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How a 1988 cocaine bust in Pinellas County brought down Jungle Mike

Originally published on Sept. 12, 1993

It was a terrific amount of drugs for such a small harbor, the kind of haul people associate with Miami.

Someone had smuggled literally tons of cocaine onto the dock at St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor: 7,300 pounds, Customs announced, when it finished guiding each cedar plank through the X-ray machine to see the kilos inside. The tally went down in history as the largest U.S. seizure for which an arrest had been made, although in the end, the fact of who was arrested may prove the more impressive measure.

It's not easy to overshadow the legend of Jungle Mike.

The legend has been told before, in Saga and True magazines, in National Geographic and Reader's Digest. There were countless mentions in newspapers, others in books, and once, after the edges of the story had grown tattered, a thinly disguised feature film.

But by all accounts no one tells it quite like Mike Tsalickis himself.

"I enjoyed listening to him on cross examination," says Terry Furr, the assistant U.S. Attorney who put Tsalickis away for 27 years. "He's the kind of guy, under different circumstances I would have liked to get a couple of beers with him, just to hear the stories."

The stories are about Leticia, the Colombian frontier town the man from Tarpon Springs all but founded; about giant snakes, which he wrestled for tourists; about gullible Italians, who seem to believe that he actually stalked, shot and ate the Indians who would have died without the hospital he built for them, way back in the bush.

When the DEA agents come around now, though, they don't seem interested in any of that. They file in past the guard station at Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, past the sign reading "Count Your Keys," and take seats opposite prisoner 08482-18, wearing khakis instead of his trademark Tarpon Zoo T-shirt. Then they bore in, pressing for names, demanding "bodies," reminding Tsalickis that, for a man in his 60s, 27 years should sound the same as life.

And after listening for a few hours they leave, as they have a half dozen times before, without hearing the only story that matters any more, and the one tale Tsalickis does not want to tell:

How, exactly, the most famous gringo in the western Amazon came to be ensnared by the narcotics trade he so famously loathed.

 

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He was an American success story of the first order, the eldest son of immigrants growing up just above the Tarpon Springs docks where his father worked as a sponge diver. At 15, Michael Tsalickis was an Eagle scout. At 17, World War II having lifted most young men out of Tarpon, he was the scoutmaster. He talked a cashier into starting a cub scout pack while bagging groceries after school at the All American Market.

He talked the same cashier, Trudie Jerkins, into starting a zoo.

En route to 102 merit badges, Tsalickis had discovered, at Reptiles, a strong affinity for snakes. Once in the Everglades he claims to have bagged 2,000 in two nights by standing on a road during a hurricane. They came like a stampede with the rising water, and though afterward his arms looked like hamburger none of the bites was poisonous.

Tsalickis (the "T" is silent) was careful. The teetotaling that in future years friends would point to as evidence of his rectitude, and which so set him apart in Latin America, was in fact a precaution. Tsalickis never drank because holding a snake requires total concentration; he knew drinkers who got bitten, and he planned a career trading animals.

After a stint in the Army, where he bought a pair of lion cubs, Mike had Trudie start buying the land for what would become the old Tarpon Zoo on U.S. 19 while he set out for Mexico, then Honduras and Costa Rica, then the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

"But then I wanted something more exotic," he said.

He found it in Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon, where he also found plenty of other animal traders. So he headed upstream and 1,800 miles later, the legend goes, happened upon Leticia.

 

Tsalickis was back in Colombia, though barely. The village _ with 800 people in 1953, it hardly qualified as a city _ dangled on the notch of Colombia that hangs between Brazil and Peru, a muddy, dissolute outpost distinguished only as the country's southernmost point and sole Amazon access. Over the next 20 years its growth was driven above all by Tsalickis.

The animals he expected to be so plentiful were not. To gather enough for export to zoos and pet stores, Tsalickis had to boat up and down the river teaching Indians to trap ocelots, bushmasters, tarantulas and the monkeys they had been killing for food. At one point he had 600 families harvesting wildlife. The pesos he paid they took into Leticia to spend.

"It takes a monkey to buy pants in Leticia," Tsalickis remembers. "Takes a monkey to buy a shirt in Leticia."

Five hundred miles from the nearest Colombian road, Tsalickis extended the runway that had been used by only occasional military planes, then persuaded St. Petersburg's ASA freight line to brave landings. Before long he also lured a Brazilian airline and one from Colombia, then acquired his own plane. He brought in his own generator. He set up a sno-cone concession, squirting colored syrup onto brown ice frozen from riverwater.

