Chapter One: Abandoned Lady July 7, 1982—Beaufort Inlet, Beaufort, North Carolina 10:30 p.m. Beaufort Inlet can be nasty when it chooses. It is one of only three all-weather inlets on the coast of North Carolina. It serves as a high-traffic commercial port, attracting container ships from all over the planet, and as a harbor for a myriad assortment of fishing vessels and top-drawer pleasure yachts. Situated in the middle of the Atlantic Coast and known to every boater as part of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, it attracts a large cross section of seagoing commerce. Patrolling the area, and oftentimes serving as the court of last refuge for sailors in distress, the United States Coast Guard maintains a major station there, the Fort Macon complex near the mouth of the inlet. Like every other summer holiday, the Fourth of July results in an extremely trying period for the men and women stationed there. Pleasure vessels run aground, diesels decide to end their career in the middle of the inlet with a nine-hundred-foot container ship bearing down on them, and novice boaters of every description declare that Beaufort Inlet might be a great place to try out their new toy. This year, the Fort Macon coasties counted down the hours until the holiday weekend was over. The sun had been down about an hour and the pleasure boats had, for the most part, taken their skippers back to the local bars in Beaufort and Morehead City. “Damn, I’m ready to drop.” “Yeah, I need to start taking vacations inland. I think some mountain air might be refreshing about now.” “You know, you’d suffocate without salt in the air. I figure you’d last about two days away from the ocean.” “Well, after this past weekend, I’m ready to try it. How many calls did we get? Something like two hundred?” “Sounds about right, and at least half of them were just kids playing with the radio.” “I’d like to get my hands on those little bastards.” The two Coast Guardsmen bantered as they untied their twenty-one-foot launch and prepared for a routine patrol of the inlet and the surrounding shoals at Shackleford Banks. The senior, Bosun’s Mate Second Class Frank Verheul, fired up the twin-hundred-horse Mercs while his crewman, BM3 Richard Hall, freed the dock lines and expertly pushed the bow off the seawall and out toward the channel. “Let’s work the inlet for a while. The earlier shift said some sailboats were anchoring pretty close to the ship channel. The last thing we need is to have some Panamanian freighter making port with a grease spot on his bow that used to be a forty-foot sloop.” “Yeah, they anchor in the middle of the ship channel and it would be our fault for not placing yellow dye in the water reading No Parking Zone.” They motored out through the wide inlet. The boat traffic was light by that time of night, and the running lights they spotted on the far side of the channel stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. “Hey Frank, we’ve got some running lights off to starboard. Looks like they’re about to hit the shoals at Shackleford. They’re definitely outside the channel.” The young officer grabbed a set of rubber-shielded binoculars from their rack on the boat’s console. “Actually, it’s two vessels, a small one in the lead and a larger one close on his ass. Looks like a shrimper to me. Must be from the Gulf; none of the locals will run that close to the banks.” Verheul turned the launch to starboard and gave the throttle a little push. They picked up enough speed to gain on the two boats and generate a good amount of spray over the bow and in their faces. The evening air was still steamy with the residue of the day’s ninety-five degrees plus daytime heat. The spray felt cold but invigorating as it painted their faces. They came alongside the smaller vessel and hailed them. “Do you need help negotiating the channel? You’re headed into some very shallow water.” The boat’s pilot shook his head negatively and waved them off. There was an odd assortment of men on board and Verheul decided to follow behind the open runabout. As they fell in behind them, the boat increased its speed and turned into Taylor’s Creek, the approach channel to Beaufort. Richard followed the smaller boat’s movements with the binoculars, not wanting to lose them among the fleet of sailboats anchored across from the picturesque waterfront community. “Looks like a lot of guys for an open boat. Let’s see if they’ve got enough jackets onboard. Bet you ten bucks they’re at least two short and don’t have current flares. You in?” “No way, I’d bet fifty you’re right! Hit the light.” The rotating light on the launch lit up a large section of the waterfront as it played off the storefronts and windshields of the huge sportfishing boats tied up to the city docks. As they came alongside the open-bowed runabout, both officers were taken aback by what they saw. The incongruent contingent aboard the twenty-two-foot Cobia jumped out at them like a neon sign on a church. Five men, most in street clothes, with one appearing to be headed to a disco with his gold chains and unbuttoned silk shirt and leisure sport coat, stared at them with obvious concern on their faces. Two of the men stepped off the boat onto the dock and briskly made their way toward the business district. The three remaining crew had with them a