Rich Schapiro is always searching. Whether he’s writing a quick-hit 800-word spot feature for the New York Daily News or a magazine feature that’s taken years to report, Schapiro is on the hunt for deeper meaning — a “character conflict,” as he calls it — behind every narrative.
I started out as a newspaper writer, and not just at a newspaper but at a tabloid where space is really at a premium, and you’re often forced to tell a fairly complicated story in 300 words. That’s a real challenge in and of itself, and in some ways more difficult than writing a longer piece.
Perhaps it is this instinct that turns up stories about collar bombings, or census-taker hangings, or, most recently, a sweeping profile in Outside magazine of one of the most outsized characters in recent nonfiction memory: Ray Stansel, alias Lee Lafferty, a Florida drug smuggler who faked his own death, fled to Australia and became an environmental activist.
Even when he was still a student at American University, Schapiro wasn’t writing the usual campus life story for the college newspaper. Instead, he spent his time on features built less around a news peg than his own interests. Schapiro sought out and wrote about D.C.’s homeless population, and eventually lived on the streets for 10 days.
Now he works as a kind of roving generalist with the Daily News, but he’s still committed to stories that go beyond the news cycle. (His magazine pursuits remain, in his professional scheme, a sleep-depriving side gig.)
So why did he get into longform, working, as he does, for an outlet where most of his stories run fewer than 800 words?
“The work I do at the Daily News, which is still highly compelling for the most part, it’s a certain kind of writing,” Schapiro said. “Doing longform pieces allows me to tell a story a different way, to think about storytelling in a different way, and I think to challenge myself, to take on a kind of writing that I still consider myself a kind of a novice in.”
Some novice. Schapiro’s aforementioned feature for Outside is an ambitious, pulsating odyssey in which the existential questions of morality compete for top billing with the facts of the extraordinary life of the man in question. It’s just the type of find that makes all that searching worthwhile.
This interview took place over a series of phone conversations. It has been condensed and edited.
There’s nothing in particular that I’m looking for. It’s not as if I go into the process of looking for my next story with something specific in mind or a specific genre. I find I am drawn to stories in which there is a mystery at the heart of it. That was certainly the case with the collar bomb, in searching for who was really behind this, and what were their motivations? Many start out as a kind of search for truth, which I guess you could argue is what all journalism is about. And a mystery that’s embedded in a story that has multiple layers, which is what kind of distinguishes a magazine piece from a thousand-word newspaper article. I’m typically looking for stories that have strong narratives, for sure, but also convey some kind of deeper truths, or say something about the human condition that I find interesting, or reveal some kind of conflict within a character I find compelling — and that was certainly part of the motivation for this story.
I’m curious about your writing style. You keep it simple and to the point, which is a skill that can go missing in long pieces like this. Was it intentional?
I generally try to let the story tell itself. I sometimes find myself drawn to a story based on a headline, for instance, and it will strike me as being overwritten to the point that I get frustrated in the telling. So I generally try to stay out of the way a little bit, and as you said keep it as simple as possible. I think part of that is that I started out as a newspaper writer, and not just at a newspaper but at a tabloid where space is really at a premium, and you’re often forced to tell a fairly complicated story in 300 words. That’s a real challenge in and of itself, and in some ways more difficult than writing a longer piece.
I think it can be helpful to think about how a filmmaker would tell your story. Movies are driven by scenes, and I tend to be drawn to those stories that present particularly vivid ones. I try to, whenever possible, knit together scenes that propel the narrative forward but also reveal a deeper meaning about a person or event or whatever the focus is.
Did you find Stansel/Lafferty through the Tampa Bay Times article that you mention in the story, which was published soon after his death? How much did you feel was left to report? Was there a moment during the research and reporting when you knew you had a longform article on your hands?
Yes, I found it through that piece. In reading that article, I can’t remember exactly where it was in the piece, but when it brought up the fact he had essentially left behind his first family, that’s what initially told me, “Wow, this is more than the story of a guy who lived an extraordinary life; there was a bigger internal conflict here.” I was interested in pursuing that and the story of his children from his first family, particularly the two that went onto become drug fugitives as well. I was interested in what they thought of the decisions their father made, and that led me to have a pretty long and detailed correspondence with each of them in prison.
With the breadth of this guy’s life, this story must have been a bear to structure, both to get the story across in a digestible way but also make it exciting for the reader. What was that process like?
There is no way to overstate the value of having a talented editor. In this case I had an extremely talented editor in Jonah Ogles at Outside. This was a challenging story, for all the reasons you mentioned. I should note that I was playing around with the structure right up until I filed my first draft, which is unusual for me. Usually I have a very clear sense, and I thought I did, and I gave it to a couple people to read, and based on their feedback it seemed I needed to simplify it a bit. I should also note my original draft was over 10,000 words and the story that appeared in the magazine was a bit over 6,000. I simplified right before filing, and then with Jonah guiding it, we simplified the narrative even further — in terms of the chronology, and when to reveal certain details. I should note he was also the one who encouraged me to insert myself in the story, which is something I frankly try to avoid. He felt it was important to have someone guiding along the reader, a reference point for the reader and also to make the story feel a bit more present and urgent. In hindsight, I think he was absolutely right. While it still felt strange, I think it was the right move.
By Rich Schapiro
Originally published on Outside Online on Jan. 16, 2017
When Raymond Stansel was busted in 1974, he was one of Florida’s biggest pot smugglers. Facing trial and years in prison, he jumped bail, changed his name, and holed up in a remote Australian outpost. Even more remarkable than that? His second life as an environmental hero.