He started, to his great credit, a hospital.

Within years the town's population swelled to a size that could no longer be ignored by cartographers. Mike Tsalickis had literally put Leticia on the map. The U.S. ambassador came down from Bogota to make him diplomatic counsel.

"His story shows vividly how a courageous individual with faith in himself and in the challenge of free enterprise can lift the standard of living in an entire region," Scott and Kathleen Seegers wrote in "Mike's Revolution," the Americas magazine article that Reader's Digest reprinted in May 1966 as "One-Man Revolution on the Amazon."

The illustration was a drawing of Mike wrestling an anaconda, a snake that can grow to 30 feet and crushes its prey in its coils. The trick, Tsalickis told the reporters who beat a trail to the best story in that part of the world, was to keep the snake in the shallows. "If he gets you into the deep water, you're through," he said.

When National Geographic filmed the spectacle ("but the fast-moving herpetologist won the struggle"), Tsalickis made the footage a regular feature for the tourists at the hotel he built. Business was good and, to a large extent, business was Mike Tsalickis, who eschewed advertising for word of mouth. It was excellent.

Michael Herr, who a few years later produced one of the most knowing books on Vietnam, Dispatches, wrote of Tsalickis in 1968: "He is shrewd and tough, but he is constitutionally honest, devoid of brutality, and so kind that much of his income disappears among the local Indians, the townspeople and whatever down-and-outers find their way to Leticia."

In 1971 one of those vagabonds was Bob Bailey. Knocking around South America after quitting his job as a stockbroker, Bailey heard about Tsalickis from his sister, who had stopped in Leticia for six months. Bailey would stay two years, though in that time the reality he discovered was a good deal more complicated than the Gringo Savior story that played so well in the popular press. To Bailey, the western Amazon that Mike Tsalickis called home looked less like a spread in True than the motley, vaguely hallucinogenic world of missionaries and gunrunners Peter Matthiessen drew in his novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

For starters, there was Monkey Island, the name Tsalickis gave a 1,000 acre Amazon island where he put 3,000 squirrel monkeys, followed by a small hotel. Through careful management, he told the tourists he ferried there, the primate population had grown to 12,000. The idea was to refresh the species he might be accused of depleting through his latest business: exporting primates to the research laboratories of U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

It was important work, both to Tsalickis, who got about $50 per monkey, and to medicine. The squirrel monkey has a coronary system enough like those of humans to lead North Carolina researchers to an important discovery: that a tendency toward high or low cholesterol can be inherited.

But Bailey, now an anthropology professor at UCLA, was more interested in how the monkeys behaved in groups. He began his new career by counting the monkeys on Monkey Island. The actual number, he found, was not the 12,000 Tsalickis claimed but 900.

"He was irate," Bailey says of Tsalickis's reaction to this news, "but he still let me continue my work."

There were other curiosities.

Tsalickis tells of the morning an agitated kitchen helper breathlessly reported that a hotel guest had just eaten 19 pancakes. The guest, a fat man who was invited to keep eating, led Tsalickis to believe he was with the CIA.

In light of what was going on upstream in Peru, it was not a strange belief. Tsalickis learned early on to spot American intelligence agents by their attire. "I'm always a little suspicious," he says, "of a guy who shows up in a nice suit in the jungle." Tsalickis never put much stock in the stories that U.S. agents were in the Amazon training soldiers to do battle with the Cuban communist Che Gueverra. But it was an open secret that the CIA was the real owner of the Amazon Drug Co., an Iquitos, Peru firm that paid for the legitimate research of legitimate scientists, including a young botanist on his way to becoming the world's foremost authority on the coca plant.

Coca, of course, is the raw material for cocaine, which is produced by a three-stage process that begins in the coca fields of Peru and continued, at least in the late 1960s, in cocaine factories near Bogota. For traffickers, the preferred route from one stage to the next ran through the porous border region of Leticia. More and more often, as the '60s gave way to the '70s, people there noticed fast boats running up and down the river from Peru.

About the same time, Tsalickis began losing his most valuable guides, the ones who knew the river best, to jobs that paid ten times what he could.

"I knew what was going on," he says. "I'm not dumb."

 

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In the files of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, every newly logged suspected trafficker is assigned a number. It's a computer thing, a way of keeping track of individuals in a world of aliases and anonymity, but it doubles as a crude guide to how long someone has been under suspicion.

