Nothing ever happens on Big Pine Key and we usually like it that way. The only things of note to ever happen here was the Spanish landing in the 1600s, the burning down of the Big Pine Inn in the 1970 and the Big Pine 29 Bust in 1980. There might have been something else, but it escapes me. ~Editor
A very special thanks to Major Monty Seals who ran the operation. At the initial approach to the house there were 2 Customs agents, Seals and another, the other 3 were Sheriff’s deputies one of whom was Mike Barber. They captured 29 smugglers, and only missed two who swam away. 29 out of 31 is a pretty good score for only 5 men against 32 armed smugglers!
This page is compiled mostly from Major Seals’ scrap book that he was gracious enough to share with us.
Merchants and Refugees Among the 30 Arrested
From the Miami Herald November 14, 1980
By Michael Capuzzo and Robert Rivas Herald Staff Writers
Law enforcement officers raided a Keys smuggling operation Saturday and busted an assortment of Key West’s establishment: the head of the Sears men’s department, a Chevrolet dealer, w Pepsi Cola truck driver and a county commissioner’s uncle.
There also were grandfathers, a plumber, a power company engineer, a crewman from the first vessel to arrive in Key West in the Cuban boatlift last March, and the brother he brought back from Cuba.
In all, 30 people were charged in U.S. District Court with drug trafficking. Authorities said it the most defendants in a single Keys bust and among the most ever in any Florida bust.
Fifteen agents from three agencies seized 25,000 pounds of marijuana in the pre-dawn bust on Big Pine Key. “Everyone’s a good friend or family of a number of people.” Sheriff William A. Freeman said of the suspects, who were greeted by about 40 red-eyed relatives at the Monroe County jail as they were booked.
“It’s like a big family reunion with five or six families,” said another officer, gazing at the crowd of kin that included two defendants in this year’s celebrated Key West Cop Case.
Agents of the Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Customs Service and the Florida Marine Patrol culminated a month-long investigation at 4 a.m., seizing three boats, three trucks and a gold Cadillac.
Among the arrested:
Domingo F. Galvan, 44, a registered nurse at Key West’s
tiny DePoo Memorial Hospital. On March 21. Galvan
returned from Cuba aboard the Blanchie III and was the
first Cuban-American to announce that Cuba had opened
the harbor to the Freedom Flotilla. He said then that he
had gone to get his brother Sergio, 40.
Sergio Galvan was arrested Saturday, too.
Nelson (Ping-Ping) Jamarado, 41, the wiry, bearded
former boat mechanic who early this year bought a share
of Bevis-Lewis Chevrolet Inc. of Key West. The owner of
a shrimp boat that was seized off Texas last year with
33 tons of marijuana aboard. Jamarado 50, the owner of
David Electric Inc., an electrical contractor that
frequently wins large contracts with Monroe County and
the city of Key West. He’s the uncle of County
Commissioner Jerry Hernandez and the brother of former
Key West police Chief Eugene Hernandez:
Manuel Sanchez, 57, manager of the men’s department at
Key West’s Sears Roebuck & Co. store in Searstown Plaza
on North Roosevelt Boulevard, and his brother Antonio,
54, a jewelry salesman.
Richard Allen Shank, 31, who drives a Pepsi Cola
delivery truck in Key West.
Francisco Hernandez, 58, an engineer for the Key West
City Electric System and a former civilian fire fighter
at the Key West Naval Air Station.
The investigation started a month ago. Based on
anonymous tips, Customs, Sheriff’s Department and Marine
Patrol aircraft began watching the Big Pine Key area,
Friday night, it became clear they were about to hit pay
dirt, and officers added men to their stakeout in a
posh neighborhood along a mangrove swamp just north of
The site is an isolated lagoon on Florida Bay.
On foot and in boats, law officers surprised the
smugglers, shutting off their escape by land and sea.
