Learjets, Mistresses, and Bales of Weed: My Dad’s Life as a Drug Kingpin

·32 min read
opener - Credit: Illustration by Mark Smith for Rolling Stone
opener - Credit: Illustration by Mark Smith for Rolling Stone

The black Cadillac pulls into the diner’s parking lot in Queens. Built in the 1950s, the building looks like it only exists on a rainy day, the rock-lined exterior out of another time. I step out of the Uber and look up at the restaurant where, in 1983, my father was arrested after escaping federal prison. He had spent two years on the lam, and was brought down by the U.S. Marshals after eating breakfast with his longtime mistress. He had just come from organizing a new shipment from Colombia. I imagine the day was also rainy. Almost 40 years later, I am there to meet with the Drug Enforcement Agency officer who tracked him

for nearly a decade, trying to bring down one of the biggest marijuana kingpins of the 1970s, the man I once called “Daddy,” and one of the architects of the modern drug trade: Dan McGuiness. 

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When the Cadillac arrived at my hotel, I had to laugh. The last time I saw my father, he, too, was driving a black Cadillac. He had just arrived in Los Angeles from Phoenix, less than a year out of prison after serving a nearly 25-year sentence from that arrest in Queens. He patted the back of the car and smiled. “Love a Caddy,” he told me, “you can hide so much in their bodies.” Though he had just turned 63, nearly half of which he had spent in prison, he was back in the game he helped to create, trafficking marijuana out of Mexico, up through the Smuggler’s Highway, which runs from Nogales to Phoenix, a route my father told me he developed in 1967. As I wait at the diner, I look up to see the former agent approach. David Hoyt is himself now an old man, and though he spent the better part of the 1970s in a Catch Me If You Can game of chase with my father, he only remembers him with fondness. He smiles after we sit down and says, “I felt like I knew him better than anyone.”

In many ways, he’s right. Even as I began interviewing the men who worked with him, the women who loved him, and the agents who brought him down, one thing became clear: Dan McGuiness was only known in pieces; no one knew the whole story, certainly not me. 

By the time my father was caught in 1981, he had developed some of the most important drug routes from Central and South America and across the Eastern Seaboard. Even as I research him for this article, I find a much older Rolling Stone piece about Operation Grouper, the DEA plot to take out the marijuana industry, which features him. As the 1982 article described my father, “a 36-year-old drug-smuggling kingpin named Dan McGuiness . . . had a penchant for ordering up Learjets on short notice.”

Dan McGuiness was a slight but handsome Irish Italian American with tight black curls and a style that made people think that he came from the wealthy part of Connecticut, not the working-class neighborhood in Bridgeport where he grew up. His father worked as a country-club bartender in one of the wealthier towns of Fairfield County, which America’s blue bloods have long called home. By the time I was born in 1977, he had amassed a fortune fit for a kingpin, with houses in Jamaica, Florida, Connecticut, and the Hamptons, where we shared a property with the founder of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner.

He had a beautiful wife and a young daughter, and though my mother lived in fear of what could happen if things broke bad, my father promised her that they never would.

And Daddy was right, until he wasn’t. As former agent Hoyt explains the FBI’s drug-enforcement strategy in the late Sixties and early Seventies: “Thing was, nobody cared about marijuana in the 1970s,” Hoyt tells me. “There were no DEA funds to really investigate it. I wasn’t being put on planes to find your dad; I just had to call around, letting other agents know, ‘I think he’s in your town.’ ”

But then Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, and everything changed. According to the Rolling Stone article, Operation Grouper was, at the time, “the most elaborate and effective infiltration job ever brought off by a federal enforcement agency.” By the end of it, more than 155 smugglers would be arrested. My father would be just one of them, but what many didn’t know was that for nearly 20 years he had been helping to build the drug trade that finally brought him down. As Hoyt tells me, “He was by far one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the 1970s . . . the crazy part was that more people didn’t know about him.” 

