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What do you call somebody who smuggles unapproved medicine into the U.S. to help patients? What about when that medicine is marijuana?

In the climate of increasing legalization, the traditional terms used for those who operate in the illicit marijuana market—“drug dealer” or “criminal”—seem increasingly outdated. But even in the 1970’s, at the crux of the “war on drugs,” these terms were unhandy for most in describing Raymond Stansel.

In short order, Stansel was a fisherman who became a kingpin in Florida’s illicit marijuana market, and one of America’s most elusive drug smugglers. But like the current legal status of marijuana, Stansel was complex.

An ex-military man who held a highly respected position with the Air Force, Stansel seemed an unlikely candidate for drug smuggling. Nobody knows exactly how he got into it, though there are many legends.

What we know for sure, though, is that throughout the early 1970’s, Stansel used his career fisherman’s status as a cover for his marijuana smuggling operation. He was a legend among the Florida fishing community, known for his brilliance and daring maneuvers at sea. But at some point, unsatisfied by a life of simple fishing, Stansel developed connections in the global, illicit marijuana trade.

It was the dark ages of marijuana. In the summer of 1971, the fervently anti-pot President Richard Nixon officially declared his “war on drugs.”

By necessity, most drug smugglers were skilled in travel by sky or sea. And on the open ocean, Stansel’s skill and resourcefulness were nearly unparalleled.

Raymond Stansel Is A Drug Fugitive That Became An Environmental Hero 2 of 1 This legend faked his death to live three lives: fisherman, drug smuggler, environmental hero
Raymond Stansel and his Children. Photo supplied by his wife

Stansel soon established connections in Jamaica, where the marijuana flowed as liberally as the saltwater he sailed in on. Then, he used his authority at sea to deliver his shipment, discretely, back onto U.S. territory. He arrived with 12-ton shipments of cannabis hidden beneath a pyramid of stinking fish. His confidence grew with each successful delivery, and soon he expanded his operation to Colombia.

As the money from Stansel’s operation came pouring in, he set up small businesses in the tropics, opened foreign bank accounts and purchased a fleet of boats. But soon, his confidence began to beget carelessness. He stopped covering his tracks so neatly. And in June of 1974, Stansel was arrested in Saint Petersburg.

Paying his $500,000 bond, Stansel’s lawyer managed to get him out of jail as he awaited trial. Surely, Stansel would be convicted and sentenced to years behind bars. But then, the trial never came.

Stansel, according to his lawyer, had died in a freak scuba-diving accident. His body was swallowed by the sea, never to be found.

The prosecutor for Stansel’s case,  Emiliano Salcines, didn’t believe it. He launched an investigation, searching the country for Stansel’s body, dead or alive. The police department issued a “wanted” notice. But the body never turned up.

Stansel’s wife, Janet Wood, would later reveal to Outside Magazine what actually happened. 

A week after Stansel got out of jail on bond, he hopped on his motorcycle and fled the police, who were trailing him closely. But with a few quick maneuvers, he shook the local cops from his tail. Then, he bee-lined for a nearby airstrip, where his friend was waiting with a small plane, which he took to Honduras. From there, Stansel would use a fake identity—Dennis Lafferty—to obtain a passport from the American embassy, after claiming to have lost his own.

Stansel and Wood zig-zagged across the globe, jumping from country to country, sailing through the tropics, riding motorcycles through Central America, hopping planes across South America. Finally, the couple decided to get off the road and start a life for themselves in Australia. They settled on the sleepy town of Port Douglas, where the fish were plentiful and townspeople apathetic to foreign scandals.

Then, in the early 80’s, Stansel and Wood purchased a home on the Daintree River and gave up their life of fishing to launch a tour company. Stansel grew an attachment to the land, and soon became well versed in the local flora and fauna. It wasn’t long before he became one of the river’s most prominent conservational figures. He would save the pesky fruit bats that most could care less about. He would monitor the river to ensure other motorists were respecting the surrounding wildlife. For local researchers trying to learn about the river’s ecosystem, he became somewhat of a human encyclopedia.

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A riverboat cruise hosted by Lafferty in the Daintree Forest. Photo via E: FACEBOOK / DAINTREE RIVER CRUISE CENTRE

“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,” Said Norman Duke, one of the leading experts in mangrove forests, told Outside Magazine.

Stansel continued to care for the river, and nurture its wildlife, until one day he grew too old and sick from Parkinson’s disease to do much of anything.

His condition progressed, and soon he needed help to perform even the simplest of tasks. Then, one day, a police officer found his car wrapped around a tree on the side of the road.

His death was a tragedy, but also, in some ways, a success: Stansel had lived out a long life of adventure, freedom, and conservation, officially escaping the law once and for all.

In the cat-and-mouse between him and the Florida police, Stansel had not only won but left a legacy of environmental advancement in his wake.

So what do you call somebody who smuggles unapproved medicine into the U.S. to help patients? What about when that medicine is marijuana? How about when they’re responsible for the conservation of one of the world’s most biologically diverse, stunning ecosystems?

Those who knew Stansel know what word to call this type of person, and they aren’t afraid to use it. For his family and friends, old and new alike, this word was “hero.”

Raymond Stansel Is A Drug Fugitive That Became An Environmental Hero 2 of 11 This legend faked his death to live three lives: fisherman, drug smuggler, environmental hero
Photo via E: FACEBOOK / DAINTREE RIVER CRUISE CENTRE
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