Cocaine Cowboys, a standing room only event that provided film excerpts and commentary from the director and producer, Billy Corben, of the documentary of the same name as well as others with perspectives on Miami’s drug underworld, occurred on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami. As a former prosecutor in the 1980′s, a life member of the National Association of Criminal Defense (NACDL) (http://www.nacdl.org) and a member of the first class of life members of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (FACDL) (http://www.facdl.org), I was invited by representatives of the Florida International University (FIU) College of Law (http://www.law.fiu.edu) to attend. Here are some observations:
Billy Corben: Producer and Director
Billy Corben is the quintessential South Florida film maker. He has directed and produced Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys II, The U (ESPN Films’ “30 for 30″ feature on the rise of the University of Miami football program) and Raw Deal: Question of Consent (film about allegations of sexual battery by members of a University of Florida fraternity and the decision by then State Attorney Rod Smith to forego prosecuting the accused) (http://www.rakontur.com) Mr. Corben, obviously enjoying the enthusiastic overflow crowd, interspersed tough questions to panelists between clips from Cocaine Cowboys.
The Iconic Mickey Munday
Before taking his place at the head table, Mickey Munday, was a popular subject of pictures with attendees. With long blonde hair and attired in all black, including a t-shirt from his company that featured yen, euros and dollar signs and a black cowboy hat, Mr. Munday was polite and generous with his time. He enjoyed engaging in repartee with his fans. Mr. Corben directed a number of questions to Mr. Munday, who gave thoughtful responses. Mr. Munday said that he has never used illegal drugs, that he entered the drug trade simply to make money and lots of it. He was a pilot and during the heyday of drug trafficking in the ’70′s and ’80′s transported hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cocaine from Columbia to Miami.
He kept a low profile while compiling $24 million in real estate and housing from the profits from the drug trade. The real estate and housing was purchased throughout Florida with cash. Mr. Munday eschewed fancy cars and flashy clothing, knowing that if he looked and acted like a drug trafficker he would be an easy target for law enforcement. This was in sharp contrast to Jon Roberts, a drug trafficker known for his extravagant lifestyle (http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2005-10-13/news/confessions-of-a-trafficker/full).
Somehow, he navigated the treacherous drug trade for years without detection. He eventually was arrested and spent time in prison. He says that he has the utmost respect for police officers, anyone who wears a badge, carries a gun and wears body armor has earned his respect.
Mr. Munday works for a t-shirt company and makes public appearances based upon the popularity he has achieved from his appearance in Cocaine Cowboys.
Formidable Prosecutor Abe Laeser
Seated directly to the left of Mr. Munday was longtime prosecutor Abe Laeser who retired last year after serving 36 years in the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Laeser before the program began, having known him for many years beginning in 1985 when I was sworn in as a prosecutor in the Brevard-Seminole State Attorney’s Office in the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida. During this time frame, I also had the opportunity to meet with Janet Reno in her office when she was State Attorney before eventually becoming Attorney General of the United States under President Bill Clinton. The drug trade was not confined to South Florida. As a prosecutor, I prosecuted many a drug trafficking case. And, after serving for years as a prosecutor, I have defended many as a private attorney.
Mr. Laeser is a superb trial lawyer having prosecuted numerous high profile cases over the years. He is credited with sending more men to Death Row than any other Florida prosecutor. Prominent Miami attorney George Yoss says, “If I was a victim on a case, I’d want Abe to handle it.”
Recalling the height of the drug trade war in which murders unfortunately became commonplace, Mr. Laeser remarked that at least the bad guys were frequently killing each other. Mr. Laeser also commented that the rioting in the controversial McDuffie case led him to take a different approach in the prosecution of law enforcement officers in the Neville Johnson, Jr., case. Although the law enforcement officers were acquitted in the Neville Johnson, Jr., case, there was only nominal violence and vandalism afterwards.
Mr. Laeser attributes this to the outreach by prosecutors to all community groups, including African-Americans and Hispanics, to keep everyone informed during the process. He was approached by a zealous critic of his office after the acquittal and was told that he had done an excellent job in his prosecution of the case.