The 30 suspects surrendered peacefully. “We didn’t fire
a single shot,” a Customs agent said. “It was a routine
Authorities confiscated 500 50-pound bales of pot, a
40-foot Marathon-based lobster boat, the Miss Lucy, two
trucks, a 1980 Ford van, a Chevy pickup with a camper, a
1979 gold Cadillac and two 24- foot T-craft, boats
designed for back-country fishing that are popular with
smugglers because they can haul huge loads over shallow
water at high speed.
They also took at least a half dozen guns, including
several satin steel, pearl-handled handguns, and a
replica of a Colt .45.
Freeman said he was eager to gain title to the smuggling
vehicles for his department. However, he dreaded the
prospect of storing the marijuana.
The sheriff’s department already has more than 1,100
bales of pot stored in 16 vehicles under armed guards
just outside Freeman’s office window. Officials say they
haven’t been able to destroy it because of a paperwork
Because the defendants were charged in federal court
instead Circuit Court, Customs took the marijuana to
Miami – saving the sheriff’s department the burden of
storing it. The 30 persons arrested were booked at the
Monroe County Jail and questioned before being sent to a
U.S. magistrate for bond hearings Saturday night.
They were charged with trafficking in marijuana,
possession of over 2,000 pounds of marijuana and
conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance. Other
charges, such as possession of a concealed weapon by
several defendants, were pending.
Those arrested are:
Geiger Key Resident:
Jamardo, 10 Egret Lane
Key West Residents:
Francisco Hernandez, 3000 Flagler Ave.
Antonio Hernandez, 1803 Atlantic Blvd.
Sergio Galvan, 373E Paula St.
Domingo Galvan, 1612 United St.
Richard Allen Shank, 3533 Flagler Ave.
Manuel Sanchez, 1122 Watson St.
Antonio Sanchez, 1803 Atlantic Blvd.
Plumber Fermin Tapia, 41, of 1701 Jamaica Dr.
Vicente Jose Martinez, 36, 3817 Northside Ct.
Fisherman Enrique Blasco, 19, 1504 Laird St.
Two Friends Fish Co. fishermen Jose Monzon Garcia, 44, Key West Villas No. 29
Stock Island Residents:
Fisherman Paco Novalas, 23, 221 Stock Island Apartments
Construction worker Ralph Jesus Valdez, 37, 5 Sunshine St.
Richard Lee Mungin, 37, No. 4 Sloan’s Trailer Park
Juan Manuel Venegas, 29, 837 Eighth Ave.
Fisherman Michael Patrick O’Brien, 22, 216 Lincoln Gardens.
Big Pine Key Residents:
Fisherman Mitchell Earl Noatch, 22, Box 790
Edward Ronan, 57, Tarpon Lodge
Rafael Francisco Lopez, 42, P.O. Box 713
Fisherman Greg Collazo, 25, Gulf Crain Hamit
Fisherman Bernardo Lewis Valiente, 25, 300 East 63rd St.
Dade County residents arrested were:
Orlando Vidal Maldonado, 42, 1265 W. Fourth Lane
Nestor Fernandez, 30, 4572 SW 127th Ct.
Coral Fish Market owner Raul Hernandez, 44, 3811 SW 88th Place
Rolando Aguiar, 30, 4132 SW 102nd Court
Catalino Rioseco Chambrot, 35, 10351 SW 56th St.
Angel Cruz, 29, 2421 SW 129th Ave.
Fisherman Carmelo Fernandez, 28, 5472 SW 127th Ct.
The only person who listed at out-of-state address was Norman Lee Young, 30, 110 Gum Tree Rd., Hilton Head, S.C.
Big Pine 29 Bust
From the Key West Citizen November 14,1980
By Sheila Quickstad Citizen Staff Writer
The long process known as “coking” in police language continued into the evening hours Saturday at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department 30 men rounded up during a pre-dawn marijuana bust were being questioned by officials. Among those arrested at a marijuana off-loading site on Big Pine Key were several familiar Key West names including Nelson Jamardo, better known as “Ping Ping”; Francisco Hernandez, 58, a former fireman for the Navy and now a watch engineer at the City Electric System; Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, 50, owner of David Electric; Manuel Sanchez, 57, salesman at Sears; and Domingo Galvan, 44, a registered nurse employed at DePoo Memorial Doctor’s Hospital.