Even before he arrived at the accident scene, sergeant Matt Smith knew it would be bad. Smith was in charge of the 12-person police department in Mossman, a speck of a town located along Australia’s remote northeastern edge. He knew from experience that there was a fundamental truth about car wrecks: drivers have a pretty good chance of surviving a crash that’s car versus car, but they rarely walk away from a vehicle that’s slammed into a tree. The call that came over the police radio on that May 26, 2015 afternoon said that a vehicle had struck a tree along a two-lane road hugging the coastline. Smith’s hunch proved true. When he arrived, he found a white Toyota Hilux pickup wrapped around a gum tree as thick as a sumo wrestler. By some miracle bystanders had found a dog, an aging bichon frise, inside the truck, dazed but alive. But the driver had no chance. How did you come to start the story at the end of his life? Was that always the plan? I think it was two-fold. One, as you said, there were a lot of twists and turns in the narrative, and kind of starting at the end and then ending the first section with a sense of what the reader was getting themselves into was a way to kind of set up the story nicely, in a way that would be compelling to the reader as well as make the narrative easy to digest. It was a way to leave the reader thinking, ‘Wow’ at the end of that first section, but also leading them into the story in a way that would make it easy for them to comprehend the twists and turns the story would ultimately take.
Officers traced the registration to Dennis “Lee” Lafferty, age 75. Everybody knew Lee. Or at least knew of him. He was an American but had spent decades in nearby Daintree, where he operated one of the area’s oldest and most respected tour companies, running boat trips along the crocodile-filled Daintree River.
The river cuts through an ancient tropical rainforest that hosts one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems: rare ribbonwood trees, musky rat-kangaroos, and six-foot-tall southern cassowary birds. Lee was perhaps its greatest champion. It seemed there was no plant or animal he couldn’t identify, and his efforts to protect their habitats had earned him the reputation as one of the region’s most passionate conservationists.
“He was a real gentleman, a lovely man,” said Julia Leu, the mayor of the area. “He had a huge scientific knowledge, and he was definitely one of the people who wanted to preserve what we had.”
Smith spent most of his time at the crash site consoling a small crowd of Lee’s devastated employees, who told him that Lee shouldn’t have been driving. He was on medication for his Parkinson’s disease and prone to nodding off at any moment.
In the coming days, newspapers ran stories about the “local tourism stalwart” who “did not have a bad bone in his body.” There was a packed memorial service. And then everyone but Lee’s family began to move on.
Nearly four weeks after the accident, Smith received a text message from one of his detectives saying that he needed to read an article from a Florida newspaper about Lee. Smith was intrigued. Why would an American publication run a story about a guy in Daintree? The article had appeared in the Tampa Bay Times just a few weeks after Lee’s death.
Sergeant Smith isn’t the sort of person who is easily surprised or impressed. He once walked into a house that a spurned husband had booby-trapped with a speargun and barely flinched. How did you come by this detail? The way you get those details is by earning a source’s trust, and spending a good amount of time with them. I first spoke to Sergeant Smith by phone before I traveled to Australia, and when I got there I met him once in person at the Mossman Police Station, and a few days later he actually drove me out to the accident site. It was actually during that drive where we talked a lot about his previous experiences and his background, and that’s when a lot of those details came out. That’s what you’re always hoping for, to have someone talk to you as if you’re a friend and not a journalist. And not to say he was saying anything compromising, but we knew each other and we felt comfortable around each other. I am always very quick to offer personal details about myself to people I’m interviewing. Part of that is I’m an open person, but part of it is that people are so much more likely to let down their guard if they can relate to you and they can feel like it’s not a one-way transaction. Following a 2008 cyclone, he chased after a sevenfoot-long crocodile gliding up a Mossman road. He has responded to multiple helicopter crashes in the area. When he learned what the article revealed, however, Smith was so amazed that he could utter only one word: “Wow.”
The piece described the life of an American fugitive named Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. In the 1970s, Stansel was a master fisherman who became one of Florida’s biggest pot smugglers, hauling gargantuan 12-ton loads hidden under piles of freshly caught fish. And then he pulled off one of the most dramatic vanishing acts of any outlaw in American history when he skipped bail, faked his own death, and reinvented himself in Australia as Lee Lafferty, tour operator and conservationist.
Since the summer of 2015, I’ve been trying to discover who Stansel truly was. What I ultimately learned—by digging through thousands of pages of court documents and interviewing his closest friends and family on two continents—is that the man lived not one extraordinary life but two.
The west coast of Florida is an angler’s paradise. People come from all over to fish for trout in Tampa Bay, grouper near Madeira Beach, and 100-pound tarpon in Boca Grande. Back in the 1960s, elite fishermen were treated like rock stars. They were invited to cocktail parties, and their exploits were chronicled in the newspapers. Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. was among them. “He was one of my heroes,” Bill Caldwell, who worked as Stansel’s deckhand as a teenager, told me. “He could do anything.”
Stansel was said to be able to back a 46-foot sportfishing boat into a slip with the wind blowing 15 knots and the tide running against him. Legend has it he once single-handedly brought up a 90-foot barge that had sunk in 100-foot waters using only scuba gear and inflatable tubes. What kind of attempts did you make to confirm these stories? There are a lot of them, and a lot of them seem a little larger-than-life. I included these kinds of stories because, by all accounts, this was an extraordinary figure and an extraordinary fisherman. If that’s the case, you need to show some examples, so that was the point of including them. In terms of trying to verify, I spoke with numerous of his old friends and acquaintances, who all seem to have good stories about him. They’re good storytellers — and they’re also known for inflating stores. I typically only used things that had more than one person who was able to confirm them, in detail. That said, I think I did couch it in a way to suggest that I didn’t actually know it. “Legend has it,” “it was said,” things like that. And I was told a lot of things I didn’t include, that seemed like his legend grew in his absence. He once caught more than 2,000 pounds of grouper in a single weekend. All this despite the fact that he was blind in his left eye, a consequence of being struck in the face with a broom as he and a friend swept the cafeteria floor in middle school.
