ESTERO — Tim McBride's first night of smuggling pot in 1980 netted him $5,000 in cash.
"Rookie pay," he said.
He picked up another five grand the next night.
"This is outrageous, man," McBride said, sitting in his Estero home recently, recalling his introduction to smuggling. "Hand me a little paper bag with cash in it. It was the greatest thing in the world. Here I am just 21 years old, I got 10 grand in my pocket."
It got better and then much worse. What began as a gig crabbing out of Everglades City became an endeavor that eventually netted perhaps $25 million — plus four years in a federal prison and a $4 million fine.
Those days are long gone. Now, he's a 53-year-old single dad with two teenagers. He lives in a one-story house in the woods, and he and some of his smuggling pals gathered at Fred's Food, Fun & Spirits in Naples for a reunion.
The group drew a crowd.
"It's everything I expected, really," McBride said.
The purpose wasn't celebrating the drug days but merely recalling them. "We weren't saints," McBride said. "We were breaking the law."
He was just one of hundreds of young men hauling pot in and around Everglades City during the '70s and '80s. Two raids in the mid 1980s led to the arrests of perhaps 80 percent of the town's men. But the lure of big and quick money was tempting, very tempting. And very big.
Steve Whitlock was one of those young men operating out of Everglades City, darting in and out of the Ten Thousand Islands, bringing in marijuana and piling up money.
"It was fun, exciting," said Whitlock, now 52 and an artist in Sarasota, who attended the reunion. "A lot of adrenaline. Running around the middle of the night, beating the man at it. It was almost a game."
Almost. Whitlock served 26 months in prison.
McBride became known as the Saltwater Cowboy. His estimate of making $25 million might seem outlandish to some who weren't part of that time and place.
"That's a good conservative estimate," said David Waller, then a Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent assigned to the case. He's now based in Lakeland.
Waller said McBride had direct contact with marijuana wholesalers from other countries.
"He was good — a very smooth talker," Waller said.
When McBride pointed his 1976 blue Mustang Cobra south in 1980 and left Wisconsin, he didn't intend to become a smuggler. In faraway Everglades City, opportunity knocked when a friend signed him up for a crabbing job.
"He got me offshore and said, 'Look, buddy, here's the deal,' " McBride said. "He said we're going to haul pot and I said, 'Okay, let's go for it.' And that was my first day of crabbing, and it was also actually my first night of hauling pot."
Between the pot runs, there was actual crabbing.
"It was killer work, but I loved it," he said. "You get on the boat 3 or 4 in the morning, get the bait secured and climb in the bunk and fall asleep. … You can't help but fall in love with that way of life, and I certainly did."
He also fell in love with drug money. He said after his rookie pay, he averaged between $15,000 and $75,000 a job. Eventually, that increased to $500,000 and even $1 million.
He spent a lot on good times, such as trips to the Bahamas. He showered friends and associates with generous pay.
A lot of it he didn't get to spend. He had $8 million in his house when he was arrested.
McBride loved money, not violence. He said he and his friends didn't use weapons.
"We weren't violent by any stretch of the imagination," McBride said. "We were just a bunch of good ol' boys. We ran around with no shoes on, cut-off jeans, fishing and crabbing and having a good time just like other kids in their early to mid 20s — but we had this thing going on, this opportunity to make killer money because we all, you know, smoked it, grew up with it.
"That's how I think I justified what I was doing. I didn't see it as being damaging in any way. That was my young mind and my young way of rationalizing."
But this life couldn't go on. The law was closing in. McBride was arrested at his Naples home in 1988.
"It almost destroyed my life," McBride said. "I could be in prison still with a life sentence."
McBride said he avoided that because he wasn't a violent offender. He got out in 1993 and became a construction worker.
About three months ago, he received a call from Waller. Waller said he and the ex-con had a pleasant chat.
"He told about his life and how he had gone to prison and a little bit of his life after prison and went through a failed marriage," Waller said.
Waller heard about the reunion and burst into laughter.
What he would find is a different Tim McBride from the one who drove that Mustang into Everglades City in 1980.
"Don't judge me," McBride said, "by what I did as a foolish kid."