Credit: Courtesy of the author
Credit: Courtesy of the author

Courtesy of the author

I grew up steeped in the lore of my father’s life, the picture colored in by my family, and ultimately 20 pages of his own memoir, which he sneaked to me while in a supermax prison in central Pennsylvania. At the time, I hadn’t seen him in years, and it had been decades since we had met in the free world. It was a hard day, as he admitted that his nearing release date would not bring the reunion for which I had hoped. “It’s the only job I know,” he told me with eyes that should have been repentant but were filled with something else: excitement.

I was 30 years old by then. I had spent my entire childhood waiting for him to come out, blaming an unjust system, but once he was finally released, all he did was go back to the trade, and ultimately, to prison. That snowy afternoon in Pennsylvania, he told me he would rather die than go straight. Instead, he handed me his story, as though it might offer more answers than he could give his now-adult child, crying in the middle of a prison meeting room, wishing it had all been different.

I smuggled the pages out in the back of my pants, not knowing why he couldn’t have just put it in the mail. But then maybe he didn’t want the prison officials reading the whole story either. 

Because as my father walked me to the exit of the meeting room that day, saluting me as I stepped over the line into freedom, I realized one exacting truth: My father loved smuggling the way others love their children. The chase, the power, the rejection of a tamed and domesticated life, it was more than a passion; it was a vow of defiance, one that could not be dissolved by prison sentences. Or the pleas of his actual child . . . me.

My father always told me his career began in Golden Gate Park in the middle of San Francisco. After spending time in boarding and military schools, Dan McGuiness headed west in the 1960s, taking along a couple of friends from Connecticut. As hordes of young people began to trek to San Francisco to get high and get free, he started slinging small bags of pot, until he realized there were much bigger deals to be made. In 1966, he went back to Connecticut, later earning the nickname the “Connecticut Connection” from the DEA. In his memoir he says he tried to sell off 50 pounds he brought from the West Coast to a group of Hells Angels in Bridgeport. When the deal went south, ending in a gunfight, my father found himself in a local Connecticut jail, facing charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and fleeing the scene of a crime. 

As my father once told me, “It took me a quick 30 seconds to realize I had only one option: freedom.” 

Years later, I would meet Richard Garcia, the FBI agent who worked with my father while he was in prison, and who would go on to become an assistant director at the bureau, running its Los Angeles division. While in the Federal Detention Center in Tallahassee, Florida, after the arrest in Queens, my dad connected Garcia to the smuggler George Jung. Together, my dad, Jung, Garcia, and Garcia’s former partner in the FBI, Bob Levinson (who was famously kidnapped and died in Iran in the 2010s), put together the sting operation that brought down Pablo Escobar’s pilot, Carlos Lehder, a story later told in the book and Johnny Depp movie Blow. According to Garcia, my dad was famous for his escapes. 

“I remember him calling me later when he was out,” Garcia tells me. “He had news of an attempted prison break by the CIA spy Aldrich Ames. Ames was looking to make a break, and his people had contacted your dad. Everyone knew Dan was a guy who knew how to escape.”

Daddy’s first escape happened in that tiny Connecticut jail, where he and another inmate filed out the bars of the cell, before heading back to California with bigger ambitions than dealing with biker bars and bricks of weed. He was living with a friend from Connecticut, another pot dealer, named Jim Hill, and together they decided that the real money didn’t come from selling weed; it came from smuggling it. As he wrote in his own memoir, “The first rule in smuggling, besides not getting busted, is to maximize your load. You are taking the risk whether it is 100 or 10,000 pounds . . . make it 10,000.”

It was 1967, the “Summer of Love,” and the demand for marijuana had never been greater. Dad and his friends were renting a little bungalow in Sausalito and got themselves a late-1950s Ford Woodie Wagon, which made for a great cover once they started heading south to Mexico. 

Smuggling was more than a passion; it was a vow of defiance, one that could not be dissolved by prison. Or the pleas of his child . . . me.

As a former associate, Jerry “Dutch” Van Veenendaal, explains, “Smuggling was the fun part. Selling was hard and dirty. But bringing in planes and boats was just like any other business. Do you want to be in sales, or do you want to control the means of production?”

Daddy and Hill wanted to control the means, heading south of the border to Mexico, where a friend connected them with a local farmer outside of Tijuana. As my own father’s writings explain, “Not too many people were bringing back that kind of weight in those days. And it amazed us. We turned that into cash within a month. We were onto something. We were learning economics, supply and demand.”