A person who came to the agency's attention today, for instance, would be assigned a relatively long identification number: They're now all the way up to eight digits. Michael Tsalickis' has only five.

"You never see five," says prosecutor Furr, deeply impressed.

But those who knew Tsalickis _ and Leticia _ at close range were not surprised at all.

"There were always rumors about Mike," says Jesse Burks, who carried a folder bulging with them the day he arrived in Leticia in 1969. Burks was a criminal investigator for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, stationed in South America. His office had a sign on the door advising, "Ye Who Enter Here Abandon All Hope," and a shrunken head on the wall. For several tense days he concentrated his attentions on Tsalickis' books.

In the end he announced that the government owed Jungle Mike a $3,000 refund.

"If he was paranoid, he had some data," says Bob Cooper, who first met Tsalickis in 1963 as an agent of the San Diego Zoo.

He says Tsalickis stood out like a sore thumb in the rumor-infested jungle, widely resented for the work ethic he displayed in an area where taking it easy was the norm. The fact that he exported animals, enriching himself on the country's natural resources, could also go against him in the popular imagination.

"He was certainly on the edge of some things," says Cooper, voicing an observation repeated by other visiting scientists, "but it really involved his companies and his planes. I don't think anybody ever nailed him on a serious animal violation in Colombia, and they talked about these "things' that you really never saw a sign of."

Bailey remembers Tsalickis' appetite for the minor scam, colluding with pilots to keep a planeload of passengers overnight at his hotels by discovering "mechanical difficulties" on a layover. He also recalls that early in the drug trade Tsalickis was approached with a few kilos to smuggle on one of his planes.

"He refused. He was disgusted," Bailey remembers. "Mike is essentially a Florida redneck. He hated hippies. He hated drugs. He was disgusted by people who smoked cigarettes!"

It's the consensus of those who were in Leticia in the early years of drug trafficking: For Mike Tsalickis to become a coke lord, he would have to change as much as the town he made.

And it did change. When he flew back to the states in 1974, on a plane with 13,000 parakeets, Bailey counted one seaplane, one high powered boat and one drug dealer in Leticia.

Visting ten years later, he found 16 float planes and more 120 horsepower speedboats than he could count. The big man was not a drug dealer but the Mestizo the dealers hired to count their money. He was introduced as the only honest man in town.

Burks, who returned often before his retirement from IRS (eventually going to work as Tsalickis' accountant), remembers seeing people he remembered as living in shacks on one trip walking down the street with handfuls of money the next.

Tsalickis himself, meanwhile, fell on hard times. In the mid '70s Colombia banned wild animal exports, knocking out his primary livelihood. His response was to push the tourist trade harder than ever, but business was slow, and Tsalickis' lawyers advised filing for bankruptcy.

His name, he says, simply meant too much to him. "Here is Mike Tsalickis, the great Mike Tsalickis, busted!" Instead he persevered and worked off his debts until 1979, when he moved his family _ his second Latin American wife and six kids, two by his first marriage _ back to Tarpon Springs.

If ever he was ripe for a career in the drug trade, this was the time, Tsalickis says. He was broke, bored and extraordinarily well-connected, but he resisted temptation, he says, and went into legitimate import-export at the urging of a pal he reached, after just two weeks away from the bush, by phone in Bogota.

 

"Everybody's up here from Leticia, and they're all drunk," the friend reported. "They all got money!"'

The cargoes Tsalickis began shipping were one more testament to an altered culture. In the 1950s mostly flour and lard came out of the ship holds. Now he filled a boat with 5,000 cases of whiskey, 30,000 of beer, motorbikes, champagne and 20 cases of perfume.

It was lucrative, like a Miami Porsche dealership, but like the dealership kept the businessman removed from the drug industry itself. To Tsalickis it was a crucial distance, one he had taken pains to establish in the late 1960s when the first fast boats were running. He put out the word to one and all that trafficking was not to be discussed around him, that his profile was too high.

" "I don't want to hear it"' was his slogan, Tsalickis says. "That's the only thing that kept me alive."

The mystery of how he happens to be explaining this from prison rises briefly to the surface as Tsalickis tells a story. It is a story about an offer of $1-million a week from a drug dealer, and as he begins to tell it his chestnut eyes flash.

"I'm the kind of guy, I want to listen to all the deals," he says.

Was the flash from a chink in the armor?

Friends will tell you that the wily side of Tsalickis was always there, in the promoter who staged jaguar scenes for Marlon Perkins, in the knowing host who explains an expression for petty graft, "dancing the tango," by rubbing his fingers together and smiling.