Stansel was six-foot-two, lean and strong, with wavy dirty blond hair. He’d been raised in a modest house in Saint Petersburg, the son of a commercial fisherman and a Sunday school teacher. His renegade spirit and affinity for the outdoors emerged early in life. By age six, he could use a cast net to catch bait. As a teenager, incensed over the degradation of Florida’s wetlands, he boasted of sinking a massive dredge operating out of Tampa Bay.
When he graduated from high school in 1954, Stansel enlisted in the Air Force, gaining entry by memorizing the eye chart seconds before the exam. He told his friends that he went on to perform one of the Air Force’s most difficult jobs, refueling jets in midair, before he left the military and took up fishing as a profession.
There are several ways to make a living while fishing, from commercial jobs to running a charter boat. Stansel worked his way up to the best gig of all: private captain. He was hired by Clint Murchison Jr., the founder of the Dallas Cowboys, to pilot Murchison’s shimmering 40-foot Miss Centex in 1965. Stansel moved to the Texas side of the Gulf at Murchison’s request, bringing along his wife, Midge, and four kids—Raymond, Ronald, Sabrina, and Terry. They spent their summers in Boca Grande, where Stansel taught his kids to dive, fish for tarpon, and catch stone crabs.
By the late 1960s, though, the Murchison gig had ended. Stansel moved his family back to Florida and ran a charter boat, but the vicissitudes of the weather made things difficult. He tried to compensate for lean times by running stone crab traps in winter. But Stansel struggled alongside the other fishermen, most of whom kept their chins up and pressed on.
“Fishermen are like farmers,” said Bobby Buswell, a longtime friend. “You work your fanny off. You pay your taxes. You make a living. And that’s it.”
Stansel wanted more. There’s some disagreement as to how and when he was first drawn into smuggling. By one account, some dealers with a Jamaican connection approached him in the late 1960s because he was known as an expert boat captain and a family man unlikely to draw the attention of law enforcement. Another version had Stansel pulling off his first run in 1971, after he was recruited by two young smugglers who needed a bigger boat and were intrigued by the 44-foot T-Craft that Stansel had built himself. Wherever the truth lies, Stansel’s pot-smuggling enterprise was booming by the early 1970s. Marijuana was harder to come by in the U.S. in those days, a consequence of President Richard Nixon’s effort to shut off the flow from Mexico. But in Jamaica, buying a few ounces was as easy as buying a piece of fruit. “People would come off the street and offer to sell you their ganja,” recalled Mike Hubbard, who helped orchestrate one of Stansel’s earliest runs.
The marijuana was grown deep in the hills by villagers, who sold their product in 50-pound burlap sacks. Making connections was easy; transporting it back to the States—where it could sell for $175 a pound, a profit of $165—posed a challenge. So dealers turned to guys like Stansel, who knew practically every sheltered cove on the coast.
Word of this new source of income would eventually spread among Florida fishermen, but at the time, Stansel was one of the few players in the game. He soon expanded his operations into Colombia, which produced the most prized pot on the planet, by forming a partnership with a major supplier named Raul “Black Tuna” Davila-Jimeno.
Stansel would pilot his loaded-down boat five days from Jamaica (or ten from Colombia) into Florida’s maze of inlets. Under cover of darkness, they’d transfer the bales of marijuana, which “looked like horse feed,” according to one Stansel associate, right onto the beach, where they were weighed on massive scales. It took years for law enforcement to realize how much was arriving via the Florida coast. (In just two operations in 1974, they reportedly seized more than 200,000 pounds.) Do you know why the War on Drugs crackdown seemed to miss the Florida coast? When I said the final draft being almost half of the first draft, it was sections like this that got a lot of stuff cut out. By the time I finished reporting, I was very steeped in the state of Florida’s battle against the drug trade in the 1960s and early 70s, which I found fascinating. I was fortunate that the prosecutor at the time was extremely generous with his time, and really described what things were like. I also spoke with numerous retired investigators, mostly at the state level, in addition to former smugglers. I also read a couple of books on the matter. I really had more information than I knew what to do with. Stansel’s arrest was an extremely big deal in that he was the first person arrested by this newly formed statewide grand jury, created by the then-governor because they just started getting wind of the amount of marijuana entering the U.S. via Florida. There were a couple massive seizures of boats just before Stansel was arrested — several tons of pot — that basically forced the authorities to take action, and to realize just how much marijuana was being smuggled. Up to that point, most of it was coming from Mexico, but these fishermen and other smugglers branched out into Jamaica after Nixon cracked down, and it turned out the weed coming out of Jamaica was far more potent and valuable than Mexico’s stuff, then Colombia became the place producing the finest pot.
To the guys on Stansel’s crew, smuggling came to feel like just another activity on the water. “We trusted each other. No contracts,” said Hans Geissler, a former French Foreign Legion soldier and elite sailor who Stansel recruited. “We were a pretty close-knit group. Sailing off the beach, jumping waves, surfing, Jimmy Buffett. It was a nice little crowd, and smuggling felt like part of it.”
