Traffic accident in Australia ends 40-year-old mystery in Florida

Lee and Janet Lafferty on the Daintree River in Daintree, Australia.
Lee and Janet Lafferty on the Daintree River in Daintree, Australia.
Published July 3, 2015

Death comes to everyone, even those — like Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. — who have been dead for 40 years.

His first passing was by far the more newsworthy.

It was 1974, and Florida's statewide grand jury had indicted Stansel for smuggling more than 12 tons of marijuana. Prosecutors described Stansel, then a 37-year-old fisherman and charter boat captain out of Tarpon Springs, as a "soldier of fortune."

When arrested that June, he had $25,000 in cash, receipts for two $25,000 Rolex watches, signed blank tourist visas that would allow him into Nicaragua at any time, unused checks on a Swiss bank account, flags from six countries and a passport indicating he had been in 12 in the preceding 30 days.

Stansel posted bail with a $500,000 cashier's check, surrendered his U.S. passport and left the Hillsborough County Jail to await a trial scheduled for Jan. 5, 1975, in Daytona Beach.

On the morning of Jan. 5, Stansel's attorney announced that he had disappeared in a scuba diving accident off Roatan, Honduras, on New Year's Eve. His body had not been recovered but airplanes were searching the shoreline.

Few believed the story. On the other hand, no one could find him.

Read more: Facing life in prison, drug smuggler thinks of home in Tampa Bay

In 1976, officials in Honduras reported capturing Stansel. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced he was in custody and sent officers to pick him up. All they found was an empty cell.

Years passed. Law enforcement officials heard stories that Stansel was smuggling drugs in Honduras, Panama or some other port in Central or South America. Pinellas sheriff's deputies said he was a frequent visitor to Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.

"It's like chasing a phantom," said Lt. Michael Hawkins, head of the Pinellas sheriff's vice unit in the 1980s. "But there is no doubt he's alive, and there is no doubt he frequents Pinellas County."

As it turns out, Hawkins was half right.

• • •

Stansel was a poster boy for Florida's ascendancy in the 1970s as a prime destination for pot smugglers.

A key date, headline-wise, was March 5, 1973, with the seizure of nine tons of marijuana brought ashore on the Steinhatchee River in Dixie County. Officials arrested seven men from St. Petersburg Beach and Cortez. Only later did they learn that the nine tons was just half the load. The smugglers did not have enough trucks to get it all out of the area. In that era, smugglers, sometimes with the help of local officials, used semitrailer trucks to haul loads of marijuana from remote shores on the gulf to big cities.

Sometimes, the smugglers got caught.

David L. McGee, a Pensacola lawyer and for years the prosecutor in charge of a federal drug task force in North Florida, said a number of the accused would offer up sightings of Stansel in an effort to get their charges reduced.

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"It was like sightings of Elvis or Big Foot," McGee said.

And about as accurate.

Stansel's disappearance was reported after a scuba diving trip. Janet Wood, a Key West resident who had become Stansel's girlfriend, and Pamela Hunt of Pittsburgh were with him in Honduras.

U.S. officials there said the women were with Stansel the night before at the home of an American in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Officials said the women returned to the states but Wood said she did not return. She dropped out of sight, leaving law enforcement officials to speculate that she had joined Stansel on the run.

For once, their speculation was on target.

• • •

The story in the May 28, 2015, edition of the Cairns (Australia) Post reads:

The Daintree community has been left heartbroken by the road death of local tourism stalwart Dennis "Lee" Lafferty.

The 75-year-old crocodile cruise operator died after his ute (pickup truck) failed to negotiate a bend on the Mossman Daintree Rd and hit a tree on Tuesday.

He was the 19th person to die on Far North roads since the start of the year.

There has been an outpouring of grief in the town where he operated the Daintree River Cruise Centre for 28 years.

The story did not report that in Tarpon Springs, "Lafferty" went by the name Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. He was actually 78 years old.

