The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 14.
The Rest of the Story
According to a long and detailed 2005 article, the 15,000-pound Pinder Ring marijuana load had been smuggled from Santa Marta, Colombia to Walker’s Cay, Bahamas via sailboat in March 1985 by Michael Ray Roberts. Roberts reportedly conspired with Claude Pinder on Singer Island in April 1985 to smuggle the narcotics into Florida. Twenty-five different boat captains reportedly met Roberts in international waters between West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce and successfully smuggled the marijuana shipments into Florida over a three-month period. When Roberts was later arrested in 1988, he cooperated with the federal government and testified against Pinder and many others. Due to his cooperation, Roberts received the surprisingly light sentence of three years of probation rather than the possible 30 years that he was facing at the time due to his previous criminal history.
Many years later in June 2005, Roberts purchased a 48-foot sailboat and sailed to Port Antonio, Jamaica. While in port in Jamaica, he was approached to smuggle marijuana into West Palm Beach. He agreed to smuggle a 75-pound load and was paid $26,000 upon delivery in Florida. Roberts returned to Jamaica to obtain another load of 400 pounds in August from the same source of supply for a promised payment of $80,000. On the return trip, Roberts’s 48-foot ketch was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) nine miles off of West Palm Beach during a routine boarding. The concealed drugs were not located during the boarding and the USCG departed from Robert’s sailboat. Minutes later, Robert’s name was located in a database query as a previous drug smuggler and the USCG returned to board his sailboat again. USCG escorted Roberts and his sailboat to the port of entry at Riviera Beach for a full inspection, during which the marijuana was located concealed in the cabin walls and hull. He was arrested again for smuggling.
Roberts was turned over to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in West Palm Beach for investigation and possible delivery of the drugs to the owner in the United States. During the controlled delivery at a hotel parking lot, a suspect was shot and killed by a local task force agent assigned to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office (PBSO), who was supporting HSI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The task force officer was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting in early 2006. With the one suspect dead, the investigation did not result in the arrest of anyone higher than the low-level driver. Roberts, a higher level player, would once again receive credit for his cooperation.
Roberts’ criminal history started before the massive Pinder Ring investigation and the maritime marijuana smuggling from Jamaica. After a 10-month PBSO investigation, Roberts was arrested in 1976 with approximately 300 pounds of marijuana that he and another were transporting in a van for delivery. Roberts was convicted in 1977 for the possession of marijuana and sentenced to two years in state prison.
Roberts was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1987 in West Palm Beach for federal charges out of North Carolina. There were two different active federal cases in North Carolina – one for a convicted felon possessing 11 firearms in 1986 and one for cocaine trafficking in 1986. Roberts was also being questioned by the FBI regarding a previous south Florida issue. According to Pinder Ring member and convicted drug smuggler Phillip Carter (Philip Ross Carter from the 1985 New Jersey arrest with Richard Barker), he and Roberts were allegedly involved in loading 1,000 pounds of marijuana onto a PBSO marked police patrol boat in 1981. The marijuana was an alleged payment to the deputies for their services to the smugglers. Carter was not able to identify the alleged two deputies on board the police motor vessel at the time. Two deputies were later identified by a private investigator and in media reporting. The allegations were never substantiated.
The End of an Era
Many other suspects, who were linked or associated with the Barker Family through investigations, telephone toll analysis, or other methods, were arrested for narcotic smuggling and distribution. Even more new subjects were alleged to be involved in criminal activities filling the drug and alien smuggling void left by the Barker Family. The mop-up work targeting the Barker Family associates did leave a mark, especially in the Fort Pierce area.
However, with the death of Cecil Barker in 1995 and life sentence for Richard Barker in 1999, the Barker Family appeared to become less of a fixture in the south Florida smuggling environment. Ronald Barker’s name reportedly continued to pop up in investigations, but not to the extent as before with any known arrests.
The Barker Family entered the smuggling world at a pivotal time. Richard Barker’s apparent coordination and logistics role in Colombia in the mid-1970s coincided with the development and rise of the early drug cartels. He may have operated in the same universe as the much more famous drug smugglers Barry Seal and George Jung and Colombian sources of supply such as Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, and Jose Luis Ochio. They were all emerging at that time by smuggling drugs from small Colombian airstrips.
The popular drug smuggling movies Blow and American Made provide an idea of the criminal circles that the Barker Family and their air smuggling associates were operating inside Colombia and across the United States. The Barker Family was involved in some impressive air shipments of marijuana to the United States. Even with all of their activities, they still flew mostly under the radar for many years.
