The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 1.
The Barkers and Law Enforcement
The Barker Family and their associates were no strangers to local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement. They had been the subjects of numerous investigations and intelligence reports – a rare few that resulted in interdictions, arrests, and prosecutions. A dedicated group of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers in south Florida in the 1990s were able to impact the Barker Family operations, especially the special agents and marine enforcement officers from the former United States Customs Service (USCS) office in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Like any accomplished and savvy smuggling organization, different members of the Barker Family smuggling group allegedly functioned at times as sources of information for various law enforcement agencies in the 1980s and 1990s, while simultaneously conducting their own criminal activities. Suspects have been known to play both sides to possibly reduce their exposure to interdiction, disrupt their competition, and develop possible legal defenses when they are caught committing crimes. This challenge required significant coordination with many agencies and offices while maintaining operational security.
For the continued safety of the confidential informants and sources of information associated with the many Barker Family investigations, they shall not be identified and often merged into one general informant for this story. Even though they are all retired now, the names of the USCS special agents and marine enforcement officers in this story shall be omitted to protect their previous operations. They were really one cohesive team during these investigations and enforcement operations.
A review of the following cases, interdictions, arrests, prosecutions, and stories would make one wonder how many smuggling ventures were successful and completely missed by law enforcement. It was likely very many, way too many. It has been estimated that law enforcement catches approximately ten percent of the illegal drugs entering the country. Sadly, the number may be lower, especially with the Barker Family. Either way, the Barker Family and their associates were likely involved in the smuggling of a significant amount of drugs and illegal aliens into the United States.
The many arrests and prosecutions may raise one to question about how the Barker Family and their industrious associates served so little time incarcerated for the amount of narcotics seized during these cases – especially with some of the long sentences initially issued at times. The answer was that timing, luck, flipping (cooperating with the government), and successful legal appeals appeared to be on their side. It also did not help that the much-needed modernization and enhancement of state and federal laws were frequently years behind their repeated activities. But most of all, the Barker Family and their associates were just extremely skilled in this emerging drug smuggling world.
An examination of these events, incidents, and stories provides a snapshot of the operations of the Barker Family and their many associates, along with a little Florida smuggling history. The Barker Family, along with one or two degrees of separation in their drug and alien smuggling world, tells quite an amazing tale. It is a brief history lesson that starts with 4,300 pounds of marijuana and 20 pounds of hashish flown in from Colombia. As busy and successful as the Barkers were, this was very likely not their first load.
1975 Colombian Air Load
Vance C. Dyar, Clement J. DeMatto, Neil Pagels, Neal Perks, Robert David Fleming, and Mark Streeter were involved in a conspiracy to air smuggle marijuana from Colombia to the United States in 1975. After a false start with one aircraft, the group leased another aircraft in Jackson, Mississippi for one month for their marijuana smuggling venture. The 40-passenger Convair 240 aircraft was flown to Mobile, Alabama, where many of the seats were removed to reduce weight and increase its cargo-carrying capacity. After refueling and trip preparations, Dyar, Perks, and Fleming departed for Colombia via Haiti. When the aircraft experienced radio difficulties shortly after take-off, they landed in Orlando, Florida for repairs.
Several days later, the radio was repaired. Fleming and Perks filed a false flight plan to the Bahamas then flew to Colombia to obtain the marijuana load. Upon their arrival in South America, they were met by Rick Barker (Richard Barker) who claimed to be in charge of the Colombian end of the operation. The next day, as instructed by Barker, Fleming and Perks departed and flew to the Keystone Heights Municipal Airport in Starke, Florida. Shortly after landing with almost no fuel remaining, the two pilots left the loaded aircraft and jumped on an unrelated private flight to the Gainesville Municipal Airport and disappeared. Unidentified others were responsible for unloading the aircraft at the appropriate time, but were surely deterred by responding law enforcement.
After conducting a surveillance overnight to determine if anyone would return to the suspiciously parked Convair, law enforcement searched and found 4,300 pounds of marijuana and 20 pounds of hashish inside the aircraft. According to the local sheriff’s office, the aircraft pilot had radioed the Gainesville Municipal Airport tower that he was having problems with his landing gear shortly before landing at Keystone Heights. The small municipal airport possessed two short dirt runways, so the large twin-engine aircraft drew some unwanted attention. Along with the drugs, law enforcement found maps and personal belongings in the aircraft, which assisted in the identification of suspects.
Several days after the smuggling flight, Fleming was identified as the pilot and arrested for possession of a controlled substance. He agreed to cooperate with the government in 1976 in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In 1977, seven defendants were indicted for conspiracy to import marijuana and conspiracy to possess marijuana to distribute in Jacksonville, Florida. The seven were tried, convicted, and given concurrent sentences for both counts. Richard Barker apparently remained out of country at the time and evaded arrest.