Surprise Audience Member–Best Selling Author Edna Buchanan
Edna Buchanan, the best selling author of books such as The Corpse Had a Familiar Face and Legally Dead: A novel , and award winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald, was recognized in the audience by Mr. Corben. She stated her belief that each murder victim in the ’70′s and ’80′s deserved to have an article about his or her death in the newspaper of record–the Miami Herald. However, Ms. Buchanan said that the policy of the Miami Herald was to run a lead story about the murder or murders of the day and that it was a constant battle to get her editors to allow her to write something, however modest, about each victim. She believed that the editors were too restrictive so she constantly lobbied for more space. Eventually, her editors asked her to pick which murder of the day should be featured. Ms. Buchanan found this to be frustrating to say the least especially when there were multiple murders vying for space on more days than she cares to remember.
Robert Platshorn and Longest Cannabis Sentence in United States History
The man who says he served the longest sentence–nearly 30 years–in United States history for a cannabis conviction, delivered a spirited argument in favor of legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis offenses. Robert Platshorn is actively working with National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and other organizations to achieve this goal. He is featured in Square Grouper (http://miamiandthebeaches.com/b/square-grouper-shoot-robert-platshorn) and author of Black Tuna Diaries, the story of the Black Tuna Gang (http://www.blacktunadiaries.com). Mr. Platshorn received a warm reception from the audience, his comments occasionally interrupted by applause. He emphasized that he was from the “hippie” years, had no record before he was convicted and never engaged in violence. Mr. Platshorn also says that he imported the hard to get Santa Marta Gold cannabis ( http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,912309,00.html) that has been found to be helpful in battling cancer and other deadly diseases.
Veteran Criminal Defense Attorney Louis Casuso
Louis Casuso, who worked as a prosecutor under Mr. Laeser before entering private practice, represented many individuals charged with murder and drug trafficking. He said that money flowed like water. He told of a potential client who was accused of repeatedly stabbing a man involved in the drug trade at the Miami International Airport and came to him for legal representation. Mr. Casuso told this potential client that he could not represent him since he represented the stabbing victim unless the stabbing victim waived a conflict of interest. The stabbing victim did indeed waive the conflict of interest and Mr. Casuso represented the accused until he eventually had to withdraw. Mr. Casuso continued to represent the stabbing victim in his other case.
Nelson Andreu and Barry Mankes–Intelligence and Counterintelligence
Former Miami Police Department Homicide Detective Nelson Andreu and former undercover agent Barry Mankes shared experiences that they had in the drug trade wars. These gentlemen talked about how far law enforcement was behind drug traffickers and hit men in the ’70′s and ’80′s. Scofflaws used readily available police scanners to follow the movements of law enforcement officer. They had the latest automatic weapons and armored vehicles. When law enforcement officers would convince local car dealers to loan them complimentary flashy cars to make controlled buys, the drug traffickers would pay the car dealers to tell them what the car looked like, a description of whom would be driving the car and when the car would be returned. Law enforcement officers could only thank the car dealers and leave a 12-pack of beer in the trunk as a token of their appreciation. Meanwhile, drug traffickers were buying brand new exotic cars, real estate, houses, Rolex watches (Miami frequently ran out of these), designer clothing–always paying in cash. The Federal Reserve branch in Miami was so busy during this time frame, that it took in more cash than all the other Federal Reserve branches in the United States combined. Mr. Mankes said that when he first went undercover, he had to rely entirely on his wits since he did not wear a wire, did not have back-up and did not have readily available cash. The hit men and drug traffickers whom they helped put away are getting out of prison now. Both of these men talked about being approached by such recently released hit men on the streets of South Florida. As Mr. Mankes put it, one hit man he encountered was upset, Mr. Mankes was not, the hit man was unarmed, Mr. Mankes was armed. And, so it went.
Cocaine Cowboys was a part of the “Crime in Miami: To Miss It Would Be a Crime” exhibit of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida which runs until August 29, 2010 (http://www.hmsf.org). Is Cocaine Cowboys, the documentary, a trip down memory lane, a history lesson or a glorification of crime and greed? Watch it and see how you answer.