Stansel soon had more money than he knew what to do with. For a while, he stacked $100 bills in orange crates in his parents’ attic. But when his father found them, Stansel looked for more sophisticated hiding places. He opened a bank account in the Cayman Islands, bought gold bars in Costa Rica, and set up seafood and boat-building companies in Panama and Honduras. He also bought something he’d need to expand his operation: more boats. Soon, workers at the pier noticed that Stansel routinely made trips to sea without any ice—a necessity for anyone planning to catch and sell seafood—and then returned with his vessel riding low in the water, nets bone dry.
On the morning of June 6, 1974, Stansel emerged from room 23 of the Sheraton Bel-Air, a luxury beachside resort in Saint Petersburg. Striding toward the parking lot with a brown briefcase in his hand, he blended in easily with the hotel’s well-heeled clientele. He folded his lanky frame into the driver’s seat of an Avis rental car, keyed the ignition, and turned north on Sunshine Skyway. Seconds later a group of unmarked police cars pulled out behind him. This graf is so cinematic. I can see the camera following him. Do you ever think like a screenwriter or a director, like you’re creating a movie, as you write? And speaking of movies, is anyone trying to make one about him? This was actually how I opened the story in an early draft. I think it can be helpful to think about how a filmmaker would tell your story. Movies are driven by scenes, and I tend to be drawn to those stories that present particularly vivid ones. I try to, whenever possible, knit together scenes that propel the narrative forward but also reveal a deeper meaning about a person or event or whatever the focus is. When writing scenes, you want to provide as much detail as possible, to make the readers feel like they’re there. In essence, to make the stories feel cinematic. I don’t believe a movie about Stansel/Lafferty is currently in the works, but I do hope someone will make one.
Stansel had been under surveillance since he flew home from Central America a few days earlier. By now he was considered one of the state’s most prolific smugglers. Just after he turned off the highway, police radios crackled with news: a statewide grand jury had issued an indictment against him and three of his partners for conspiracy to possess marijuana. The officers flipped on their sirens and boxed Stansel in. They jumped out of their cars, ordered him to exit his vehicle, and cuffed him without incident. In his pockets he had $5,476 in cash.
At the station, officers cracked open his briefcase to reveal his other possessions: an additional $20,000 in cash stuffed inside a manila envelope; paper currency from Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Kenya; photographs of what appeared to be marijuana; blank tourist visas that would allow him to enter Nicaragua whenever he pleased; unused checks from a Swiss bank account; paperwork from Germany showing that his new Mercedes was ready to be picked up; and, finally, his passport, which was so thick that it stretched out like an accordion and indicated that he had been to 12 countries in the past 30 days, including Jamaica, Colombia, Japan, Hong Kong, Panama, and the Cayman Islands. The case against him was already strong—the cops had flipped several of his associates. With the items from his briefcase, Stansel would almost certainly do time. How much digging did it take to get to the court documents with these details? It was a challenge to get the documents, but the difficulty wasn’t really on my end, it was on the end of the people who work at the courthouse where all the documents were located. They really had to dig deep in their archives, and it took quite a lot of time and effort, and I’m in deep gratitude. It took a period of weeks and I think months for them to pull up everything, and it started with some very detailed conversations between me and one of the clerks, going into what was available and the scope of the filings. One of the disappointments was that the marathon bond hearing that led to the judge to reducing his bond — there is a transcript of that entire hearing which was unfortunately discarded at some point. That was a low point, but in the end I had so much material, and I still have hundreds of pages of documents of people who are witnesses in Honduras after he disappears offering their account of what happened, which are fascinating. That’s always a good problem to have, when you have so much material.
He was booked on a $1 million bond. At a marathon three-day hearing, his lawyer, a federal prosecutor turned private attorney named Bernard Dempsey Jr., convinced a judge to lower it to $500,000. Three months later, Dempsey produced a cashier’s check in that amount, and Stansel was free. It was, at the time, the largest bond ever posted in Florida history.
The trial opened on a gloomy Monday in January 1975, and it promised to be a full-blown media spectacle. “For a Watergate-fed public still hungry for a big, juicy trial, today there is—Raymond Grady Stansel,” read an article that appeared that morning in the St. Petersburg Times. If convicted, Stansel could be sentenced to five years in prison (this was before the war on drugs), but he would likely face additional charges—and additional time behind bars.
Perhaps no one apart from Stansel had more riding on the trial’s outcome than Emiliano “E. J.” Salcines. The 36-year-old prosecutor had been handpicked by governor Reubin Askew to oversee the grand jury that indicted Stansel (and would later turn its attention to many other Florida drug-trafficking kingpins). Salcines was supremely confident. Even a lawyer as good as Dempsey would have little chance of freeing a guy caught with $25,000 in cash and photographs of marijuana.
Before the proceedings got under way, Stansel’s lawyer made a startling announcement: Raymond Grady Stansel had died on New Year’s Eve in a scuba-diving accident off the coast of Honduras. “He just went down and didn’t come up,” said Dempsey, who added that Stansel’s body had not yet been found.
Salcines seethed. He demanded proof of Stansel’s fate. “We insist not on any foreign documents,” Salcines shouted. “We want the body—dead or alive.”
The tips that came in over the subsequent weeks, months, and years were dizzying. Police departments across Florida were inundated with Stansel sightings reported by anonymous callers, confidential informants, and even jailed traffickers hoping to obtain early release. One week he’d be spotted at a brothel in Belize, the next drinking beer at a bar in St. Pete Beach, Florida. “It’s like chasing a phantom,” lieutenant Michael Hawkins, head of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s vice unit, told a reporter at the time. Was there an official record of these sightings, or are these second-hand accounts from sources? There were documents that listed these different sightings that were kept by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Unfortunately, those documents were destroyed, but there were news reports based off them I think from the 80s and early 90s. And then some of the old investigators were able to corroborate them.