"Here's somebody," says Cooper, trying to sum up his old friend, "who was a self-promoter and an Eagle scout and at the same time he was poaching alligators."

Bailey says he cannot imagine Tsalickis succumbing simply to the lure of money, or even to a quest for status, in the corrupt town where he was once the biggest fish, but he wonders how Tsalickis would cope with a trafficker who simply kept after him.

There was, for instance, the Czech who showed up in Leticia in the early '70s with a scheme to sell canned meat from Europe. Tsalickis laughed at the idea, but the Czech kept at him, and, weeks later, they were in business together.

"If someone was persistent enough, I never knew him to say no," Bailey says. "It would have to be over a period of months. He probably just got sucked in gradually."

It is while arguing his defense that Tsalickis gingerly mentions his role as an informant for the DEA. He had Jesse Burks carry notes to its Bogota office. More than that, Tsalickis says, he cannot tell, for fear of reprisals on his family.

From Fort Myers, DEA agent Richard Crawford says Tsalickis has nothing to worry about there: He was de-activated as an informant for never giving the agency anything solid.

The fact is, by the mid 1980s Tsalickis could have stood to climb back into the DEA's good graces. Drugs were so overrunning Colombia that it might have been impossible for the Pope himself to remain above suspicion, never mind a gringo operating an import-export business between coastal Florida and a region of Colombia reporters were now being warned they visited at their peril. It did not help when, one day at the Bogota airport, 10 kilos were found on a plane Tsalickis owned. He spent a night in jail before a mechanic admitted the drugs were his. And later, Tsalickis' name was found in the address book of the reputed head of the Cali Cartel, Gilberto Rodriguez. Tsalickis replied, with some logic, that given his prominence it would be news only if his name were not in an address book.

Yet when a bomb turned up in Tarpon Springs, he acknowledged it might have been meant for him. And watching television one night in Leticia, Tsalickis saw a report that was both absurd and prophetic: On the evening news, they said he had just been arrested in Brazil.

"I'm in jail in Manaus _ and I'm in Leticia!" he cries.

The Colombian papers carried corrections, but his reputation was headed south.

The nadir may have been The Hotel Colonial, an Italian-made feature film that confounds Tsalickis to this day. When the filmmakers showed up in Leticia, he provided his usual services, rounding up Indians in native face paint and costumes ("Maybe $50 per Indian; I would pay the Indian $1") and a few monkeys ("I got a rental price and a death price").

But the fast-moving herpetologist was behind the times. In the finished film Robert Duvall starred as the gringo owner of a Leticia hotel who showed guests a movie of him wrestling an anaconda and exported wild animals on the side. He also smuggled cocaine and, apparently for fun, killed and scalped Indian children.

It became, at least in Italy, the new Legend of Leticia. Once again the Colombian press investigated, this time discounting the hunting allegations as a perverse magnification of the criticism Tsalickis now endured of "exploiting" area Indians by bringing tourists around to see them in the native dress their promoter had laid out.

"I give them a boat, a motor and a net to catch food," Tsalickis cries, "and I'm bad?"

When Italians actually called to ask him to arrange one of his human game "hunting trips," Tsalickis produced Ticuna blowguns and darts dipped in poison, to impress upon the Europeans exactly who might hunt whom. The slur was still in his craw at his 1988 trial. He went on about it from the witness stand.

"If he was going to talk about that in front of the jury, I'm not going to stop him," Furr said. "They probably believe he did that too."

 

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As 1988 began, the DEA Tampa office met with Pinellas County sheriffs officials and U.S. Customs officers about Mike Tsalickis.

"He's been doing things under our noses for a long time," agent Crawford told the locals, "and I think we should do something about it."

A month later, the DEA office in Bogota received a letter. Though unsigned, the postmark read Cali, home of the Cali Cartel. In considerable detail, the letter laid out a smuggling operation that DEA recognized as a classic Cali operation:

The ship Amazon Sky came into the port of St. Petersburg loaded with cedar boards. In the hold, a customs agent drilled a board he had seen a Colombian studying and came up with cocaine.

For two weeks, the agents and local police watched the shipment from hiding. They saw the boards hauled to a St. Petersburg warehouse. They saw other boards hauled to a warehouse Tsalickis owned on the site of the old Tarpon Zoo, the journey up U.S. 19 punctuated by a confederate running the most obvious countersurveillance one agent had ever seen: stopping in intersections for an entire light cycle to look for tails.