Credit: Illustration by Mark Smith*
Credit: Illustration by Mark Smith*

Illustration by Mark Smith*

The Tijuana smugglers had realized that if you loaded up a tractor tire with marijuana, the tire would function as a boat, and a human swimmer as its propeller. Daddy had been a strong swimmer since he was kid, traversing the Long Island Sound by the time he was 12, but even he remembered the first trip with the tire as grueling, telling me later, “The waters were cold, and it was the middle of the night. There was no light. But I knew we had to pull it off.”

As his former mistress Susan Greenberg remembers, “We once rented this house on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. He used to go out in the water with no fins and go spearfishing. The ocean was his most favorite thing in the world.” 

The Mexicans didn’t know what to do with these American smugglers, but they earned respect after my father made the 10-mile oceanic trek, landing on the American side of the Tijuana Sloughs. In 2010, I went down to the sloughs with a guy I had just started dating, and who would later become my husband and the father of my own dad’s grandchildren. We walked the beach only to find an abandoned tractor tire on its shore. 

Though much of smuggling has become more sophisticated, “weed wheels,” as law enforcement calls them, are still a frequent medium of drug transport. But after that one trip, swimming across the Mexican border in the middle of the night, my father and Hill knew there had to be a better way. 

“No one was paying attention to Arizona at that time,” explains former smuggler Mike Stewart, who knew my father in Mexico. “A lot of us started heading down there in the late Sixties, but your dad was one of the first.”

“It was the middle of the night and the water was cold,” my dad said about swimming from Mexico to Cali with a tire full of weed. “But we had to pull it off.”

Though drug importation has always been notoriously difficult to track, per a 2021 study, the projected share of marijuana imports from 1960 to 1970 grew from less than 0.1 percent to nearly three percent of total imports, an increase of more than 3,000 percent in one decade. In fact, 1970 showed the highest percentage of marijuana imports over any other year through 2017.

By 1968, my dad and Hill were gaining prominence as some of the biggest smugglers in the Bay Area. As my dad once explained, “Other guys were bringing in bricks . . . we had bales.”

They decided to go to a lesser-known part of Mexico, where one of their Tijuana connections had a cousin.

According to the history of the region, border cities like Nogales had long been major areas of drug exportation, starting in the late 1930s during alcohol prohibition, wherein Mexican smugglers not only brought in alcohol but opium, and later, heroin. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, trafficking was overseen by a tightknit and well-connected group of families. There were not many gringos among their lot. 

But Daddy and Hill were a perfect pair for the job. Clean-cut with short hair and preppy attire, they moved across the Arizona border without suspicion. “We’d bring bibles,” my dad explained. “They thought we were missionaries.” Before long, they met a local pilot in the Bay Area, Samuel T. Willis. Willis had flown for the Flying Tigers in World War II, “[smuggling] gold out of China [and] rubies out of Burma,” as my father once wrote. 

According to his memoir, within months, Willis had trained my father and another local smuggler, Alex, to fly small single-engine planes across San Francisco Bay, and they soon started flying across the Mexican border, into Nogales. By 1968, Daddy and his crew were regularly flying in loads, increasing their quantities with each flight, and learning to fly larger planes across the border, from a small town south of the border, Agua Prieta, over to Gila Bend in Arizona. As my father’s memoir describes, on one of those flights, he was flying into the small town in Mexico, planning to pick up a load, when instead he found a group of federales who had been tipped off about his arrival. When he attempted to take the plane back up, the police opened fire and he was forced to land nearby. A foot chase ensued. According to his memoir:

I was out and running, the desert was full of green ravines . . . a regular maze that saved my life. . . . I was returning fire [as the feds chased] just to keep them off my back. . . . I was running my 23-year-old ass off. Finally made it out of the ravine . . . only to run into an army patrol.

A few days later, the federales also picked up Hill, who had come back over the border looking for my father, but when Hill was able to post bail, they quickly hatched an escape plan. After Daddy and a few other smugglers attempted to break out, they were caught, with my father and another escapee taking the brunt of the punishment, both in jail from the guards and in court, where he was ultimately convicted. “It was a bad sentence,” my dad later told me, though he could no longer remember the years received. From there, he was sent to the Sonoran State Prison, where the Mexican authorities began sending all of the new traffickers flooding their borders. Sonoran State became a game changer for my father, just not in the way law enforcement intended.

