Huge cocaine bust proving hollow victory for authorities
Seattle Times staff reporter
VICTORIA, B.C. — It could have been an unprecedented law-enforcement victory: Last year's seizure by U.S. agents of more than 2½ tons of pure cocaine aboard a Canadian fishing boat off Washington's Cape Alava was the biggest drug bust ever in the Pacific Northwest.
But more than 16 months later, no one has been arrested or charged with a crime in the United States or Canada. The boat's captain — caught carrying more cocaine than is usually seized in all of Canada in a year — is protected from prosecution by the very system he betrayed.
And Canadian drug investigators missed a remarkable opportunity to break up one of the most massive cocaine financing and distribution rings in their country, one authorities say is run by British Columbia-based chapters of the notorious Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
Canadian authorities say the case is still open. But officials on both sides of the border are skeptical that charges ever will be filed against the bikers, financiers or anyone else responsible for the massive shipment.
Their sole comfort: $250 million worth of cocaine is off the streets.
"This case is a travesty," said Rodney Tureaud, special agent in charge of the U.S. Customs Service in Seattle, which handled the seizure. "Some inner-city kid goes to prison for 15 years over a few grams of crack while these jokers have 5,000 pounds of cocaine and are sleeping in their own beds."
U.S. officials and attorneys won't publicly comment because the case belongs to Canada, where the investigation originated. U.S. agents were called in hopes of salvaging the bust as it threatened to unravel. Officials in Canada are mum, citing restrictions about discussing open investigations.
Court records and information obtained from the U.S. Coast Guard through the Freedom of Information Act provide some key details. The rest of the story — a bizarre tale of intrigue and informants, fumbles and frustrations — is pieced together from interviews with more than a dozen individuals in both countries.
Most spoke only in exchange for anonymity, torn between not wanting to further strain U.S. and Canadian law-enforcement relations and the hope that publicity might prevent a repeat of the pileup of blunders.
The sources chronicled a troubled investigation, centered on the captain of the fishing vessel Western Wind, Philip John Stirling, 55, a scroungy fisherman, convicted drug dealer and small-time paid police informant from Victoria.
Stirling says he was a victim, caught in a squeeze between the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Hells Angels. The RCMP says Stirling lied to them, causing the Mounties to lose track of the investigation. Ultimately, frustrated U.S. agents seized the boat and drugs and detained the crew.
But between jurisdictional problems stemming from the unexpected seizure, and legal issues arising after U.S. officials finally learned Stirling had been an informant, American prosecutors abandoned the case and gave the boat's crew to Canada. After a few days, all were released.
"Here we had the most phenomenal case in my history," said a senior U.S. agent who was on the boat after it was boarded. "And you end up just walking away from it. There are days when you just want to beat your head against the wall."
On the night of Feb. 21, 2001, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted and boarded the 88-foot Western Wind several miles off Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the continental U.S. A secret compartment in its bow was crammed with cocaine.
At the time, Canadian officials said that a member of that country's civilian Coast Watch program had reported "suspicious activity" on the vessel two months earlier. Canadians, the story went, had alerted the U.S. Coast Guard as a courtesy, and the boat's seizure was pure chance.
But in fact, the Mounties had known for months that the Western Wind was a smuggling boat, and that its owner and skipper, Stirling, an occasional RCMP informant, was acting as a middle man for Hells Angels chapters in Nanaimo and East End, B.C., and a Colombian drug cartel.
The Mounties have had little success in cracking the Hells Angel, thought to control much of the lucrative "B.C. Bud" marijuana and cocaine trade throughout the country.
Just a month after the bust of the Western Wind, the Canadian Department of Justice boasted of its first convictions in British Columbia of Hells Angels on drug charges; it took 25 officers and a yearlong investigation to nail the two bikers for possession of 6 ounces of cocaine.
Canadian sources say Stirling had been approached by a prison acquaintance who asked him to broker a cocaine deal between the Hells Angels and Colombians. He told Mounties about the deal to get out of criminal charges stemming from his 1999 arrest for possession of 500 pounds of marijuana.
Stirling offered to serve as a RCMP snitch in return for $1 million and witness protection for himself and his family.
But Stirling claims the Mounties initiated the deal — and later reneged. He says they told him his ex-con friend would ask him to broker a deal for the Hells Angels, and they wanted him to go along. In return, they promised to buy his businesses and home in Canada and set him up in Hawaii.
"I was squeezed," Stirling said in a recent interview in front of his impressive cedar and river rock home in a secluded and heavily forested area of British Columbia. "They set it up."
Whoever originated the deal, one was struck. So in late November 2000, Stirling bought the Western Wind for $100,000 — money agents think was provided by the Hells Angels — and began modifications to its bow fuel tanks for smuggling the cocaine.
