Authorities arrest fugitive who skipped out on drug-smuggling trial 31 years ago

Jan 28 2011 - 10:29am

MIAMI -- Before the Cocaine Cowboys, there was the Black Tuna Gang.

The Miami-based marijuana-smuggling ring retrofitted yachts to smuggle maximum loads, even painting fake water lines on the hulls to create the illusion they weren't weighed down with tons of pot.

Their boat supplier: Mark Steven Phillips, arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service on Thursday in West Palm Beach -- more than 31 years after he skipped out of a federal trial in Miami.

Phillips, 62, was captured in his rented apartment at Century Village, a senior community where he had been living in recent months, authorities said.

"The judge wants to see you, Mark," a deputy marshal told Phillips after rousting him out of bed.

"The judge wants to see me, from 30 years ago," Phillips responded, according to the Marshals Service.

Phillips was charged in May 1979 along with 13 others in what was then the nation's biggest marijuana importation prosecution in history -- before cocaine turned Miami into a murder capital. The sobriquet "Black Tuna Gang" was derived from the radio name for the group's Colombian source for marijuana.

"They were the drug stars of their time, precursors to the cartel kingpins," said Thomas Raffanello, former special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami before retiring in 2004. "They went out and established ties with the foreign traffickers. They were ahead of their time."

Phillips and the other Black Tuna defendants were tried before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who is still on the bench. Phillips was convicted in absentia on racketeering, possession and distribution charges in February 1980.

At his first court appearance in decades Thursday afternoon, a pale and bald Phillips wore a beige long-sleeved shirt, light-green shorts and tan sandals -- along with shackles around his wrists, ankles and waist.

Phillips, who faces sentencing for the racketeering conviction and adjudication of fugitive charges, told U.S. Magistrate Edwin Torres that he has no property, $600 in a bank account and receives $667 in monthly Social Security benefits. "I'm retired," he told Torres, saying he couldn't afford a lawyer. So the magistrate appointed one for him, at taxpayer expense.

"Your honor, I would like to say something," he added. "I have no valid passport. Nothing but a bicycle, but I'm not going anywhere."

A joint DEA/FBI task force in Miami that took down the Black Tuna Gang estimated the ring smuggled 500 tons of marijuana into the United States in the mid-'70s. The case was the first combined investigation by the two agencies into the drug profits behind the marijuana trade.

The gang operated, at least briefly, from a suite in Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel, according to the DEA.

The Tunas invested in sportfishing boats, particularly Fort Lauderdale-based Striker Aluminum Yachts. Phillips' family owned the company. The grass was unloaded at a series of waterfront "stash houses" in posh neighborhoods.

The Black Tuna Gang also used state-of-the-art electronic equipment to stay in touch with marijuana-laden freighters and to monitor DEA and Customs communications channels.

A DEA-FBI probe of Florida banks called Operation Banco, which began in 1977, traced the group's drug profits through South Florida banks until members of the Black Tuna Gang made a large cash deposit in a Miami Beach bank.

In the racketeering indictment, Phillips was accused of showing to a co-conspirator in 1977 two vessels that had been used in the smuggling of 20 tons of marijuana into the United States. He also was accused of going to a Miami address to pick up a suitcase filled with cash, and paying $223,000 to buy a yacht for future marijuana smuggling trips.

After his arrest, Phillips was released from custody on July 5, 1979, on a $25,000 bond. He took part in his trial for more than a month, but then failed to show up on Nov. 5. King issued a bench warrant charging him as a fugitive.

The Marshals Service soon learned Phillips had fled the country.

In 1993, relying on informants, deputies discovered that he was in Santiago, Chile, had assumed a new identity, Marcus Steffan, and had married a Chilean woman. He also created a fishing company with her, calling it Fishing Research Inc., according to the marshals.

Eight years passed before marshals received new information that he was traveling between Chile and Germany. They learned from German authorities that Phillips had obtained a driver's license and passport in that country in the name of Marcus Steffan.

According to the marshals, the "fake" passport was valid for the next 10 years.

Deputy marshals ran checks on Phillips to see if he had entered the United States. They found that he had flown into New York from London several times between 1998 and 2000, apparently renting two New York penthouse apartments for $10,000 a month under the name Steffan Marcus. He was evicted in August 2000.

Marshals also learned in February 2001 that Phillips had flown from New York to Miami a month earlier, but they missed him. He had continued on to Chile. He stayed there until 2010, when marshals assigned to the Cold Case Fugitive Squad realized that he had slipped back into the United States and obtained a Florida driver's license under his real name in September.

The address on his new license was the address of a Rodeway Inn.

Deputy marshals continued to track him down, this time to West Palm Beach, where they arrested him at Century Village.

"Phillips never attempted to use his fake name," said Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden. "All of his belongings were contained in one travel bag."

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(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

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