Florida Keys News
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Friends seek release of smuggler

PLANTATION KEY -- Nearly 25 years ago, Coral Shores High School graduate and drill truck business owner Richard "Dickie" Lynn was sentenced to life in federal prison for cocaine smuggling.

Now, as Lynn turns 60 on Thursday, July 16, friends, family and even the Alabama state trooper who helped put Lynn away are part of an organized effort to win his release.

"Every day in my career I sat there and watched people get released from penitentiaries that were murderers, child abusers, cop killers and they walk out of prison," said Ed Odom, who retired in 2008 after 43 years as an Alabama trooper. "Dickie's sitting there and I think it is very, very disproportionate."

Lynn and 23 others, many of them from the Florida Keys, were indicted in 1989 on charges of participating in a smuggling ring that extended from Colombia to rural Alabama and even had ties to the notorious Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar.

But while his cohorts have gradually been released from incarceration over the past two decades, Lynn remains locked in the Coleman Federal Prison near Orlando.

The story of Lynn's life is the stuff of movies. He came of age during the "Cocaine Cowboy" days of the 1970s, when the Keys were a major drop-off point in the booming drug trade. But Lynn did far more than merely dabble with the sale of an occasional washed-up bale of marijuana or cocaine.

He was convicted in 1989 of importing 13,000 kilos of cocaine over seven years from Colombia up what author Domingo Soto called "the 88" -- the longitude line that runs through Mobile, Ala., and into the rural hunting camps that had become the base of operations for the organization Lynn helped command.

Soto, a defense attorney, penned the 2013 book, "Apprehended: The Trials of Dickie Lynn."

Each drug operation, Soto wrote, began with a plane based out of Miami. It would pick up the cocaine in Colombia, stop for refueling in Belize and eventually make its way to a makeshift landing field north of Mobile.

The operation came unraveled when one of the delivery planes crashed, leaving two pilots dead.

Federal authorities accused Lynn of being the head of the organization. But though a jury found him not guilty of that charge after a five-week trial in late 1989, his conviction on seven drug-related counts was enough to garner life in prison.

The plot only thickened from there. After the trial, authorities took Lynn to the Federal Correctional Institution in Talladega, Ala. But he didn't stay for long.

In March 1990 Lynn escaped from the prison, hiding in a vegetable truck driven by an accomplice. He remained on the run for several months, earning a place on the U.S. Marshal Service's "15 Most Wanted" list and getting back into the smuggling business. Lynn, using the alias Justin Peters, was caught in Gulfport, Miss., in August of that year, five months after his escape.

The escape would end up costing him dearly. While Lynn was on the lam, Jack Marshall and Islamorada's Robert Eyster, the two men convicted in the same trial as Lynn, filed what would ultimately be a successful appeal. Their convictions were overturned and Marshall and Eyster would later cut deals with prosecutors to avoid new charges. Both men are now free.

However, because Lynn broke out of prison, the court dismissed his appeal.

Lynn ended up cooperating with federal prosecutors in Mississippi, striking a deal on charges there for a maximum sentence of 20 years, Odom said. But when they suggested to Gloria Bedwell, the prosecutor who won the case against Lynn, that she consider reducing his Alabama-based sentence due to the cooperation, Bedwell demurred.

Odom said he believes Bedwell's decision was colored in part by the escape, but even more by an allegation by U.S. Customs agents that Lynn had threatened the lives of Bedwell, Odom and others.

Odom says he never believed the allegation, and it did, in fact, turn out to be false.

Lynn's present-day supporters point out that all of that colorful history took place a long time ago.

"He definitely deserved to do time," says Joanie Carver Wenzel, an Atlanta resident who went to high school with Lynn at Coral Shores. "He did 25 years. Twenty-five years for a nonviolent crime."

Wenzel is one of eight people who in April organized what they are calling "Dickie's Angels," a group dedicated to winning Lynn's release. They've started a Facebook page called "Release Dickie Lynn" and are attempting to raise money for Lynn's legal costs. To raise awareness, the Angels also entered a "Release Dickie Lynn" float in the recent Key Largo Fourth of July parade.

Lynn's life sentence included no chance for parole. But there are two routes through which he could be released. Either the U.S. Attorney's Office in southern Alabama could request that the court reduce his sentence or President Obama could grant Lynn a pardon.

In southern Alabama, Bedwell is still on staff. She referred Free Press phone calls last week to office spokesman Tommy Loftis.

"We don't have a dog in this hunt now," Loftis said. "That case was decided by the court in 1989, and we would stand on the record."

The presidential pardon route might be more promising. In April, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative aimed at reducing the number of federal inmates who have served more than 10 years for non-violent crimes. According to Kim Ferguson, a Homestead resident who is one of "Dickie's Angels," Lynn filed a pardon application in 2012. In June, the "Angels" sent a package of 193 letters requesting Lynn's release to U.S. pardon office head Deborah Leff. They've since rounded up more than 150 more letters.

Lynn's case may also be boosted by the fact that he was handed his life sentence under drug-offender guidelines that have since been loosened.

Former trooper Odom, for his part, ended up becoming close friends with the man he helped put away back in 1989. The two had always had a good rapport, even as Odom was investigating Lynn and later when he apprehended him after he escaped.

A handful of years after Lynn went back to prison, he sent Odom a Christmas card, the trooper said. In it, Lynn praised Odom for doing his job as charged and for always being honest with Lynn. Odom called Lynn shortly thereafter and they've talked practically every week for the 20 years since, Odom said.

The ex-trooper, who was also a Drug Enforcement Agency task force member, said he helped put between 500 and 600 people in prison during his career.

"I've only had about three people that I can recall in my career that I honestly believe is going straight, and Dickie is one of them," he said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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