“That place was like a master’s program for smugglers,” David Hoyt tells me. 

Sonoran State prison was like something out of the movies. According to my father, they had visitors like Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, as the prison was known for its homemade acid, which the guards and prisoners took with impunity. During my father’s two-year stay, he met a local woman. They had conjugal visits, from which he had his first child, a son named Ernesto, whom I have never met nor found. 

As Mike Stewart, who actually met my father in Sonoran State, shared, “It wasn’t like American prisons. It was like being in a neighborhood with walls; there were shops and families and parties and drugs. I later spent time in Leavenworth, like your dad, and Sonoran State was a vacation by comparison.”

But even when prison is fun, it’s still prison. After nearly two years, my father was ready to get home. Though he remembered the story in different ways, the version Daddy most frequently shared is that he reached out to his old friend Hill with a plan. According to that tale, my dad paid the guards to beat him so severely, he would have to be sent off-site to a hospital. After convalescing for two weeks, Hill pulled up a truck with hay in its bed under my father’s window. Daddy leapt out, and the two men headed for the border.

As my father’s former mistress Greenberg tells me, “Your father was like Houdini. He probably had more escape attempts on his record than most people in prison. He could get himself out of anything.”

But back in America, my dad and Hill were in an awkward position. Though they had made contacts and understood the business better than ever, their one strength — flying under the radar as innocent white travelers, missionaries, contractors — was gone. They were both in their late twenties, and now they couldn’t go back to Mexico. 

So they did what any two young guys lost in America would do: They went home. But Daddy still had a warrant out for him in Connecticut. “I got tired of running,” he would later tell me. Instead, he turned himself in to serve another two-year stint while Hill hung around and waited for the boss to get out. In 1974, my dad was released and reunited with Hill — and the men quickly started working to rebuild the business they found and lost in Nogales. 

While my dad was in prison, Hill had found work cleaning pools in the upscale parts of Fairfield County. There, he met one of the residence’s owners, Van Veenendaal. Dutch, as he is still called, owned dry cleaners; and according to Hill, he could tell by the size of Dutch’s home and the cars in his driveway that the dry-cleaning business was just that: a way to launder money. When Hill found out that Dutch had a Colombian wife, his interest was piqued.

“Jim told me that he and your dad had done a bunch of exporting work out of Mexico before they ran into legal trouble,” Dutch explains. “I knew immediately what kind of work they were in, and thought we might be able to build a partnership.”

Hill quickly introduced Dutch to my father, and a new plot was hatched.

As Dutch explains, the birth of Colombian marijuana smuggling came when two Colombian brothers went to college in Mexico. He says it was there that they discovered Acapulco Gold, one of the landrace strains, which are original genetic species of cannabis, growing naturally for millions of years in their native environments. According to Dutch, the brothers brought back the plant and harvested it in Colombia. Within years, the crop was being grown right alongside coffee, rice, and tobacco. They called it Santa Marta Gold.

According to DEA agent Hoyt, Colombian smugglers had created their own network, run primarily by native farmers. As we sit at that infamous diner in Queens where my father was finally captured, Hoyt remembers my father’s pilot telling him about the first time he flew to Colombia: “Your dad told Kenny Knudsen, the pilot, to fly to the Pacific coast of Colombia, and when he got to the water, to take a left and fly 30 minutes south until he found an airstrip.” 

Except when Kenny landed on the strip, there was no one there. Within minutes a group of local indigenous people emerged from the jungle, holding guns and spears. The leader asked Kenny what he was doing there. Hoyt continues, “Kenny told me that he explained that he was supposed to pick up marijuana, and all of sudden everyone got real friendly. They told him that the contact he was looking for was at the next airstrip down, but not to worry because they had product, too.”

