BRADENTON — Facing years in prison in the late 1980s, former Bradenton resident Christine Dickinson simply vanished.
As a suspected ringleader in a $200 million Florida drug operation, Dickinson and others were accused of smuggling cocaine and marijuana from Colombia and Jamaica.
Few tips on Dickinson's whereabouts ever came in. Her boyfriend was arrested in France long ago. Others in the ring are out of prison and now living respectable lives.
But Dickinson was a ghost.
The ghost walked into the Manatee County Tax Collector's Office in Bradenton earlier this month and made a critical mistake. She asked for a Florida identification card — in her real name.
Dickinson, 61, who lived in South Florida before her flight, was arrested on Dec. 1 after a clerk became suspicious because no record existed showing Dickinson ever possessed a Florida identification card or driver's license.
"It was as if she had just come down from the planet Neptune," said Tony Conboy, a spokesman for the Manatee tax collector.
So ended the two-decade search for the last person yet to be prosecuted in a drug case both bizarre and precedent-setting.
The case led in the late 1980s to the first-ever instance in which Swiss authorities cooperated with U.S. officials in a major money-laundering investigation, said David McGee, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's North Florida district.
"It was big-time drug smuggling," said McGee, who was the lead prosecutor in the office's organized crime task force.
And Dickinson, he said, was one of the operation's leaders. "They were good at what they did," he said. "They were really good."
Dickinson appeared in U.S. District Court in Tampa on Monday and was ordered transferred to Gainesville. That's where the federal case against her is filed.
She is being held without bail.
• • •
Dickinson had a background in boats and sailing.
In the early 1980s, she was hired as a ship's cook. The vessel's captain would become her paramour. It was a perfect match, one co-defendant said.
"They hit it off because they both had larceny at heart," said Ken Rijock, a former South Florida lawyer who helped the ring launder millions.
Rijock, who served time in prison, is now a businessman whose book on his illegal adventures, The Laundry Man, is set for publication next year.
The ring's expertise was its ability to keep drugs well hidden, even if the Coast Guard or law enforcement boarded, McGee said.
The group hired beautiful women to pose as tourists on Caribbean pleasure cruises. The women went topless, McGee said, as a distraction to anyone who came looking for drugs.
And their boats were built around special compartments designed to hide contraband.
"Even the drug dogs couldn't smell it," McGee said.
The smuggling ring was uncovered when one of its vessels ran aground in the Caribbean.
That led authorities to a drug-laden boat in Destin.
• • •
Federal prosecutors tried to track all the cash produced by the group. One Caribbean bank account frozen by authorities was held in the names of cartoon characters. McGee said Dickinson was Minnie Mouse.
But the ring bribed a local magistrate to unfreeze the money, McGee said, and it was quickly wired elsewhere. Some of the funds made it to banks in Switzerland.
"They then paid an Italian movie producer to claim the money was his," McGee said.
After a second bribe, this time to a Swiss official, the money was unfrozen again, McGee said.
Investigators never recovered it all, nor were they able to find a high-end art collection they believed Dickinson owned.
A few dozen people would ultimately be prosecuted in north Florida.
Few details about Dickinson's life on the run have been released. Jail records show Dickinson listed her parent's address in Bradenton as her home.
But Vivian Dickinson, her mother, said she hadn't lived there for years. She otherwise declined to comment.
McGee said Dickinson may face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of racketeering.
As to how she eluded capture all those years, McGee said he hasn't a clue.
"I'm dying to find out."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.