The bust was planned as a textbook "controlled delivery." Stirling would pilot the vessel to Colombia to pick up the drugs, then return to Victoria to meet the buyers. He would tip authorities to the time and place of the buy.
Investigators then hoped to use the threat of criminal prosecution against the buyers to lead them further up the drug-distribution chain to the financiers, who had put up as much as $40 million to buy drugs worth six or seven times that on the streets.
If things worked, Stirling would not have to testify but could simply disappear with his snitch money.
"There was no downside," said one source. "They (Canadian authorities) get the dope, they get the buyers, they get a line on the distributors and the money men. All for $1 million. It was a bargain."
But as agents proceeded with their investigation, including a series of wiretaps, Stirling's proposed $1 million payout was nixed by then-Inspector Richard Barszczewski, who was in charge of the RCMP's Drug Enforcement Branch in British Columbia.
It's not clear why he scrubbed the plan. "Everybody was absolutely taken aback," said one source.
Barszczewski, now a superintendent in charge of RCMP support services in British Columbia, declined several requests to comment. He referred questions to Carl Busson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Branch.
"There were reasons that decisions were made," said Busson, though he declined to elaborate. "Hindsight is always 20-20."
Not everybody in the RCMP is so circumspect. "There may very well have been opportunities that were missed," said RCMP narcotics Sgt. Mike Dunbar, declining to elaborate.
Telephone messages left with Assistant Superintendent Garry Bass, who heads the RCMP Criminal Division in British Columbia, and Beverly Busson, the RCMP deputy commissioner in Vancouver, were returned by media-relation officers who declined to discuss the case.
Too late to stop
By the time Stirling learned the deal with the Mounties was rejected, he had already negotiated the tricky drug exchange with the Hells Angels and the Colombians. Once in, it was "too late to get out," he said.
"It wasn't like I could just walk away," said Stirling, who said his role was tantamount to being "the FedEx man."
But law-enforcement sources say Stirling never told them he was being pressured to carry out the drug exchange. So a month later, when Stirling said he was taking his new boat tuna fishing, RCMP agents had little choice but to take his word — and warn him against any shenanigans.
About a month after that, in the pitch black of night off the coast of Colombia, three deckhands aboard the Western Wind were ordered below deck by Stirling and his engineer, according to statements made by some members of the crew to investigators and others.
According to those statements, when the men came back up, there was another ship alongside, its crew armed with assault rifles. The Western Wind sailors were told to stow several dozen heavy burlap-wrapped bundles, each marked "Azucar" — sugar.
Stirling, armed with a handgun and shotgun, warned his crew members that they were in this now, like it or not, according to one of the deckhands' statements.
After the drugs were stored, the Western Wind fished its way north, filling the freezer with tuna as a cover, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle by federal prosecutors.
Stirling insists that when he left Canada, he really was going fishing. He followed the coast to San Diego and was about to turn west "toward Tahiti" when he said he received e-mail on the ship's computer — he didn't say from whom — ordering him to continue to Colombia to collect the cocaine.
"They said they'd kill my family," Stirling said.
He admits he picked up the drugs. "But I was going to pull into Victoria harbor and call the RCMP," he said. "I didn't want anything to do with this."
Investigators are skeptical. If Stirling felt threatened, he could have e-mailed for help.
Moreover, Custom's agents seized the boat's onboard computer, according to a search warrant filed in federal court in Seattle. Sources confirmed that no threatening e-mail was found.
In early February 2001, Mounties were stunned to learn that the Western Wind was on its way to Victoria with a load of cocaine. The tip came from the Organized Crime Agency of British Columbia (OCABC), which had been established to battle outlaw bikers and their takeover of the burgeoning "B.C. Bud" trade.
"It caught them (the Mounties) totally by surprise," said the source. "There were a few people ... who were quite embarrassed."
Call to U.S. agencies
The Mounties scrambled to resurrect their original plan. They launched a plane to scout for the Western Wind but feared the boat and its cargo would get to British Columbia — and into the hands of the Hells Angels — before the agents were ready.
Desperate, they asked U.S. Customs and the Coast Guard to intercept the Western Wind to buy them time to regroup.
Ironically, the situation was potentially better for the Mounties, who now had leverage against Stirling. If they caught him with an immense load of dope, they could enlist his help and force him to testify in exchange for witness protection — but no cash.
On Feb. 21, the boat was sighted in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off Cape Alava. Three U.S. Coast Guard cutters closed in. U.S. agents were soon joined by Mounties, including a representative from Canada's Source-Witness Protection Program.
Stirling did not ask the authorities to help him out of his dilemma but, according to the report, lied, saying all he was hauling was fish. It took investigators more than two hours to find the hidden compartments — and the cocaine.