“It was like Elvis,” recalled David McGee, who was a prosecutor assigned to a North Florida drug task force when the Stansel saga was playing out. “He became kind of a legend.”
The leads turned up only dead ends, but you couldn’t find a single cop in the state of Florida who actually believed Stansel was dead. “They’re saying he drowned in a scuba accident,” said one former agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “That man had been on the water his whole life. He was like a fish.”
FDLE agents thought they had him in December 1976, when Honduran officials reported that Stansel had been “detained” in the capital of Tegucigalpa. The agency released a bulletin announcing his capture, and the news spread rapidly through Florida. Agents were preparing to catch a flight to Latin America when the Hondurans inexplicably reported that Stansel had vanished.
Wherever he was, investigators were fairly certain he wasn’t alone. Around the same time that Stansel had disappeared, so had his lover. (He and Midge were estranged by then, and Stansel’s kids were used to seeing him with other women.)
Janet Wood was a free-spirited twentysomething, blond and slender. Stansel first laid eyes on her while visiting the famed Chart Room bar in Key West in 1973. “He was the most exciting, extraordinary, capable man I had ever met,” she told me.
I first reached out to Janet a few months after Lee Lafferty was unmasked as Ray Stansel. When I finally heard from her ten months later, she made it politely clear that she wasn’t interested in speaking to reporters. “I have been offered money and the proverbial 15 minutes of fame (infamy?) and I was and am not interested,” she wrote in an e-mail from her home in Australia. She added that she was wary of how the couple might be portrayed. “We are never so uncomplicated as presented by the media with their limited space and time.”
After a correspondence that stretched to several weeks, Janet changed her mind. How did you finally convince her to tell her story? Could you have told this story without her participation? Let me answer the second part first. I thought I could, but knowing what I know now, I don’t know how I could have possibly pulled off telling the second part of his life in a compelling way without Janet’s cooperation. I consider her agreeing to speak with me to be the one of the major reporting coups, and certainly something that made the story twice what it would’ve been. She was able to give me a sense of what was going on in his head, and to describe him in a way that nobody else could have since she lived so closely to him for so long — and so many little details. In terms of how it came about, there’s no secret. I did with her what I did with everybody. I’m extremely honest in what I am trying to do in telling this story, and why it’s important to have her input. And then just being really gentle with sources. With Janet, I completely understood her hesitation, and I could imagine what a disorienting experience she was undergoing. You’ve been keeping this secret for so long, suddenly it’s out, and you have all these journalists trying to speak with you and get you to tell them everything. She was going through her own issues. I tried to be very gentle and honest. We first started corresponding by email and it became very clear right away that she was an incredibly thoughtful person, extremely cerebral and very good at expressing herself. Some of her emails were just so well-written and so interesting. Initially we were conversing off the record, and those made it clear to me what an asset it would be to have her full participation. And there were still questions she politely declined to answer. She eventually became more open to the idea after communicating with people I had talked to in Australia. Those people had conveyed to her that I was a serious journalist and was looking to flesh out who he was as a person and kind of tell who he was as a person and not just focus on his life as a drug smuggler. Stansel had protected her for so long, and now she felt an obligation to protect his legacy. If the story was going to be told, she realized that it wouldn’t serve the man she had loved to stay silent. “They may not be perfect human beings their whole lives, but there are individuals that make quite an impression on the planet,” she said.
Though she wouldn’t give up every detail, Janet finally told me how Raymond Stansel managed to make one of the most impressive escapes in American history.
Once he was released, local police followed Stansel wherever he went. They knew he had connections all over the world, and they didn’t want him to flee the country. In September 1974, barely a week out of jail, Stansel was on his motorcycle, riding away from the Tampa home where he was staying. As he crossed a bridge, he lost his tail, “dodging here, dodging there,” according to Janet. Then he made a dash to a local airstrip, where a friend waited with a private plane. With the complicated, layered nature of this story, it makes sense to structure this chronologically, as you did. Was that always your plan? My first draft — the 10,000-plus draft — it had a couple of flashbacks, or a section or two that was outside the chronology that went back to, for instance, the last time his son saw him, or things in his first life that I went back to. I think I also went back to and fleshed out how his sons got into their own troubles, and it just felt like it was going to be hard for the reader to follow along with the narrative and not get confused. And again, this is why you need a good editor, to kind of see these things. But it was pretty much the skeleton to tell it chronologically, and Jonah, the editor, just kind of refined that.
From there, Stansel flew to Key West to see Janet and convince her to come with him. “He didn’t know what he was going to do,” she told me. “He didn’t have a plan A, plan B, plan C.”
But he did have powerful friends. He somehow made it to Honduras—after all, he’d been smuggling drugs through the Gulf of Mexico for years. Once there, Stansel walked into the American embassy in Tegucigalpa and told officials he had lost his passport and needed a new one. (In fact, the police had kept it after his arrest.) Janet wouldn’t talk about his travel documents or the origin of his new identity, though records show that a 33-year-old named Dennis Lafferty had died in Florida just one year before Stansel slipped out of the U.S.
New passport in hand, Stansel went to the island of Roatán, 45 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, where Janet later met him. During Christmas week, his four kids—all between the ages of 11 and 16—joined them there. They dived during the day and spent the nights eating fresh fish and listening to Janet strum her guitar. A week or so later, the kids went back to their mom in the U.S., where authorities questioned Midge about Stansel’s whereabouts.
Ray and Janet, meanwhile, split ways en route to a predetermined location in Guatemala City. The plan was to sail across the globe in their 40-foot boat. The goal: end up as close as possible to the Great Barrier Reef.
