Was Barry Seal a hero or huckster?
A daredevil drug pilot who got rich smuggling drugs into the United States, or a government sanctioned anti-communist crusader who risked his life running guns to Latin American freedom fighters?
When Seal pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges in federal court in Baton Rouge in 1986, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, who was bound by an agreement hammered out between Barry Seal and the Justice Department, had no choice but to sentence the barnstorming Baton Rouge pilot to probation. Polozola made his disgust with the agreement known by adding a special condition to Seal’s sentence—six months in a halfway house.
“Drug dealers like Mr. Seal are the lowest, most despicable people I can think of,” Polozola told the assembled crowd of Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Justice Department officials who appeared at Seal’s sentencing hearing to speak on his behalf.
As Polozola handed down his sentence, he fixed his gaze on Seal. “In my opinion, people like you ought to be in prison.”
Three weeks later, Seal was shot to death in the parking lot of the Salvation Army halfway house on Airline Highway, exactly where Polozola had ordered him to live, without armed bodyguards, for six months.
‘First cousin to a bird’
Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal grew up in south Baton Rouge in the 1950s. He spent his spare time hanging around the old Downtown Airport, now Independence Park, working odd jobs in exchange for flight time. Even before he graduated from Baton Rouge High School in 1957, Seal had already earned his private pilot’s wings.
Seal was a natural in the air, one of the most gifted pilots anyone in Baton Rouge can remember. “He could fly with the best of them,” Ed Duffard, one of Seal’s first flight instructors, once said in a TV interview. “That boy was first cousin to a bird.”
In 1955 Seal joined a Civil Air Patrol unit at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. The unit’s commander was David Ferrie, then a pilot for Eastern Airlines. Ferrie was later caught up in New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison’s conspiracy investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. Actor Joe Pesci played Ferrie in the Oliver Stone film JFK.
One of Seal’s fellow CAP cadets was a kid named Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Red Scare
The 1950s and early 1960s were patriotic times in America. Communism had taken over half of Europe and was spreading into Central and South America. By 1960, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro had established a communist dictatorship with direct links to the Soviet Union just 90 miles from the United States. Something had to be done.
Enter the CIA.
If the roots of Seal’s fervent anti-communist beliefs were founded in his conservative 1950s upbringing, the fires of those beliefs were undoubtedly stoked during his association with his Civil Air Patrol leader, David Ferrie.
Ferrie was a devout anti-communist who worked in New Orleans with a CIA-sponsored anti-Castro group called the Cuban Democratic Revolutionary Front.
According to the 1979 report of U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations, Ferrie built two miniature submarines to use in an attack on Havana Harbor. He stockpiled weapons, including mortars, for a proposed invasion of Cuba, was involved in a raid on a munitions dump in Houma, and took several of his CAP cadets on flights to Cuba. U.S. Customs agents in Miami launched an investigation of Ferrie in 1959 for weapons smuggling.
In April 1961, Ferrie took a vacation from his job at Eastern Airlines during the exact time of the CIA-backed, failed Bay of Pigs invasion, in which some U.S. pilots were known to have participated.
In 1962, Seal enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard and shipped out for six months of active duty Army training at Fort Benning, Ga. Seal earned an expert rifleman’s badge and paratrooper wings. When he returned home he was assigned to Special Forces, a unit of the U.S. Army with close ties to military intelligence, and to the CIA.
The Mexico Caper
In the mid-1960s, Seal went to work as a commercial airline pilot for Trans World Airlines. The company was owned by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, a man with his own longstanding connections to the CIA.
Despite lacking a college degree or any military flight training, Seal became one of the youngest pilots in TWA history to earn captain’s wings in the Boeing 707 and the jumbo 747 jetliners.
Just a few years later, though, Seal’s high-flying career as an international airline captain crashed and burned after U.S. Customs agents arrested him in New Orleans for trying to smuggle seven tons of military high explosives into Mexico.
In connection with their investigation, Customs agents seized a DC-4 cargo plane in Shreveport packed with nearly 14,000 pounds of C-4 plastic explosives, 7,000 feet of high-explosive primer cord, and 2,600 electric blasting caps. The illegal load was reportedly bound for a group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Mexico.