At the time, the Colombian market worked as a co-op, not as a cartel, with local farmers pooling their product and profit. According to Hoyt, they would meet monthly to divvy out the revenue and settle any debts. But air travel from Colombia into domestic airports proved as risky as smuggling across Tijuana in its heyday. At one point, Knudsen found himself caught by the DEA while flying into a Connecticut commuter airport. My dad and Hill needed a way to traffic across Central America that wouldn’t raise the ire or interest of the Coast Guard. And if you weren’t bringing it by plane, there was only one way through to the Caribbean: Panama.

In 1974, Manuel Noriega wasn’t yet president, serving instead as the director of intelligence, but according to Dutch, even when he was president, he was only a puppet: “Omar Torrijos was the real mastermind behind the Panama situation.” As Dutch explained, Torrijos, who preceded Noriega as president, realized there was all this product trapped in South and Central America and that Panama was the key.

Just as he had in Mexico, my father began reaching out to contacts and found himself face to face with the then-director of intelligence. As former FBI Assistant Director Richard Garcia explains, “Ultimately, when they got Noriega, your dad was the only witness they could find that had face-to-face contact with him. They had him set up to testify as the first rebuttal witness, because at one point your father had handed $100,000 to Noriega in cash.”

“Jamaica was a tough place,” my dad’s partner Dutch says. “I didn’t want to bother with it. But your dad thought he was going to make a fortune.”

According to Hoyt and others involved in my father’s business, Dan McGuiness would become one of the biggest exporters of Colombian marijuana throughout the 1970s, and yet still, he wasn’t the most prolific.

As Dutch explains, “There were bigger guys than your dad, people moving 100,000 pounds or more. Ultimately, it was about the families, the cartels, that ended up running everything, but it was guys like your dad who got it started.”

In 1975, Dan McGuiness was living the life about which he long dreamed — he had become one of the men his bartender father once served. After clearing his name in America, he could now smuggle under the radar. Gone were the days of 1,000-pound trips; he was regularly bringing 50,000 pounds from Colombia, and the cash that came with it. He had just turned 29 and was staying in Fort Lauderdale, while moving loads along the Eastern Seaboard, when one morning he met a young woman walking along the A1A highway in Fort Lauderdale. 

Susan Collica was only 19 and was visiting a friend in Florida when she met the dashing con from Connecticut. 

My mother tells me the story of their first meeting: “He had Red Dog with him (a red setter he famously broke out of a dog pound in Boston), and I complimented him, saying, ‘What a beautiful dog.’ He replied with ‘So are you.’ ”

A year later they were married. One year later I was born. Although my mother is an incredible parent and person, as I write this piece, she proves to be a lackluster source, but not because she didn’t love him.

“I never knew what was going on,” she tells me when I try to interview her. “I just wanted to be left out of it. I wanted to raise you, and honestly, K, I was scared. It was scary.”

The next year, my father would meet a woman who was along for the ride, and arguably, the true love of his life: Greenberg (yes, another Susan). That 1982 Rolling Stone article offered a description of their first meeting: “Once, after striking up a conversation with a young woman in a Boston bar, he went, on impulse, over to a pay phone and called up a Learjet from Miami to take the two of them to Jamaica for the weekend.”

“It didn’t quite happen that way,” Greenberg tells me, explaining that they met in Connecticut and it wasn’t until their third date that he called up a private plane. “But yeah, he swept me off my feet, flying us to Jamaica on a Learjet and showing me this life I didn’t even know existed. I think you were about six months old at the time.” 

My father would get as good at juggling the two women as he had been at smuggling marijuana. As my mother and I would move from one location, Connecticut to Florida, Boston to East Hampton, Greenberg would be moved into the homes we just vacated. Soon after the affair began, Greenberg found out about my mother and me, but my mom says that she didn’t know until years later, when everything had already fallen apart. 

After growing up in blue-collar Bridgeport, my father had bought himself the fancy house in Fairfield County, replete with horse stables and a pond in the backyard. It was the house to which my parents brought me home from the hospital and the one we would later abandon as the empire began to crumble. Because by the time my father met Greenberg, while my mom was trying to play the happy homemaker in Easton, Dan McGuiness had found himself on the radar of the DEA. Remember that little story about Kenny Knudsen? Well, Kenny talked.