They sailed to Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire. They went on motorcycle treks through Central American mountain ranges. They had a close call in Belize when Janet was mistaken for Patty Hearst and held for 24 hours.
It was an epic introduction to life on the run, and then Janet became ill. She suspected seasickness, but in Bonaire they learned that she was pregnant. Sailing around the world no longer seemed so appealing, so they decided to fly instead. First to Venezuela, then to Peru, Tahiti, and eventually the Pacific island of New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu), where they were married less than two weeks before Janet suffered a miscarriage.
Through it all, the couple were looking over their shoulders for whoever was surely hunting them, even as they boarded a plane for what they hoped would be their final destination: Australia.
“For the authorities searching here and there, on the island and God knows where else, it was a job,” Janet wrote in an e-mail. “I do not say this to dismiss a few hard-working professionals, but their devotion to duty can’t compare to devotion to a dream of life, love, and freedom.” What are your thoughts on this dichotomy — duty vs. love — especially with regard to this story? When I first undertook this story, I saw it, kind of at its heart, as a redemption story. This is a guy who had committed some what were seen at the time as serious crimes, and who could have very well disappeared and lived in a cabin in the woods for 40 years, living a lonely, solitary life. Were that the case, I would not have pursued that case. What made this story special, what made it unique, is that this guy devoted the second part of his life to protecting this very unique habitat and to basically teach other people about it, and to provide a way for other people to enjoy it. He did that at a pretty significant risk to himself. To think that a fugitive has started a business that’s designed to bring as many people to him as possible is a pretty bold endeavor, so that was how I kind of saw this piece going into it, and that’s what drew me to it. After reporting it out, I have to say what I thought of him at the outset was confirmed through the reporting. I think whatever admiration I had for him based on that first article only grew as I did more reporting. Now, the one thing that is still difficult to reconcile is him leaving behind his first family. That is something that people who knew him in Australia were also really, really struggling with, because it didn’t fit the devoted family man they knew. That’s something that’s hard to reconcile with everything that I learned about him.
There’s a saying in Australia’s Far North Queensland region: Your history starts here. For decades this remote stretch of pristine beaches and lush rainforest along the continent’s northeastern edge has attracted an oddball mix of Australian hippies and starry-eyed foreigners seeking a fresh start. You could be a German count or a renegade chemist who supplied LSD to the Grateful Dead. “No one gives a stuff,” said Andrew Forsyth, himself a former pilot who ferried Pope John Paul II and Queen Elizabeth around the world, and relocated to the area in 2002 after first visiting some 40 years prior. This is a great graf. You almost could have started the story here, if you didn’t have such other vivid material. Is this one of those stories where you were spoiled for choice on material? One hundred percent. He lived such a remarkable life, and the place he chose to settle in was so unique in terms of its biodiversity, history and the colorful characters it attracts. Probably the hardest part of writing this piece was choosing what to leave out, which in my experience is not all that unusual.
In the 1970s, there were no traffic lights and few paved roads. Despite its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, only the most determined travelers ever reached the area. Those who did often stopped in Port Douglas, a sleepy fishing village with a crescent-moon-shaped slice of golden beach. The downtown had a general store, a post office, and a couple of pubs where barefooted locals with names like Pegleg Tommy spun tales of bull sharks seen and giant crocs narrowly avoided.
“You could fire a gun down the street and you wouldn’t hit anybody,” said Norm Clinch, a machinist from Brisbane who often fished out of Port Douglas. “The police? There was one station, and they’d all be in there drunk or asleep.”
It was here in Port Douglas that, one day in the fall of 1975, a beat-up faded green station wagon arrived carrying a sun-baked American couple looking for just such a place. The lanky man who stepped out of the car identified himself as Dennis “Lee” Lafferty. If anyone asked—and few ever did—he was a fisherman from Texas. His wife was Janet Lafferty. If anyone asked—and few ever did—she came from Michigan, and both her parents were dead.
It wasn’t just Australia’s far-off location and proximity to the reef that attracted the couple. Lafferty’s great-uncle had visited in the 1920s and described Far North Queensland as a real-life Shangri-La. It also offered an added benefit: the fishing was world-class.
“We started from the get-go,” recalled Janet, who acted as Lee’s second mate as he relaunched his career.
The waters off Port Douglas were so well stocked, fishermen needed nothing more than a rudimentary lure made out of a four-inch piece of curved metal with a hook attached to have success. It was almost comically primitive. “When was the last time a fish saw a school of spoons going by?” Lee would say.
Lee outfished the locals in part by using live bait—caught with the specially designed cast nets that he and Janet made and sold—and quickly established himself as one of the best Port Douglas had ever known. “I used to say, ‘I’ll back Lee against any of you cunts,’ ” said Clinch, the salty-tongued machinist, who became one of Lee’s first friends. “ ‘He’ll fish you out ten to one.’ ”
If Lee did have access to large sums of money (and Janet insists that he did not), he surely didn’t act like it. At one point, he was running so low on cash that he had to borrow $8,000 from a fellow American expat named Walter Starck to buy an engine for a new boat. “He never bought anything flashy,” Starck said. “They didn’t go out and entertain. They lived a very modest life.”