Where did a 33-year-old pilot from Baton Rouge get his hands on seven tons of military high explosives? And why would he risk a promising, high-paying career as an international airline pilot to smuggle those same weapons-grade explosives into Mexico?
Seal never said, at least not publicly.
Just a week or two after his arrest, Seal had coffee with his ex-wife, Barbara, and her mother. He told them not to worry about the arrest. He wasn’t going to end up in prison, he said. “This was an operation I did for the government,” Barbara recalls Seal telling her and her mother. The explosives were part of a plan “to overthrow Fidel Castro,” Seal explained.
In a recent interview with 225, Barbara described how Barry was essentially disavowed by his own government after his 1972 arrest, something that cost him his job as an airline captain. “That was a government operation,” she insists.
In 1974, two years after his arrest on the weapons smuggling charge, the government finally brought the case before a jury, but the judge declared a mistrial and the charges against Seal were never re-filed. Seal was free, but he didn’t have a job.
Locked up in Honduras
In 1976, Seal started smuggling drugs into the United States from Central and South America. He started with marijuana. Then he moved up to cocaine. He was good at it. He was also lucky. Then his luck ran out.
On Dec. 10, 1979, Seal got busted in Honduras. Some say he had 40 kilos of cocaine inside his airplane. Others say the load was more like 17 kilos. Seal later claimed there were no drugs on the plane, just a machinegun.
Either way, he spent nearly nine months locked up in a Honduran prison before being released. Some claim he bribed his way out.
A couple of years later, Seal was smuggling cocaine for Colombia’s Medellín cartel, headed by the Ochoa brothers (Jorge, Fabio, and Juan), Carlos Lehder, José Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha and Pablo Escobar.
Barry was one of the cartel’s best smugglers. He was so good at flying tons of cocaine into his network of secret airfields around Baton Rouge that the Louisiana State Police formed a special unit to catch him.
Testifying at a hearing shortly after Seal’s death, State Police Lieutenant Bob Thomasson, who headed the special unit, said, “Mr. Seal was suspected of being the head of a large drug smuggling organization, consisting of some 60 people, operating in six or seven states and several foreign countries.”
Fellow pilot recalls Seal’s U.S. government work
A veteran CIA operative who has testified before Congress describes Barry Seal as a friend and fellow operative who for years carried out clandestine work for the U.S. government.
For decades, William “Tosh” Plumlee (in the photo on page 66 he’s the man hiding his face behind his jacket) took part in clandestine operations, mostly as a pilot, but sometimes as a member of the CIA’s ultra-secret covert action group, he told 225 in a recent telephone interview.
Plumlee trained pilots for President Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. He flew weapons to anti-Castro Cubans, to El Salvadorans fighting a communist insurgency, and to Nicaraguan contras. Much of his testimony to Congress is still classified.
“Barry Seal was a friend of mine,” Plumlee says. “I helped rig that camera on the 123.” (The C-123 “Fat Lady” was the aircraft Seal used on a government-sanctioned drug run to Nicaragua.)
Plumlee also said he is in the infamous “Mexico City” picture, seated across the table from Seal and peering out from behind his jacket.
“Seal had connections with military ops,” Plumlee says, “that went back to the ’60s or ’70s, before he was even working at TWA.”
Covert operations, especially the ones that get exposed, often get laid at the door of the CIA, Plumlee says, but in truth many operations involving things like flying weapons to far-off, war-torn places are run by military intelligence. “It’s just easier to blame everything on the CIA,” he says.
“The CIA worked as our logistical support team,” Plumlee says. “Barry Seal worked with military intelligence … secret teams out of the Pentagon for a number of years. Even back in the Cuban days, Seal was pretty active.”
Seal’s 1972 arrest, when he was caught with a plane packed with more than 14,000 pounds of military high explosives, was a covert government operation to provide support to anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Mexico, Plumlee says. “He took a rap on that, but that was a military op.”
So what about the Mexico City photograph?
“This picture had nothing to do with any ops, any CIA,” Plumlee says. It was taken in 1964 or 1965 at a nightclub outside Mexico City. The men in the photo were celebrating a successful aircraft deal. Plumlee ferried one of the planes, an old World War II bomber, to Mexico as part of the transaction, along with Barry Seal and several other pilots.