Barker Jail House Interview
Through prison interviews, Richard Barker provided his perspective on his colorful life and smuggling career. In a newspaper article in 2003, Richard Barker admitted that he dabbled in the smuggling business most of his adult life. Barker explained that his first smuggling trip was to Jamaica for a half pound of marijuana when he ran out of pot in college in the early 1970s. He stated that this smuggling business became more sophisticated and profitable over time. Barker claimed that drug smuggling became a multimillion-dollar business with $200,000 long-range boats.
Barker stated in the interview that he served 10 months in federal prison in Atlanta in 1985 for conspiracy to import marijuana and a couple years in prison in Costa Rica. The Federal Bureau of Prisons online record system documented his release as March 17, 1983. His extended Costa Rican stay appeared to confirm his absence from prosecution during the 1978 air smuggling load of 12,000 pounds of marijuana. The details of his Costa Rican arrest and incarceration were unknown to south Florida law enforcement for many years.
Barker told the reporter that after making great profits, he retired from drug smuggling to spend more time fishing. He said that he squandered his fortune away and returned to smuggling on a smaller scale. While in the Bahamas, he was approached to smuggle humans. Barker spun the transition to alien smuggling as first a favor then a response to the negative reaction of Bahamians to the large Haitian influx.
Barker stated that he was more comfortable smuggling bales rather than people. But after the word got out, he was approached by many Haitian nationals for the trip. He realized that the aliens would pay $1,000 each and they could be dropped off on the beach, reducing the risk of interdiction. At the height of his alien smuggling, Barker used three houses in Freeport to house the aliens before the trips.
Barker stated that, “When the water was calm, we were running probably five nights a week. Sometimes two boats at a time. Some nights we put 60-70 people on the shores.” There had been many alien landings identified by law enforcement during this time frame, but Barker’s statement (if true) indicated that the vast majority had been completely missed by the south Florida law enforcement agencies.
Barker stated that seven or eight people worked for him and that he had a “cooperative” arrangement with Bahamian officials. He stated that it was impossible to run a large-scale operation like that without government payoffs. His statement confirmed allegations and the beliefs of many investigators over the years.
Barker explained the defensive measures utilized to evade detection by the USCG and use of fiberglass go-fast motor vessels to reduce a radar image. He stated that he removed all the metal possible from the boats. The use of fiberglass motor vessels was not unique or especially beneficial with the technology of the day. Some smuggling groups in the 1990s did start using rigid inflatable boats and cover their outboard engines to provide an even smaller radar profile. The Barker Family likely also benefited from the surveillance of law enforcement motor vessels and possible information gleaned from law enforcement interactions.
Barker discussed the February 7, 1994 Haitian alien smuggling venture along with his trial. Barker initially denied any involvement in the smuggling venture during his trial, but later admitted his actions. He stated at his trial that no one testified that he personally forced anyone off of the boat. In the article, Barker stated that he should have put life jackets on all of the children. Once again, Barker focused on the two dead children from the one alien smuggling venture and not the two adults or the hundreds of other aliens he allegedly exposed to the same danger on the unknown number of previous trips.
When discussing the 1994 alien smuggling venture, he reportedly stated, “Of all of the things I’ve done in my life, and I’ve done some bad S—, but I tell you what, I’m ashamed of that. Two kids died.” Apparently, the death of the adults did not leave the same lasting impression. He stated that his grief was compounded with the murder of his wife in Georgia one month after his arrest.
Barker admitted that he had traveled to the Bahamas in August 1997, without his federal probation officer’s permission – something U.S. Customs Service (USCS) investigators had been tracking as part of the ongoing investigation of the Barker Family. A month later, his urine sample tested positive for cocaine, so he decided to permanently move to the Bahamas and start smuggling again.
He stated that he and his crew were unloading cocaine into another boat at sea on October 14, 1998 when gunfire erupted. In the confusion, he said that one of his crew leaped into the water and another was wounded in the incident. Barker stated that he thought he was being robbed until he saw that he was nearly surrounded by flashing blue lights. An aircraft flew over him several times, but he escaped under the cover of darkness.
Bahamian officials arrested him a month later as he boarded a plane for Eleuthera, Bahamas. Barker explained that he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and was sentenced to life in prison.
From the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in central Florida, Barker reportedly stated the following during the interview:
Of course, now I’ve had time to look at it, there’s a lot of things I should have done. But I’ve really lived a great life, you know. I mean I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. Probably selfish, you know, in some aspects as far my family and everything. But being up here (prison), the way everything’s turned out. Those are my regrets. For my family. But I liked doing what I did.
In the last chapter, read about today and the end of the long family tradition.
Robert C. Hutchinson
Robert C. Hutchinson was a former police chief and deputy special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, Florida. He retired in 2016 after more than 28 years as a special agent with DHS and the legacy U.S. Customs Service. He was previously the deputy director of the agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His numerous writings and presentations often address the critical need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in the area of pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies. He is a long-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness and serves on the Advisory Board.