Five years passed, and no one came looking for them. By then the Laffertys had two daughters—Jessie, born in 1976, and Kianna, in 1980—and though they told the girls about their past, life seemed to settle down. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman,” said Edward Pitt, a local fisherman who lived a few doors down. “He never showed off. He struck me as just a normal worker.” When pressed, his fishing buddies said there was one thing about Lee that was a bit odd. Anytime one of them produced a camera, he would disappear. How excited were you to get this great little detail? That was something that came out late in the reporting, and late into my trip in Australia. The one thing that was working in my favor was that he chose to settle down in a very, very small town where everybody knew each other. Once I got there and people started feeling more comfortable with me, and directing me to different people who knew him well, I was able to uncover some of those little details that, like you said, helped the reader understand what it was like for him to be living as a fugitive. What was the journalism saturation like in Australia? Right after the Tampa Bay story, there was a lot of follow-up by the papers in Australia, but by the time I got there, there was nobody there, and I don’t think there were many journalists around Daintree, ever. It’s 90 minutes north of Cairns, and that’s the closest city. I find you’re always more successful, anyway, once the attention has subsided. And also when you show up at a place that’s so far away, people are often intrigued by your presence. They’re curious about you, and why you’ve come so far for the story. It was a very good reporting experience in Daintree. People wanted to talk about Lee. They loved him, they admired him, and there were very eager to tell stories about him. Everyone except for his family, who were very reluctant to talk. What was the family’s reaction to the story? You never know how sources are going to react. In this case, I received very positive feedback from the family. I’m still in close contact with Janet. I received tons of contact from his family, and even some from people I never spoke to, some people I tried to speak to but didn’t speak to me and even they enjoyed the piece. It’s been a very gratifying experience in that way. You’re thinking about the reader as you’re writing, but it’s also nice when the people who have put their trust in you come back to you and tell you how glad they are that they agreed to cooperate, and that they feel like you handled the story with care and in a professional manner.
In 1982, the Laffertys purchased an overgrown piece of property along the Daintree River’s southern bank. The 80-mile-long waterway snakes through dense rainforest, where you can walk for miles without encountering another human being. It’s the kind of place that would have obvious appeal to an international fugitive.
But rather than retreat from society, Lee started a tour venture. The area has always been an ecological wonder, boasting unique species of mangrove trees, bats, birds, frogs, and tree kangaroos. He founded a company focused on exposing people to the best of it. In a span of ten years, the Daintree River Cruise Centre became one of the area’s most vital businesses. “It was classic hiding in plain sight,” Janet told me. “It’s not hard to turn the conversation around and get someone talking about themselves. We both learned that very quickly.”
Lee devoured books on the region’s ecology. He talked to the indigenous population to learn how they used seeds and plants. It wasn’t long before people showed up carrying specimens they hoped Lee could identify.
“I’d say, ‘God, he’s an encyclopedia,’ ” recalled Betty Clinch, who was one of the Cruise Centre’s first employees. As Lee’s understanding of the region’s ecosystem deepened, he dedicated himself to protecting it. He urged farmers to plant vegetation along the river’s edge to stop erosion. He pushed boaters to reduce their speed on the water so that the wake wouldn’t undercut the banks and disturb the microbes that inhabit the shallow areas. People close to him estimate that he saved the lives of hundreds of fruit bats that got stuck in the barbed-wire fences used by farmers. How he could spot them with one eye while driving on curvy country roads no one could understand. “Everybody here hates fruit bats, because they eat crops and spread disease,” said Lydia Archer, a longtime family friend. “He’d say they’re the most essential part of the ecosystem, because they spread native seeds throughout the forest.”
Even Norman Duke, one of the world’s foremost authorities on mangrove forests, was impressed. He first met Lee in 2002, when Lee was hosting a research expedition. “He really knew his stuff, and that shined in a place where there are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re talking about and claim they do,” Duke told me. “He easily fit into the tradition of the classic outdoor woodsman, the guy who can make a fire out of nothing in a rainstorm.” How do you know when you’ve got a great quote like that? You hear it, and it’s almost like it jumps out at you in flashing lights. When I walk away from the interview, that’s what’s still echoing in my head. It’s rare that I’ll be going through my notes or going through a recording and I find something that’s a real gem that I hadn’t already recognized. It’s more that somebody says it and right away, I know I’m going to use that. In this story, that happened quite a bit. Having said that, there were quotes that were so good that had to get cut. But in my experience, it’s like an alarm goes off. There are quotes that I’ve gotten that are 10 years old but I still remember so clearly. That’s the fun of the job, engaging people and hearing them say things that are so remarkable and hearing them say things that are put in a way that you were never put them.
For more than 35 years, Lee and Janet lived peacefully on the river. Then, in June 2011, news broke in Far North Queensland that a fugitive American drug trafficker was living an hour from Daintree. Michael McGoldrick, real name Peyton Eidson, was the leader of a California smuggling ring and went on the run in the mid-1980s. Eidson and his wife and daughter had fled to Australia, where they operated a luxury mountain retreat. They were captured by Aussie police after American authorities discovered that the real McGoldricks were dead.
For weeks the story was the talk of the Cruise Centre. The workers would sit around after-hours talking about the latest developments. It seemed everyone had something to say—except Lee.
Privately, Lee and Janet were both rattled by Eidson’s unmasking. “It did cause some concern, and it did worry Dad,” his daughter Jessie told me. “He certainly did not want to be exposed.”
Lee and Janet had ferociously guarded his secret since arriving in Australia. They had few close friends; he rarely left town and never returned to the U.S. Even after the two separated, in 2011, Janet never said a word to anyone. As careful as they were, the secret still found its way outside the family. When Kianna and Jessie were teens, they took equestrian lessons from a future Olympian named Christine Doan. Years later, Jessie married Doan’s brother and told him about her father’s past. The relationship soured, and so did the Doan family’s feelings about the Laffertys. “It’s a psychological crime scene,” Christine told me.
Lee may have succeeded in hiding his worries about Eidson’s arrest from his employees. But the noose was beginning to tighten.