The story of how Stansel got from Florida to Honduras and then 9,000 miles to Australia, and the way he spent those years, has not been told until now.

Last week, after the funeral in Australia, Janet Wood and several others who knew Stansel in Australia agreed to tell their story.

Stansel married Wood — one of the women who reported him missing — in 1975. She returned to the United States briefly after his reported disappearance at Roatan and then disappeared. For years her family did not know where she was.

Wood said she met Stansel after he spotted her at the famed Chart Room Bar in Key West in 1973. It was a watering hole for an eclectic mix of politicians, millionaires, artists, musicians, treasure hunters and various unsavory types. Singer Jimmy Buffett and treasure hunter Mel Fisher were frequent visitors in those days.

Stansel asked a friend to introduce him to Wood and both were smitten, she recalled. Their romance blossomed in the Keys in an era when drug smugglers used it as a stopover on trips to Jamaica and Colombia.

Wood says Stansel told her of a great-uncle who went to Australia in the 1920s or '30s and came back telling everyone how beautiful it was.

He saw a chance to start over, she said, and create a new and better life.

• • •

In 1975, Wood and Stansel began their trip by boat. They planned to sail their way around the world, but Wood became ill. She thought she was getting seasick but later discovered she was pregnant when she lost the child. They went ashore in Venezuela, flew to Peru, to Tahiti and then to New Hebrides where, she said, they got married. The trip ended in Australia where they settled in far north Queensland.

He wanted to get as close to the Great Barrier Reef as possible, Wood said.

At first, their new home was a 53-foot boat designed and built by Stansel, who was known locally as Dennis Lee Lafferty. They named it the Jessie Ray, after their first daughter, born in 1976. They worked out of Port Douglas, a resort community on the Coral Sea with a climate very much like Florida's. Another daughter, Kianna, was born in 1980.

"We lived very simply," Wood recalled. "We fished and made cast nets."

They lived on the boat for seven years before buying land a short distance away on the Daintree River. Lafferty designed and built a house for them. In 1987, they started the Daintree River Cruise Centre and began offering boat trips on the crocodile-filled river surrounded by a dense rain forest. The area is a naturalist's dream, thick with mangroves and a complex ecosystem that attracted university students and professors from all over the world.

Lafferty became widely known as a marine biologist and expert boat captain. He made friends with environmental experts who came to study the area's remarkable flora and fauna. Wood said he made cast nets unlike any that were in use in Australia at the time and used live bait, hauling in fish like nobody else.

The Daintree area has become a popular tourist and resort area in recent years but was very remote in the 1970s. Immigrating to Australia was no problem back then because the country was lightly populated and urging white, English-speaking foreigners to become citizens.

"I came in under my own name," Wood recalled. "I was not being investigated." She would not say where Stansel got the Lafferty name, but a check of public records indicates that several men with the same name live in Australia and the United States and several are listed in death records of the '60s and '70s.

"Our challenge was to make a living and keep a low profile," she said. "We had a couple of close calls. Once someone thought I was Patty Hearst. I was afraid, but we had a good life. I'm surprised no one ever came looking for him."

She described her husband as "very calm" in any situation and said he would not have told her if he knew someone had recognized him or if anyone who knew him visited the area.

During their years together, she said, her husband kept many things to himself to protect her. She says the stories about him being seen around the Caribbean or in Florida and the story about him being captured in Honduras were not true.

After 1975, "he was never there," Wood said, referring to Central and South America and Florida.

• • •

Wood would not talk about another man of interest from the Tampa Bay area: Brian Goldner, Stansel's business partner and pilot. They operated a seafood business in Honduras. Stansel invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify when asked about Goldner during a marathon bond hearing in 1974. Goldner was the son of former St. Petersburg Mayor Herman Goldner, who died in 2010.

The younger Goldner was reported dead in a 1983 plane crash in Colombia. He was piloting a World War II-era B-25 bomber that caught fire. Three other people died in the crash.