Life wasn’t all cloak-and-dagger stuff, and much of the work Plumlee and Seal did was mundane, Plumlee says. For example, Plumlee worked as an aircraft mechanic and a plumber, while Seal bought and sold airplanes.
Plumlee says he tried to explain that to researchers who were trying to prove a connection between the photograph, Barry Seal and the Kennedy assassination. But they didn’t want to hear it, and now Plumlee says they trash him and accuse him of being a CIA disinformation agent.
“The picture was after the Kennedy assassination … about 1965,” Plumlee says. “There was no CIA Porter Goss there. There was no Félix Rodriguez.” (Porter Goss was a CIA officer and later became director of the CIA under George W. Bush. Félix Rodriguez, aka Max Gomez, was a longtime CIA operative alleged to have hunted down and killed Che Guevara.)
The photograph was taken by a cigarette girl, who doubled as a nightclub photographer. In the picture, Plumlee is seen trying to hide behind his jacket. “I was in ops and that’s the reason I covered my damn face,” he explains. “I didn’t know they were going to be taking pictures.”
The picture, Plumlee insists, is nothing but that of a bunch of airplane bums celebrating after a successful business deal. He says he was at the nightclub for less than an hour.
“As far as Porter Goss, and Félix Rodriguez and Frank Sturgis—that’s all bull—-,” Plumlee says. (Frank Sturgis was a CIA operative and soldier of fortune. He was later convicted of the Watergate break-in that led to the downfall of the Nixon administration. He was also long-rumored to have been involved in the JFK assassination.)
Although the photograph isn’t connected to a secret government mission, Barry Seal was a covert government operative, according to Plumlee.
“Seal was connected to military ops,” Plumlee says. “There’s no doubt about that. He wasn’t military, but he was contract.”
A place called Mena
Mena, Ark. is hard to find even when you’re looking for it. The isolated town sits on the western edge of the state, in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. One of the biggest things in Mena is the Intermountain Municipal Airport. Mena is also the center of a storm of conspiracy theories, most involving President Clinton, drug smuggling, gun running, Iran-Contra and the CIA.
Theories aside, what is not disputed is that by the early 1980s, Seal felt the heat the Louisiana State Police was putting on him so he moved his smuggling operation to Mena.
At the same time, CIA agents and other government spooks were also operating out of tiny, remote Mena.
Oliver North, a top national security aide to President Reagan, was using the Mena airport as an operational base from which to fly covert shipments of weapons to the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras. And the CIA just happened to choose that same time to conduct what the agency called a “joint training operation” with another, unidentified federal agency at the Mena airport, and to contract for “routine aviation-related services on equipment owned by the CIA.”
So did Barry Seal work for the CIA?
In the years since his death, several sources have come forward and claimed, some during sworn testimony, that Seal was a contract pilot for the CIA who flew weapons to anti-communist forces in Central America.
A gun manufacturer in Arkansas testified in federal court that a CIA operative introduced him to Seal, who bought and shipped guns to the Contras.
Arkansas State Trooper Larry D. Brown claimed he accompanied Seal on two trips to Central America in 1984 during which Seal dropped off pallets stacked with M-16 rifles to the Contras.
CIA contract pilots Terry Reed and William “Tosh” Plumlee have said repeatedly that Seal was a pilot for U.S. intelligence. Reed said Seal hired him to train Nicaraguan pilots at a rough airstrip outside Mena. (Read more from Tosh Plumlee on page 70).
Chicago television station WMAQ reported on a confidential FBI document in which a Mena businessman admitted his company was maintaining one of Seal’s airplanes, a camouflaged military C-123, dubbed “The Fat Lady” for the CIA.
What does the CIA say?
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the CIA sent 225 Magazine an unclassified six-page summary report of the spy agency’s internal investigation into its operations at the Mena Intermountain Airport and the agency’s relationship with Seal. In the summary report (the actual report is classified), the CIA said, “Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal was never employed by the CIA in any capacity.” The agency did, however, acknowledge it had provided Seal with some technical assistance with one of his airplanes during a DEA “sting” operation in Nicaragua.
