Chronic News MagazineThe Summer 1974 issue.

You can read the entire issue by clicking here.