And as frantic efforts were being made to reach U.S. Magistrate Jack Saunders to arrange a bond hearing, Sheriff William A. Freeman Jr. fretted, “Where the hell am going to put them?” Freeman’s already over-crowded jail became even more cramped when inmates destroyed Cell Block 2 during a disturbance Wednesday night. “The Holiday Inn doesn’t check as many people in and out a day as I do.” the sheriff mused as he, members of the press and Public Information Officer Sgt. Bert Thompson waited for a list of the names of those arrested and the charges to be filed. The men were in the process of bonding out late Saturday. During the wait, the lobby at the department filled with relatives, friends of the arrested men and interested on-lookers.
A reporter for the Miami Herald, who wanted to take pictures of the arrested men, was threatened by the lobby crowd who warned him that neither he nor the camera would make it out of the building unharmed if he took photos. He didn’t.
Thompson said the 4 a.m. drug bust culminated a four week investigation involving members of the Marathon sheriff’s sub-station, U.S. Customs and the Marine Patrol.
As lawmen gathered near the off-loading site on the bayside of Big Pine Key, a Customs agent was approached by one of the alleged offenders. “Who’s there,” the agent was asked in Spanish. “Harry,” he replied. “Harry, what you doing here?” the other man queried. “Same as you, waiting,” the agent responded. At that point the two came face to face and the alleged smuggler, cried, “Al, mi madre, the police.”
The “drugnet,” in addition to the arrests, resulted in the confiscation of approximately 500 bales of marijuana; two T-Craft boats; a 40-foot Lobster boat, Miss Lucy out of Marathon; two closed body trucks, a 1980 van, a pickup truck and a 1979 Cadillac. Several weapons were also found at the scene. The estimated value of the marijuana was listed at $2 million. One of the bales had apparently broken open, one officer said, and had been patched with a Colombian newspaper.
The confiscated vehicles are expected to be valued in the thousands of dollars. They will be turned over to the sheriff for disposal, either by sale or for use in his department.
The lobster boat reportedly was outfitted with sophisticated radar equipment and, as an official described, “the biggest engine I’ve ever seen.” One of the vehicles was said to have a built-in police scanner.
The two closed body trucks, both painted white, were former Sears vehicles, authorities said. The back door of one was still painted in the company’s turquoise color with the word “Sears” still visible.
In addition to charges of possession of more than 2,000 pounds of marijuana trafficking and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, which were filed against all 30 defendants, charges of carrying concealed weapons were still pending against several of the men.
An official confided that at least a half dozen hand guns were taken from the suspects. The guns ranged from .45 caliber automatics to .25 calibre automatics. “These weren’t Saturday night specials,” the deputy, said. “They were expensive guns.” At Least two, he said, had satin steel finish with pearl handles. Another was a miniature (three inches long) replica of the old Colt 45. Several larger weapons were found in the car and in the area.