As far as drug smuggling and gun running out of Mena, the report said, “No evidence has been found that the CIA was associated with money laundering, narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, or other illegal activities at or around Mena, Arkansas at any time.”
Working for the ‘G’
In 1984 Barry Seal’s good luck streak ended. By his own estimate he had flown 50 to 100 smuggling trips to Central and South America and had made $50 million. But the law caught up with him in Florida and Louisiana. In Fort Lauderdale, a federal grand jury indicted him in connection with a Quaalude smuggling case; and in Baton Rouge, the feds charged him with possession of 200 kilos of cocaine and money laundering. Facing upwards of 50 years in prison, Seal decided to become a DEA informant.
Seal’s DEA handlers were astounded at the access he had to the leadership of the Medellín cartel.
DEA Special Agent Robert Joura later said, “I have never met someone who has as much potential and produced as much as Mr. Seal did.”
In June 1984, Seal flew “The Fat Lady” to Nicaragua. At an airbase outside Managua, Seal picked up 1,500 pounds of Colombian cocaine and flew it to Miami. While in Managua, he used a hidden, CIA-installed camera to take secret photographs of Pablo Escobar and a high-ranking Sandinista official loading bags of cocaine onto the airplane.
The Justice Department used the photographic evidence to indict the Medellín cocaine kingpins. The White House and the CIA used the photos to embarrass the Nicaraguan government and build support for their covert war against the Sandinistas.
Three weeks later, Seal’s undercover mission to Nicaragua was blown by press leaks from the White House. Cartel leaders knew their favorite pilot was working for the U.S. government.
They wanted Barry Seal dead.
Max Mermelstein, an American smuggler working for the Medellín cartel in Miami, got the contract to take care of Seal. “Ochoa wanted him kidnapped,” Mermelstein told PBS’s Frontline during a 1994 interview. “Escobar wanted him dead.” The cartel offered $1 million if Seal could be captured alive, $500,000 for his murder.
Mermelstein made several trips to Baton Rouge, even staking out Seal’s home on Oakbrook Drive, but he couldn’t find the elusive smuggler-turned-informant.
Fed up with Mermelstein’s inaction, the cartel gave the contract to someone else, a cold-blooded Colombian assassin named Miguel Velez, who had already beat two murder charges in New York.
Velez put together a hit team and flew to Baton Rouge.
At 6 p.m., Feb. 19, 1986, Colombians Miguel Velez and Luis Quintero were waiting in the parking lot of the Salvation Army center on Airline Highway for Seal. They had read in the newspaper and seen on the TV news that he had to be there by six o’clock.
Three weeks earlier, Judge Frank Polozola had ordered Seal to spend every night for six months at the halfway house. The judge had specifically banned Seal from carrying a gun, or from hiring armed bodyguards.
Unarmed and alone, Seal was an easy target.
As Seal backed his big white Cadillac Fleetwood into a parking space at the Salvation Army, Quintero crouched behind the metal donations bin. He cradled a .45-caliber MAC-10 machinegun in his hands. Screwed onto the end of the barrel was a fat black silencer.
When Seal finished parking, Quintero leapt to his feet and started shooting. Three of the dozen bullets the assassin fired hit Seal in the head. Three more struck him in the chest.
The two killers fled.
Within two days, the FBI had the gunmen, along with several other members of the hit team, in custody. Velez, Quintero, and another man, Bernardo Vasquez, were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
‘A Rebel Adventurer’
More than 20 years after his death, Seal is still the subject of controversy, speculation and rumor. He is mentioned in more than 80 books. Dennis Hopper played him in a movie. And conspiracy theorists have linked him to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, and the Iran-Contra scandal.
Whatever else he may have been, Seal flew through life by the seat of his pants, and in the end that’s what killed him.
“Barry was a pure-bred adventurer,” says Baton Rouge attorney Lewis Unglesby, who represented Seal during many of his legal difficulties.
Seal was buried in Baton Rouge in a sky-blue casket, under a tombstone inscribed with the epitaph he picked out for himself. “A rebel adventurer, the likes of which, in previous days, made America great.”