Dyar, Streeter, and DeMatto appealed their convictions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The appeals court affirmed the convictions for Dyar and Streeter and reversed the conviction for DeMatto due to legal technicalities in 1978. Dyar would be identified in at least one more Colombian marijuana smuggling seizure linked with the Barker Family in 1978.
1977 Colombian Air Load
The next known smuggling caper with a Barker Family member was again very substantial and provided an enlightening perspective of their skilled and active associates at the time. Ronald Barker was charged with conspiracy to smuggle approximately 7,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States from Colombia. The seizure and case occurred in Hanover, Virginia, quite a distance north of south Florida.
A Douglas DC-4 landed at the Hanover County Industrial Air Park on March 22, 1977 transporting marijuana directly from Colombia. The arrival of the large four-engine aircraft at such a small rural air park generated unwanted attention by the airport manager. Suspicious of the heavy aircraft landing on the short, thin runway and the actions of the pilots, the manager called the police. It looked like drug smuggling to him. Law enforcement responded to the airport and found two wooden crates with burlap bags of marijuana inside the suspicious aircraft.
Robert G. Eby, Franklin M. Phillips, and Dutch Robbins were arrested at the airport. Ronald Barker was indicted in 1978 for his involvement after a witness in another 1977 trial implicated him in the smuggling venture.
Co-defendants Eby and Phillips were convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute for this drug load, but their 1977 convictions were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court due to the relatively small number of women in the master jury pool that did not provide a cross-section of the county population. The number was judged too small for a fair jury pool of their peers. By the time of the high-court decision, Eby and Phillips had served 33 months of their 30-year sentences before their release from prison. The case was to be tried again with all of the defendants, including Barker.
At their new trial in 1981, Eby and Phillips pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle marijuana and possession with intent to distribute it. The two defendants hoped for a favorable pre-sentence report from the plea, which turned out to be a shrewd gamble.
Late in 1982, a circuit court judge imposed suspended 50-year sentences for Eby and Phillips. The two had now served all of their time behind bars, if they stayed out of trouble. Ronald Barker entered a guilty plea for conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute. He received a five-year suspended sentence on the condition that he served one year in the Hanover County jail. As seen later in this story, Ronald Barker was dealing with two other court cases and sentences in this time period. The concurrent serving of jail and prison sentences would definitely benefit him for these cases.
Robbins, the co-pilot from West Palm Beach, received a 15-year sentence in 1977 with seven years suspended for the marijuana smuggling. He was released early in 1981 after serving a fraction of the already reduced sentence. Like so many others associated with the Barker Family, he did not walk away from the drug smuggling business. Robbins was arrested and convicted three years later in 1984 in Texas for importing 105 pounds of marijuana from Mexico. He was sentenced to four years in Texas state prison for that smuggling conviction. Because of the Texas conviction, a Virginia judge revoked the suspended seven-year sentence for Robbins and ordered him to serve it after his release from Texas.
Virginia law enforcement investigated a possible relationship between the marijuana smuggling venture on March 22, 1977 and the murder of five persons two weeks later in Richmond, Virginia. All five victims, three men and two women, were shot in the head execution style on April 2, 1977. Police found firearms owned by the victims in the residence that had been rented by the three men about a month before the killings, but none of the firearms had been fired. The house had not been ransacked and the neighbors had not heard any shots.
Authorities speculated at the time that one of the five victims may have tipped-off police about the smuggling venture. When the aircraft unexpectedly landed at the Hanover Airport rather than another larger airport, the airport manager contacted law enforcement resulting in the seizure and confusion within the group. At least one of the victims was reportedly associated with the suspected buyers of the seized marijuana. The buyers were alleged to have organized crime connections. However, no definite link resulting in charges was confirmed between the two incidents.
There was another death possibly linked to the Hanover Airport air smuggling venture. The state police investigated the death of a man killed three miles from the airport on nearby Interstate 95. The man, struck by an unrelated tractor trailer at 2:00 in the morning, was believed to be connected to the marijuana load at the time. At least one unidentified suspect, who was operating an offloading forklift to a flatbed truck, had fled the scene just prior to the arrival of the police.
In the next chapter, read the amazing story behind a prolific pilot associated with the Barker Family.
Robert C. Hutchinson
Robert C. Hutchinson was a former police chief and deputy special agent in charge with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Homeland Security Investigations in Miami, Florida. He retired in 2016 after more than 28 years as a special agent with DHS and the legacy U.S. Customs Service. He was previously the deputy director of the agency’s national emergency preparedness division and assistant director for its national firearms and tactical training division. His numerous writings and presentations often address the critical need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between public health, emergency management, and law enforcement, especially in the area of pandemic preparedness. He received his graduate degrees at the University of Delaware in public administration and Naval Postgraduate School in homeland security studies. He is a long-time contributor to Domestic Preparedness and serves on the Advisory Board.