1. News

Facing life in prison, drug smuggler thinks of home in Pinellas County

Published Jul. 6, 2015

Tommy Powell, international drug smuggler, picked an odd time to think about where he would like to retire.

It was 1984. Powell, who was just in his mid 30s, had been extradited after spending a decade on the lam overseas. He stood accused of importing more than 300,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States. A maximum sentence of life plus 70 years would have left details of his retirement entirely in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The dire situation induced Powell to think long term — and about the Pinellas County beaches on which he grew up.

"I would have hated not living in my hometown in my twilight years even though I was a federal fugitive for 10 years,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times.

"I've been in 29 countries, thousands of cities,'' he said. "I had a Lear jet and a Bell jet helicopter — all the toys. I thought it would be cool to be in Europe, but this is the best place on planet Earth.''

So Powell made a deal.

• • •

Powell, now 67, was one of dozens of young men from the Pinellas beaches and surrounding area active in the drug trade in the 1970s. Many were arrested and spent years in jail. Others died, some in accidents, some mysteriously.

One of their number was Raymond Grady Stansel Jr., who faked his own death and disappeared rather than face trial in early 1975 on charges of smuggling 12 tons of marijuana. Stansel lived as a respectable owner of a tourist center in remote northeastern Australia until his death last month in a traffic crash.

In those early days of the drug war, Stansel faced a maximum five-year prison sentence. By 1984, when it was Powell's turn to face justice, penalties ranged up to life in prison.

Powell knew Stansel and thinks he made a mistake by abandoning his homeland.

"I couldn't believe he didn't turn himself in and do the time,'' Powell said in an email after reading a Tampa Bay Times account of Stansel's life and death in a traffic accident.

• • •

Powell was born in Detroit. In 1955, he moved with his wealthy parents and four brothers to Redington Beach in Pinellas County. He attended St. John's Catholic School and Seminole High.

His parents owned two beachfront hotels and an uncle had a financial interest in the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa in Belleair. Powell and his surviving brother inherited the hotels — the Arvilla Motel and Resort and the Casa Marina — and have since sold them.

Powell said he was just 23 when his first major load, 16,000 pounds of Colombian pot, came ashore near Pine Island off Hernando County in 1971. He sold most of it to college students and friends in Michigan.

Powell's first indictment came in 1975 in Detroit for 236 pounds of hashish oil, a highly potent derivative of marijuana plants. The charges were later dismissed.

Still, Powell could see trouble coming, so he spent the next 10 years overseas. He lived for six years in Santa Marta, Colombia, where he met a woman from Sweden who became his wife and the mother of his two children. He later moved to Sweden.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every weekday morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

During this time, he frequently returned to the United States to arrange for the importation of boatloads of marijuana. Powell estimates he brought in more than 500,000 pounds of marijuana and helped with an additional 2.5 million pounds.

A book by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ross Parker and DEA Agent John Graetz, who prosecuted Powell and others in Michigan, identified Powell as one of the first American smugglers to establish connections with international growers to bring big loads of marijuana into the United States.

"Profits from these operations quickly established Powell as one of the most prolific and successful traffickers in the area,'' they wrote.

Powell had so much cash that he had trouble handling it all. On one occasion, in 1974, Powell buried a suitcase stuffed with almost $383,000, only to have it discovered by a landowner who called police and ultimately gained ownership of the money as "found property.''

He was living in Sweden when Michigan authorities indicted him in 1984, but Powell was not worried. He had researched Sweden's extradition law and did not think he could be extradited.

He was right — until 1984 when the law was amended.

He was extradited to the United States in July that year to face a charge of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, the most serious charge in the federal tool kit to curb smuggling .

With nowhere to run, Powell's thoughts turned to home.

"I went to school here, had all my friends here, did most of my business here and the weather is perfect and it's a laid-back town,'' he said. "I was tired of being in countries where they don't speak English, and I never really felt like I was at home anywhere else but here.''

So Powell offered to plead guilty in return for a lesser sentence.

He got 10 years. Served just six.

• • •

In prison, Powell found a new occupation: jailhouse lawyer.

Assigned to work in the prison library (and its set of law books), Powell entertained himself with suits challenging various rules and regulations, and frequently sought copies of records prison officials were unwilling to share.

His challenges began while he was an inmate at Milan Federal Correctional Institution near Detroit. Michigan authorities wanted to transfer him to another prison in Minnesota. Powell argued that his home was in Florida and fought for a move south.

He ended up at the Federal Corrections Institution in Tallahassee.

From there, he challenged the prison system's refusal to divulge an internal manual that outlines the limits that can be imposed on inmates charged with certain crimes. He lost in a lower court. But the U.S. District Court of Appeal in Washington, D.C., determined that parts of the manual had been released and that he should be able to see it.

Powell also filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after workers removed asbestos from cells without adequate protection for inmates.

A district judge dismissed the complaint. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta reversed the decision, saying prison officials displayed "deliberate indifference'' because they failed to remove prisoners from areas where workers were releasing "friable asbestos'' into the air. The prison had to pay a $51,800 fine.

A court clerk in North Florida declared Powell's frequent lawsuits "frivolous'' and refused to accept additional ones — until the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington intervened, saying that the court could not characterize his actions as frivolous.

So successful was Powell that he appeared before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, a rare situation for lawsuits filed by prison inmates representing themselves.

Powell ended up at another federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base, often referred to as a "country club.''

At Eglin, officials put Powell in charge of the exercise room to keep him out of the library. He used his days getting in shape and losing weight.

"I worked out every living day,'' he said. "I was in better shape than ever when I left.''

• • •

Back in the '70s, Powell believed that marijuana should be legalized — and he still does.

"It's exactly the same as Prohibition was,'' he said. "I definitely wanted marijuana legal, it didn't hurt anybody and made people feel better.''

He prides himself on having never testified against anyone else in all of his various engagements with law enforcement.

These days, Powell lives in Pinellas (he asked that address not be publicized) with his girlfriend, Dale, having separated from his wife. He works for himself as a computer expert and is finishing his third year at St. Petersburg College studying digital forensics. He is writing a book about his smuggling days.

It's called Reefer.

In an email to the Times, Powell wrote that he is ''totally broke, don't pay taxes and owe the federal government $51,000 for my college education. Kinda doubt I'm ever going to pay that back.''

He says the immense profits he made as a smuggler "never really made anything for me but problems and false friends. I don't like being broke and I have fewer friends, but the ones that I do have are real.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lucy Morgan at Follow @lucytimes.