briefcase, duffel bag, toolbox and scuba tanks. The operator of the boat moved from the wheel toward the side of the boat and spoke first. “Well, good evening boys. What can we help the Coast Guard with this evening?” Verheul had just opened his mouth to ask them the same question when he heard a distinct splash on the opposite side of the runabout. He pretended not to notice and inquired of the boat’s crew: “We’re just fine, sir. Can you show us your lifejackets and flares please?” “No problem, officer.” He reached under the console seat and started pulling out bright orange life jackets. Obviously two short, he moved to look under several other seats. It was apparent he didn’t know where to look for safety equipment on the boat. Meanwhile, the two Coast Guard officers surveyed the crew. They were definitely not fishing. There was only one small fresh water rod in the boat, and the cooler in the floor of the cockpit wouldn’t hold more than a six-pack of beer. “Damn, I can’t believe this. We’re two short. Got flares right here though.” He handed the three flare casings to Verheul. “Sorry, sir, but these are outdated. What are you doing out on the water this evening?” “Fishing. Been over to the banks, just watching the sunset and put out some rods, I mean a rod.” Verheul had heard enough excuses over the years that he could tell the difference between embarrassed negligence and outright lying. This was lying. The chance that these guys had been fishing was about the same as his piloting the space shuttle. He played with them. “Did you have any luck?” “Luck with what?” “With your fishing.” “Oh, that—no, we didn’t catch nothing.” While Verheul was talking with the supposed fishermen, his partner caught a glimpse of the larger shrimp boat, which had been following them. It had bypassed Taylor’s Creek and was heading straight into the commercial port area of Beaufort. Frank continued with his questions. “Any identification on you?” The boat pilot appeared to search through his pants pockets and offered… “Damn, I must have left my wallet back at the dock. This sure isn’t my day.” “And what dock would that be?” “Uh, in Wilmington. Just borrowed the boat from a buddy and forgot to get his registration. You’re not going to give me a ticket are you?” “I’m going to let you fellows go, but you need to carry identification on you when you operate a boat, and you better get some more life jackets.” Verheul made a note of the registration numbers on the boat. Hall had caught his attention and motioned for him to expedite the proceedings so they could follow the larger boat into port before it disappeared from view. Frank gunned the throttle as they sped off into the main ship channel. “Still see them?” “No. They probably killed the running lights and turned into the port area.” “There’s not that many places there to dock a smaller boat, just a bare seawall and the fueling area.” “What did you make of that group of thugs?” “They sure as hell weren’t fishing.” “Did you see them toss a package overboard as we came alongside?” “Affirmative, and I also did a quick triangulation so we can go back and take a look at what’s on the bottom there. If the current doesn’t move it off too much, we’ll see what scared them enough to shitcan it. See the shrimper yet?” Hall shined a high-intensity spotlight along the wharf area. It was very still that late in the evening and virtually no one stirring on the shore. “Got it! She’s tied up next to the State Port docks.” “Let’s go have a look at her.” The two coasties motored alongside the shrimp boat and noted the name on the stern, Bobby M. hailing out of Wilmington, North Carolina. She was wooden, about seventy feet long and appeared to be nothing special as shrimpers went. It was interesting to the officers that the vessel was tied to the dock with a single bowline. No waterman would ever consider that proper docking. Frank grabbed a bullhorn from the console and yelled. “Bobby M., this is United States Coast Guard launch off your stern. We’d like to come aboard for an inspection.” It was the time of year when the Coast Guard and Wildlife Officers routinely inspected commercial fishing vessels. There would be little reason for any shrimp boat to be running around this time of night. A dark figure could be seen in the wheelhouse of the Bobby M., Frank repeated his call. “Skipper, permission to come aboard. This is the United States Coast Guard.” From the cabin, a figure appeared and moved toward the Coast Guard launch. “Sorry fellas, didn’t hear you. I was listening to a weather broadcast on the VHF. My crewman went to find some fuel. We’re running pretty damned near empty. What can I help you with this evening?” “We’d like to do a safety inspection, skipper. Anything in the hold?” “Nope, ain’t the season for shrimping boys, but you know that, don’t you?” “Yes Sir, mind if we come aboard?” Both coasties knew that it was the middle of shrimp season and every shrimper in the area expected to be boarded and checked for illegal catches. This was a major red flag for both of them. Sweat was starting to pile up on the captain’s brow. “Well, of course you can come aboard. I’ve got to make a phone call myself so you fellas just help yourself.” Verheul jumped aboard as the Bobby M’s skipper stepped off to the seawall to go make his call. The officer entered