Three years after Eidson’s capture, in late 2014, a tipster contacted a semiretired Florida newspaper reporter named Lucy Morgan and alleged that Ray Stansel had been living a second life as an environmentalist in Australia. Morgan was used to getting tips about Stansel; she was a 74-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner who had written numerous stories about him and other smugglers. The tip didn’t seem especially promising at first, but she wasn’t the type to let something go without a little investigation. Following the call, Morgan pulled out a set of dusty cardboard boxes that contained every available record on Raymond Grady Stansel Jr.
Lee Lafferty was by then a shell of his former self. Parkinson’s disease had sapped his strength and stiffened his body. His hands shook, making it difficult for him to hold a coffee cup. Walking became a chore.
Every so often he’d say something about his past that raised eyebrows—that he once slept with $2 million under his pillow, for instance—but his employees shrugged the comments off as the medication-induced musings of a sick man.
In early May 2015, a friend took him out in a wooden dory. For weeks, Lee had been begging his buddy to do so. Since he was a boy, there was nowhere Lee felt more capable, more alive, than on the water. But on the river that day, Lee could hardly move on his own; the friend had to lift him into the boat. After less than an hour, Lee said he’d had enough. A couple of weeks later, Lee Lafferty got into his pickup truck for the last time.
Back in Florida, the news of Ray Stansel’s death—and life—in Australia stunned the investigators and prosecutors who had spent years trying to bring him to justice. “He turned out to be a hell of a Houdini,” Salcines, the prosecutor, told me.
His family in Florida had more complicated feelings. “It really just broke my heart when he disappeared,” said his sister, Elaine Schweinsberg. “He never tried to contact us again. I felt so bad that his children had to grow up without him.”
In the years after Stansel vanished, two of his sons, Raymond and Ronald, became drug smugglers and then fugitives after they were indicted for trying to haul half a ton of cocaine into Florida in 1991. Both were eventually arrested—Ronald in Costa Rica in 1992, Raymond in Alaska in 2010—and handed long prison sentences.
Despite being abandoned by their father, both believe he made the right choice. “I think my father picked a good place to have a life and am glad that he won and got out of here when he did,” Raymond Stansel III wrote from the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex near Orlando. “I missed him but used what he taught me and lived without regrets for my life.”
“I don’t blame Dad for not showing up,” Ronald Stansel wrote from the Federal Prison Camp in Pensacola. “I’m sure that he missed certain aspects of what was left behind. It’s like you cut a chunk of your heart out leaving. But things seldom end the way you visualize in life. You can only take your best shot and roll with the punches.” These seem like incredibly magnanimous responses from his two sons. How did you react to them? I wish I had been able to include more from the two of them. When you spend this amount of time reporting, you want to fill the story with as many good details as you can, but in every magazine (or newspaper, for that matter) piece I’ve done, I’ve made agonizing decisions over what to cut. You end up having to kill your kittens. And there was certainly that feeling here, with some of these details. That said, it’s nice when after you publish a story like this, you get people writing you saying they wanted more. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, especially if you’re considering the other ways this could be told. And, yes, to your other question, I agree with you 100%. That was one of the things I was most interested in when I started the story — what would be the reaction of his sons. I was in touch with them mainly through email — the federal prison system actually has an excellent email system. But that was one of the main surprises, how magnanimous they were, and how supportive they were of the decision their father had made, and the fact that they both told they would have done the same thing and that it was the right decision. The things that got cut were some of the recollections of their experience on Roatan, the week they spent with their father before he disappeared. They told me they had no idea what he was planning to do. But their observations from that trip were pretty interesting.
In fact, it was hard to find a single friend or family member who was troubled by Lee Lafferty’s previous life as a pot smuggler; it even seemed to have made him a legend. “Some people were asking does it change my opinion of him,” Mick Casey, a river guide who worked for him, told me. “It makes me admire the bastard even more.”
People in Far North Queensland often talk about Lee as someone who found redemption: a man running away from a troubled past who transformed himself into a protector of one of the world’s most pristine natural habitats. “Reflecting on it now, it’s just what Australia’s all about,” said Norman Duke. “It’s all about redemption. All about finding a new life.”
Spend long enough in Daintree, and you might also hear another story. Sometime in the early 1980s, Lee and a doctor friend were driving along the road that links Daintree and Mossman. As they neared a small bridge, they spotted a car in the crocodile-infested creek below. A couple of guys were just standing around looking at it. Lee burst from his vehicle and quickly realized that someone was still in the floating car. He dove into the creek, pulled out the unconscious man, and dragged him onto the bank. By the time the police arrived, Lee was long gone. Considering the morally ambiguous nature of his life and times, this seems a perfect place to end, but I’m interested in why you chose this point to wrap up. I usually know exactly how I’m going to start and end a piece when I start writing. That’s usually how I know I’m ready to write. In this case, I thought I had it, and as I started writing I was still reporting, talking to Janet and some other people. This anecdote came out a little bit later, and it took a little while to get it confirmed by a couple people, and then when I had it and was thinking about where to put it, I actually remember the moment where it came to me that this has to be the end. It kind of illuminates both who he was as a person and what he was dealing with while he was living in Australia. Even when he was doing something brave and unquestionably noble, in the back of his mind he was always that close to being caught, to being found out. It just kind of captured that in a really vivid way. And also, that last line is pretty subtle. You can linger on it a little, and it takes a few seconds for it to really sink in, why he would have taken off. I love stories that make you feel like you’re hurtling toward an end that you don’t want to ever arrive, and yet, when it does, it takes your breath away a little. That’s what I was going for here.