Other than those listed previously, also arrested were:
Vincente Jose Martinez, 36, 3817 Northside Ct.; Antonio
Sanchez, 54, 1803 Atlantic Blvd.; Paco Novalas, 23, 221
Stock Island Apts.; Ralph Jesus Valdez, 37, No. 5
Sunshine St., Stock Island; Orlando Vidal Maldonado,
42, Miami; Norman Lee Young, 30, Hilton Head, S.C.;
Sergio Edward Galvan, 40, 3738 Paula Ave.; Richard Allen
Shank, 31, 3533 Flagler Ave., route man for Pepsi Cola
Miami; Mitchell Earl Noa, 22, Big Pine Key; Carmen
Fernandez, 28, Miami, listed employer as Two Friends
Inc, Co.; Enrique Blasco, 19, Laird St.; Raul Hernandez
Miami, listed as owner Coral Fish Co., Miami; Edward
Ronan, 57, Tarpon Lodge, Marathon; Rafael Francisco
Lopez, Marathon; Rolando Aguiar 30, Miami; Bernardo L
Valiente, 25, Marathon, Michael Patrick O’Brien, 216
Lincoln Gardens, Stock Island; Fermin Tapia, 41, Jamaica
Dr. (city directory lists same address on P. Avenue as
given to authorities by Sergio Galvan); G. Collazo, 25,
Marathon; Jose Morzon Garcia, 44, 29, Key West Villas,
listed employer as Two Friends Inc, Co.; Catalino Rios
Chambrot, 35, Miami; Richard Lee Mungin, 37, Sloan
Trailer Park, Stock Island; Angel Cruz, 27, Miami; Juano
Manuel Venegas, A37 8th Ave., Stock Island. The
addresses for those named earlier are Jamardo, Geiger
Key; F. Remand 3000 Flagler Ave.; A. Hernandez, 1603
Atlantic Blvd; Sanchez, 1122 Watson St; D. Galvan, 1612
United St. The presence of the Sooth Carolina man led
officials to speculate that that was the destination of
the contraband. A detour to the Customs incinerators in
Miami is probable.
Big Pine 29 Marijuana Bust
~By Captain Conch
The unloaders of the pot were young Cuban men and were caught milling around Long Beach Road where there are no Cubans normally seen. They were too many of them and they were too obvious. Because of that the cops got a tip off that there was an pot unloading operation going on.
The 29’s lawyer knew about the smuggle. I was with him at breakfast that morning when he had to leave Mister Jim’s Restaurant when he heard about the bust on US1 Radio while it was playing in the background. I never heard about any girlfriend of the lawyer’s disappearing as another other rumor that is floating thirty years later claims. I was with him almost every day during that time and knew the full cast of characters. There were kidnappings among that crowd, but that is another story and has nothing to do with this one. I was with five of the 29 the night before in the lawyer’s Eden Pines home (the lawyer wasn’t there) snorting coke, smoking pot and drinking booze and trying to get out of there with my ass in one piece. That evil gun-toting bunch of psychopaths scared the hell out of me. I hoped I could talk my way out of there. One asshole in particular kept spinning the cylinder of his shiny .45 Colt revolver and making up things to accuse me of. I was just a hanger-on, not a player. The tension and violence in the air was awful for a hippy like me. That was one of the scariest nights I ever had.
Square Grouper is not an un-hip fish. There was the time in the 1970s when “square grouper” was code for a bale of marijuana that was thrown overboard when the water cops showed up. As the Marine Patrol or Customs would be speeding to intercept a pot boat the people on the pot boat would throw the bales off as fast as they could, trying to get rid of the evidence. These “square grouper” were picked up by “cowboys” in fast boats who listened to the marine radio day and night for word when there was a dumping. The most famous of these were the Big Coppitt cowboys, a lose group of guys with fast boats and police scanners. The cowboys would jump into their go-fast boats that were kept docked at the seawall next to their house, and zoom out to where the floating bales were. The Big Coppitt cowboys were the most successful. In those days the cowboys had faster boats and knew the waters better than the Marine Patrol (except for Officer Mark Walker, the best Marine Patrol Officer anyone has ever seen) so most times they could outrun the law. The law caught on fast and the days of the cowboys didn’t last much longer. The pot that came from a square grouper was called “sea weed”. This is a very small list of vessels confiscated by Major Seals’ Agents in just one or two years during the heyday of Keys’ pot smuggling.
Some of the many boats confiscated during the smuggling days and their captured loads are shown below.
Danielle 2.5 Tons Pot
Amalaka 17.5 Tons
Bounty 34.5 Tons
Go fast boat
Little Bugger 34.5 Tons
7 Tons with guns
25 Tons in shed
Accounting of pot seized in 1983
Officers Mark Walker and
Santeria Altar in
|Candy G 9/2/80||Rescue 21 Tons 10/16/80||Mayra 4.65 Tons