They also found notes in Stirling's quarters outlining how to transmit and receive coded e-mail. Also, "the notes found in the captain's quarters outline the exact location of the 'at-sea' pickup point for the cocaine (and) the exact date for the pickup," wrote senior Customs special agent Donald Bambenek in a search-warrant affidavit.
Authorities on board hatched an impromptu plan: They would have Stirling e-mail the buyers, setting a new meeting place and delaying the exchange by two days. That would give the RCMP time to get in place to make arrests.
According to several sources, Stirling was given a choice: He could become an agent of the RCMP and testify against the drug buyers in exchange for witness protection. Or he'd be arrested.
"It didn't take too much to convince him that this deal was in his best interest," said one source.
The Mounties were now poised to salvage their investigation. But when they called to clear the plan with Inspector Barszczewski, the drug-section chief who had blocked the earlier effort to recruit Stirling, he again withheld his sanction. And without a guarantee of witness protection, Stirling refused to cooperate.
That left the agents little room to maneuver. They could release the boat, then scramble to track it and, with luck, raid it when the buyers came for their drugs.
Or they could seize the drugs but likely lose the buyers and distributors.
Finally, frustrated U.S. agents reluctantly proposed a third option, according to law-enforcement sources on both sides of the border. The Drug Enforcement Agency had the personnel and resources to mount a controlled delivery almost immediately. But the U.S. agents needed Canadian approval to conduct the operation because it would take them across the border.
For the third time, Canadian officials balked. They cited a policy that prohibits foreign law-enforcement officials from entering Canadian territory while armed.
That was a red light for the Americans. "There was no way our guys were going to go up there and face down the Hells Angels without being able to protect themselves," said a U.S. law-enforcement source.
Unwilling to lose the drugs, the Americans seized the Western Wind and its cargo of 5,500 pounds of coke. The crew was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the boat was escorted to Port Angeles.
The drugs were out of circulation. But the unanticipated seizure would pose a number of problems for federal prosecutors in Seattle, who wanted someone to pay for the smuggling attempt. Canada proved another legal obstacle.
RCMP agents wouldn't explain their relationship with Stirling, citing Canada's strict laws on privilege and protection for informants.
"We could not get the Canadians to provide us with the informant file," a source said. "That is information that we would have been obligated to turn over to the defense if we charged him. Without it, we couldn't move forward. It was extremely frustrating."
Conversely, Stirling's statements that he had been threatened after the $1 million deal had fallen through gave him a possible defense: He could claim that he was acting under duress.
"We kept hoping and praying that (the Canadians) would get it together, but they couldn't," the source said.
There were other incidents that baffled the Americans. After the crew was in custody, the RCMP flew Stirling's Canadian attorney, Jennifer McCormick, to Port Angeles to protect his interests — even though they blamed him for a double-cross.
In the end, it strained the cordial relations agents from both countries had enjoyed: When RCMP Sgt. Pat Convey, who was overseeing the investigation, flew to Port Angeles, the Americans let him wait for nearly three hours.
To make matters worse, federal prosecutors couldn't show that any of the drugs were destined for the U.S. The cocaine was on a Canadian-flagged ship, operated by Canadians and en route to Canada.
Rulings out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have held that authorities must prove a connection between the U.S. and the drugs to justify prosecution.
So prosecutors here decided to destroy the drugs, keep the boat and let Canada handle the legal mess. Stirling and his crew were released Feb. 28 — just a week after the bust.
"We just weren't going to be sitting holding their dirty laundry," said one American official who was present at a meeting of U.S. prosecutors and Canadian and American agents.
In a last-ditch salvage effort, Canadian agents reportedly made one last bid for Stirling's cooperation. When he arrived back in Victoria, he was sequestered for several days as agents pressed him to identify others involved in the plot.
He claims he was held for 19 days without a lawyer and moved constantly from one hotel to another. But without the promise of witness protection, he refused to deal with the Mounties, and finally was let go.
Even so, Stirling's status as a one-time informant affords him the full protection of the Canadian legal system; the government won't do anything that will officially identify him as a snitch.
In the U.S., informants must do as they're told or they can lose their status and protection. But in Canada, once the protection is offered, it is never withdrawn.
Safe from legal prosecution, Stirling now says his life will be at risk if his cover as an informant is revealed. Yet he essentially admitted that role in documents filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma when his company, Western Wind Fisheries, fought to block the U.S. forfeiture claim on the boat.
Never mind that the Western Wind was caught hauling 2-1/2 tons of cocaine. In court documents, Stirling asserted that "the vessel is not subject to forfeiture because claimant was acting at the behest of the government of Canada in furtherance of legitimate law enforcement goals."
Late last month, Stirling dropped his fight to reclaim the Western Wind. Stirling's Seattle lawyer, Rick Troberman, said his client didn't want to invite the danger that might come with publicity.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706, or firstname.lastname@example.org.