Contacted last week, Goldner's brother, Michael, said the family received Brian's ashes after the crash and used his Air Force dental records to make an identification.

• • •

When Stansel fled from authorities in 1974, he left behind his first wife and four children. Some family members say he never saw his Florida family again. Others believe his sons visited him, but Wood said she doesn't believe he ever had contact with them. Obituaries for his ex-wife, Mildred, in 2009 and his mother, Eleanor Ruth Stansel, in 2004 listed him as having predeceased them.

Two of his children, Ronald Stansel, 56, and Raymond G. Stansel III, 57, are in federal prison after pleading guilty to importing cocaine. They were indicted in 1991. Both were fugitives for a time. Ronald was arrested in 1994. Raymond dropped out of sight for 20 years after the cocaine indictment. He lived in Alaska under the name Don Davenport and married a Kodiak police officer during those years, leaving a wife and child behind in Florida. His mother's obituary listed him as already dead in 2009, but he was arrested in Texas in 2010 and returned to Florida to face the charges.

"It was hard on all of our families," Wood said. "Only in recent years was I in contact with my family."

• • •

Stories in Australian newspapers where the man known as Lafferty lived were filled with praise for him and a sense of loss. Douglas Shire (county) Mayor Julia Leu praised him as "a lovely man and a gentleman" she had known for more than 20 years, according to the Cairns Post report.

Mossman police Sgt. Matt Smith investigated the traffic accident and called the death "devastating for the community."

Dr. Norman C. Duke, a Stanford University professor who took his students to the cruise center 20 years ago is among those who liked Lafferty. Duke liked the area so much that he moved to Australia, teaching first at Queensland University. He is now a fellow at James Cook University.

"Lee was always there to provide genuine encouragement, well-founded advice, and where he could, he offered practical logistic support of a vessel or other practical things, like fuel. . . . It made a huge difference to me," Duke said.

Asked if he knew of Lafferty's past life and the drug charges, Duke said the man he knew in Australia led an "exemplary" life and suggested someone should take a closer look at the original charges in Florida.

Not all of Lafferty's acquaintances shared Duke's high opinion. Christine Doan, a former Olympic horseback rider who taught horseback riding to Lafferty's two daughters many years ago, said the girls shared their father's past with her when they were teenagers.

"The secrecy and paranoia of the entire family is twisted," Doan said. "Janet is one of the most in-denial humans I ever met. The family used to treat this as a young man's hoot, they have an enormous need to whitewash this."

Doan moved from the United States to Australia in 1970 when a number of Americans were seeking a new life in remote Australian areas.

She says she kept quiet about Lafferty's past as an older, trusted friend and because her brother married his daughter Jessie, so they were "family." But she didn't like the "lies and secrecy which created so much collateral damage in the family." Her brother and Jessie have since divorced.

Wood says most other people in the area did not know about his previous life as Ray Stansel.

She and her husband divorced a few years ago, and she began traveling back to the United States. She wouldn't discuss the reasons for the divorce, but did say it was amicable and that he had Parkinson's disease. They had tried to sell the cruise center several times but she took it off the market after his death. She said their daughters and grandchildren want to keep it.

• • •

In Florida, officials did not know of Stansel's death or where he had spent the past 40 years until contacted by a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Many witnesses and law enforcement officers who were involved in the case are dead. Some officials think it would have been extremely difficult to prosecute Stansel even if he had been caught this many years later.

At the time, the maximum charge for possession of marijuana was five years in prison. It didn't matter how much marijuana a person had. Many people on both sides of the law look back on that era as a time when importing was something of a lark, before penalties were increased and cocaine became the product of choice. Both made smuggling much more dangerous.

Bob Cummings, a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement official, was one of the agents on the Stansel case in the 1970s. Contacted last week, Cummings could even recall the case number assigned for it: 532-28-0064.

"It is forever emblazoned in my mind," Cummings recalled. "When we locked on to them, they were like pirates. They started in Tarpon Springs poor and made a hell of a lot of money."

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