Knudsen’s memory is no longer intact, but his former wife Marie Knudsen, who ended up becoming a staff member at the Connecticut General Assembly, remembers the incidents that led to Kenny turning state’s evidence: “Kenny was bringing in a big load for your dad and landed a Howard 500 at a tiny spot in Connecticut,” she tells me. “They were in the middle of unloading it when the cops showed up. Kenny and the crew just took off as the cops started firing at the plane. He ended up taking the plane into the old Candlelight Airport in New Milford.” 

According to Hoyt, the bad news for Knudsen was that his name was on the flight manifest, and within the week the DEA and local authorities had tracked him down. Hoyt was the agent on the case, and once Knudsen admitted to what he was doing and who he was working for, Hoyt realized that Connecticut was being used as a trafficking center for this homegrown smuggler. The Connecticut Connection became the new target.

Over the next few years, David Hoyt tracked Dan McGuiness, but what he didn’t know was that more than the money or the power or the nights out at Studio 54, my father got high on getting away with it: tricking the feds, running from the cops, escaping into the night (or even broad daylight). As my father once wrote, “That’s what it was about, the rush.”

When we finally reunited years later, my then 63-year-old father would tell me about how he got pulled over with hundreds of pounds packed into his black Caddy. 

“The cop didn’t even open the trunk,” he offered with a smirk. Because my father loved evading the police, and he especially loved making fools of them.

Throughout his career, my father ran under numerous aliases. He once told me that included the name of David Hoyt, sharing a story about getting caught on a run one night. Daddy explained that he showed the local authorities his Hoyt ID, explaining he was an undercover agent. His suspect? A marijuana smuggler named Dan McGuiness. My dad was released with a smile and a thank you for his service.

But by the late 1970s, another drug was on the scene.

“It wasn’t that your dad was bad at the business,” Greenberg explains, countering others in my family who now refer to my dad’s criminal enterprise as the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. “He was bad at cocaine. That’s when everything began to change.” 

Credit: Courtesy of the author
Credit: Courtesy of the author

Courtesy of the author

In 1978, my father received the contract of his career. According to his own telling, agents connected to the Jamaican government hired him to be the exclusive exporter of Jamaican ganja. Prime Minister Michael Manley and his party, People’s National Party, had long embraced Rastafarianism, and Manley himself had publicly overlooked marijuana farming until American authorities began to apply pressure in the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, Manley maintained close relationships with the Rasta leadership, many of whom were ganja growers, but those same growers kept getting busted by the Coast Guard on the high seas. Dan McGuiness was the perfect foil. Just as he had in Mexico a decade earlier, his polo shirts and white skin spoke to a different kind of sailor, and soon Daddy was trafficking Jamaica’s most valuable export.

“Jamaica was a tough place,” Dutch tells me. “I didn’t want to bother with it. But your dad thought he was going to make a fortune.”

And according to some, at first, he did, though he made enemies with many of the local families, including the Marleys, who were pissed that a Yankee smuggler had been given the keys to the kingdom. After a Bob Marley show, my family remembers Bob snubbing my father for taking over their ganja industry. He wasn’t wrong; my father was quickly acquiring a fleet of DC-10s, mother ships, sailboats, and Learjets to begin moving ganja out of the Blue Mountains and to the Eastern Seaboard. The only problem was that the Jamaicans had hired the wrong guy. The Dan McGuiness of 1974 would have been a great hire for the job, but by 1978, my father had gotten “bad at cocaine.” 

Over the next two years, one commercial fishing freight (named the Kristen Jane, after me, though I was only two years old) was confiscated for going the wrong way in a New Jersey port; a DC-10 crashed in Jamaica, leading to the confiscation of more than 80,000 pounds of weed (which according to my family was once referred to as the largest drug bust in Jamaican history); and countless other minor and major mishaps followed. The fleet began to dwindle, and so did the loads. Ironically, although he could have made a fortune, my father refused to smuggle cocaine; he didn’t want to be responsible for bringing it into the country. By the time 1980 rolled around, Daddy was desperate for a deal. When a new smuggler showed up, named Theo Poulos, my father didn’t care that he hadn’t heard of him before. Some other smugglers vouched for the guy, and Daddy’s debts were piling up. Jamaica was gone, the cartels were taking over Colombia, and the industry he helped to build was ready to trade him in. By the time the deal was done, my dad was in custody; he was now the one who had been fooled. 