the shrimp boat’s pilothouse and found an unusual assortment of paraphernalia strewn about. There was a briefcase with the red letters reading Lady Mauricette. There was overkill in radio and navigation instrumentation for a shrimper. There was also a custom gun case, night-vision goggles and a set of scuba tanks. Verheul stepped back out to the deck area and noticed that the boat’s hold was shielded by a heavy canvas cover nailed over the hatch. He lifted a corner and prepared to look inside the boat’s hold. As he prepared to go below, he heard an unmistakable sound, the pump action on a shotgun just inside the hold of the shrimp boat. He didn’t want to offer anyone the opportunity to use him for target practice, so he backed off and into the launch. Hall looked up from the cockpit as Verheul almost jumped on top of him. “What’s up? Not going to check it out?” “Let’s get out of here for the time being. Somebody in the hold was loading his shotgun as I started to go below.” “Shit! You got that right. What on Earth is going on out here tonight?” The launch powered up and planed out of view of the shrimp trawler. Frank pulled into a slip at the Radio Island Marina and called for advice from the Fort Macon Duty Officer. “Yes Sir, this is Verheul, we’ve got a suspicious shrimp trawler down here at the Port Authority docks. I’m not sure what they’re up to, but I can tell you that when I was getting ready to search their hold, somebody below was cocking a shotgun getting ready to give me a personal welcome. No Sir, I’m on a pay phone over at a marina. I was afraid to use the VHF, didn’t want them listening in. They’ve got to be smugglin’ something. The whole thing just doesn’t smell right to me and Rich. We figured we should check in with the brass. Yes Sir, we’ll keep an eye on ‘em till you get over here, but you need to get a move on.” Verheul turned to Hall. “Ok, they’re on the way. I hope this isn’t a wild goose chase ‘cause they’re pretty pumped up about it at the station. They said they’d be here as quick as they could get the cutter running.” Verheul and Hall watched as the Bobby M. backed slowly out of her slip at the Port docks and eased down the waterfront with no running lights. They kept their distance but never lost sight of the trawler. “She’s pulling into the Texaco docks. Think we should hold them till the cutter gets here? What do you think, Frank?” “I say we just wait right here. I’ve got a bad feeling about this boat. How many shrimpers you know carry hunting rifles and night goggles around with them?” Around one-thirty a.m. the forty-two footer from the Fort Macon station pulled alongside the small Coast Guard launch. Bosun’s Mate Third Class Weatherby leaped onto the deck of the smaller boat. “Where’s the trawler?” “Right up against the Texaco sign. Engine is still running, haven’t seen anybody topside for the past half-hour.” “Got your service revolvers handy?” “You damn right.” “Ok, let’s check her out.” The small launch moved in alongside the Bobby M. Hall quickly tied a figure eight on the starboard stern cleat and the three officers all stepped up onto the trawler’s deck. Hall shined a large hand-held spotlight at the wheelhouse. Verheul yelled out for anyone on board. “Bobby M. this is the United States Coast Guard. Captain, we have boarded your vessel and request you and your crew present yourselves on deck, now.” There was no movement and no response. All three of the officers remembered what Verheul had heard before and the sweat poured from under their dark blue caps as they moved around the boat. Hall shined the spot in every corner and dark crevice until they were convinced that nobody was top-side. Verheul went back over to the hold so tightly covered with dark canvas. “Well, they haven’t taken anything out of here since I was on board. Still nailed up like a whiskey keg. Let’s just take a look-see, shall we?” Verheul and Weatherby ripped the canvas from the hold while Hall held the spot. As the opening appeared, the light illuminated a large enough portion of the storage area to reveal a hold full of bales of marijuana. “Oh my God, how much grass are we looking at here? Must be fifty or more bales!” “No Frank, I’d say the whole damn boat is full. We have struck the motherload. Weatherby picked up his handheld VHF. No longer fearful of alerting the fleeing crew, he called for the forty-two footer to pull in close. The next call was back to Coast Guard Station Fort Macon headquarters. He had just keyed the mike when he paused and handed it to Verheul. “Frank, this belongs to you and Rich. You do the honors.” Verheul tried not to break out smiling as he called in. “Yes Sir, this is Verheul. Switch and answer channel twenty-two.” Both ends changed to a working channel free of dialogue from other vessels in the area. “We’ve boarded the trawler Bobby M. at the Texaco docks in Beaufort. Its hold is full of contraband. No Sir, I’d say you’re looking at quite a few tons of the stuff. Yes Sir, tons. Yes Sir, we’ll stand by till you arrive.” By three a.m., the entire port area was crawling with agents from several government agencies, all eager for a part of the largest drug seizure in the region. Even as investigators poured over the surrounding docks and warehouses, the Bobby M. was seized by the Coast Guard and moved back to Fort Macon station.