Most damaging of all, they saw Tsalickis directing forklifts to position the lumber. The act was key because, when the officers finally grew tired of watching and served their search warrants, all 701 boards that contained cocaine were in the same place. At trial, Furr put a statistics professor on the stand to testify that you have a better chance of hitting the Lotto jackpot six straight weeks than of the boards ending up that way by chance.

It was that kind of case, Furr says: "The evidence kept coming and coming and coming."

There was testimony from agents that Tsalickis and his confederates exchanged high fives when the shipment was safely inside the warehouse.

There was testimony from the man employed to run the warehouse that Tsalickis had boasted of helping a drug dealer count stacks of money.

There was the Sears clerk who testified that Tsalickis had been in Sears asking about table saws because he had a lot of lumber.

"He lied!" Tsalickis says.

Furr, prowling his office like he's giving a summation, waves his hand.

"At trial he must have called 15 people liars. He's a world class doper. I don't believe this was the first time he did this by any stretch of the imagination."

Since the U.S. 11th Circuit denied the appeal, agent Crawford has come around twice to interview the prisoner. The last time, he left red in the face. After indicating otherwise, Crawford says, Tsalickis had nothing to offer after all. Tsalickis explains he has too many relatives in Colombia to say word one, and after what he calls the government's misbehavior in his case why should he put any faith in its witness protection program?

He shakes his head.

"Whether you know anything or not, it's best to say nothing."

 

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On Hope Street in Tarpon Springs, an old woman steps out of a small white building and shuffles through the midday glare to the church in her back yard. The Shrine of St. Michael was constructed by the Tsalickis family after Mike's brother Steve, dying of a brain tumor at age 11, had a vision of the saint and recovered his health. Inside are three rows of pews, the icon from the Greek isle where the old woman spent her youth, and a half dozen pairs of crutches left behind by people who found the kind of miracles that Mrs. Tsalickis, in her five or six trips a day, now asks to deliver her eldest son.

Most of his prison roommates have been Colombians. The latest agreed to turn off the air conditioning, which keeps down the welts that dry air brings out on skin conditioned by 37 years in the jungle. Still extravagantly energetic, Michael Tsalickis spends much of the day at his typewriter, corresponding with dozens of people back in Leticia, filing futile legal motions (one, in the middle district, was a motion to end the drug war), and picking at the loose ends in the government's case.

Such as: if he was shipping cocaine in wood shipments for the cartel as early as 1983, as DEA files suggest, where is the money?

His only known stateside investment, the Tarpon Financial Center, was in fact heavily mortgaged when the feds seized it. His holdings in Leticia, once valued at $1.5-million, may be next to worthless without Tsalickis to run them.

It's impossible to say for certain. The town has changed so much. One year 30 people were murdered in the street. The Colombian military swept through the jungles looking for drug labs to wreck and scattering drug lords. One of those who disappeared for a time was Vincente Rivera, the man Tsalickis acknowledges owned the ship he served as agent.

"The guy had money to spend, and Mike thought he could make money in the shipping business," Burks says, of the figure law enforcement calls "Vincentico." "I told Mike all along, you're messing with people who are gonna get you in trouble."

And Tsalickis, the man who once made a living by word of mouth, who would not declare bankruptcy because it would sully his name, brushed the warning off. His slogan had become "so long as they spell my name right," a policy the Legend of Leticia had no cause to regret until his press helped to put him in jail.

The pivotal moment came on cross examination, when Furr pulled out a batch of newspaper clippings.

"Most of the dopers we see," the prosecutor explains today, ". . . they're invisible people. They want to blend in. They don't want to be noticed.

"This guy was different."

The clippings were from South American papers and dated three years before the Bayboro bust. There were accusations from Brazil, which Tsalickis had watched on television that night in Leticia, and there was a batch of corrections from Colombia, whose newspapers he had prevailed upon to record that he was not, at that time, in jail at all.

But three years later, the striking thing remained the substance of the charges themselves. For what the coverage described, in impressive detail, was a smuggling enterprise practically identical to the one that had just been laid in the Tampa courtroom: Leticia, the Amazon Sky, the lumber, the cocaine, Vincente Rivera, Tarpon Springs and, in the middle of it all, Mike Tsalickis.

Operation Eccentric, the Brazilians called it, and when Tsalickis saw the reports on TV that night, he remembers laughing out loud.

How a 1988 cocaine bust in Pinellas County brought down Jungle Mike 04/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 8:48am]

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