Because Theo Poulos was actually an undercover agent for the DEA named Ted Weed (yes, Weed), and also the mastermind behind Operation Grouper.

As my mother shares, “There wasn’t much left by the time they got him.”

“It wasn’t that your dad was bad at the business,” my dad’s mistress tells me. “He was bad at cocaine. That’s when everything began to change.” 

Daddy was awaiting sentencing when he saw another opportunity he couldn’t refuse.

After a few months in the Tallahassee Detention Center, he cracked one of his own teeth, knowing that the facility didn’t have an on-site dentist. He was sent to one on the outside, wearing plainclothes under his prison uniform. By the time the transfer guards led him to the office to wait for the dentist, he had convinced them that they didn’t need to stay while he met with the doctor. As soon as they walked out, he picked his handcuffs and opened a door in the dentist office, betting his life on one move. There at the end of the hallway was an exit sign and the door to freedom.

And like that, he was gone. 

He spent the next two years on the lam, smuggling for Dutch again, manning sailboats from Colombia, before he and Greenberg found themselves in Queens one morning eating at a local diner. As Greenberg recalls, “Those were amazing years for us. We sailed the Caribbean; your dad wasn’t as crazy as he was before. It was a beautiful time until we ended up in that diner. As soon as we sat down, I got worried. The place was empty except for two guys sitting behind us.”

According to Greenberg, my dad got up to use the pay phone outside. When he walked back in, U.S. Marshals swarmed the restaurant, throwing him to the ground and dragging Greenberg out before she was even entirely aware of what was happening. “There was a Cadillac dealership around the corner, where we had rented a car,” she explains. “We were waiting for them to drop it off. I think it was the guy running the dealership who tipped off the feds.”

Three months later at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee, my father was sentenced to 60 years. He ended up serving 25 years before being released. In 2003, he was sentenced to go to a halfway house in Florida, but he didn’t show up, disappearing back into the business before they picked him up again after a 24-hour manhunt through the Virginia woods. He was finally released for good in 2008. In October of that year, he drove out to L.A. to see his only daughter. We had dinner and visited the horse stables where I had returned to my childhood love of riding, something we shared when I was too little to remember. The stables in Easton had once been meant for me, after all.

We tried to fit a lifetime into one night, but it all felt a little too late. I had waited so many years for him to come home. I had waited for him to take me to father-daughter dances, to come to school plays and graduations, to be a part of my life. I had waited for him to hold me when a boy broke up with me or I didn’t get something I wanted. I wanted him to be my father, and not just an interesting story told to friends over late nights at the bar. I wanted him to show up. And I wanted him to stay. 

At the end of the night, I walked Dan McGuiness back out to his Cadillac, where he held me for the last time.

“I love you, K,” he whispered into my ear. I knew he would never go straight. I also knew that like so many people caught up in worlds of crime, while the exploits might sound entertaining to those who didn’t live them, the inside story was always heartbreak. As I sit in the diner across from Hoyt, he expresses one regret: “You know, I never got to meet your father face to face. I always wanted to.”

Daddy died three months after that visit to L.A., in February 2009. There were a lot of people he would fail to meet, including his own grandchildren. In many ways, he would become a footnote, a minor player in the world he helped to build, but as billions of dollars of narcotics travel yearly across the Mexican border, up from Colombia, through the Caribbean, landing on the Eastern Seaboard, they bear the memory of his name. Yet perhaps more than any drug route, my father was best known for not being known, for being a chameleon to those who loved him most.

Greenberg tells me, “Your father was always on equal footing with anyone; they could be someone on the curb or they could be the fanciest person. He could be whoever he needed to be in order to pull off the deal.”

The original Rolling Stone article about Operation Grouper ends with a scene in that Tallahassee courthouse. My father sees the DEA agent, Ted Weed, who had posed as the smuggler Theo Poulos. He grabs his arm, alarming Weed’s attorney. But according to the article, my father just smiled, telling the agent, “You, my friend, ought to get the Academy Award.” The same could have been said for him.

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