The Return of “Barry & ‘the boys'”

If it feels like they never left, it’s because they haven’t.

It is known as “the shark tooth capital of the world."

But tiny Venice, Florida might more truthfully be called "the home of an original CIA SpookPort."

The distinction goes unpublicized.

It does not adorn the cover of the Chamber of Commerce brochure.

It is like being in an otherwise undistinguished town whose one claim to fame is having one of the first McDonald's, complete with original Golden Arches.  But for some unknown reason, that information is being kept on the down-low. 

It is a truth which dares not speak its name; yet it has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Even the historical marker at the airport has been classified.  The Venice Airport, states the plaque, has its origins in the early days of WW2, when it was known as the “337th  Army Air Field Base.” 

There is no such entity. There is not—nor has there ever been— anything called the 337th Army Air Field Base. What later became the Venice Airport was known at its inception as the Venice Army Air Base.

Who ever heard of an historical marker used as a cover story?  

The second "Barry" & his Mexican pals

 Some recent revelations from Venice:

One of the current owners of the former Huffman Aviation at the Venice Municipal Airport had a strange involvement with a Mexican company used as a front to launder drug money for a drug ring Federal prosecutors called "the biggest cocaine smuggling organization in American history."

It was led, until his assassination in 1986, by life-long CIA pilot Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal.

Lurking behind the façade of what is today known as “Tristate Aviation dba Suncoast Aviation,” we can reveal, is another man named “Barry.” 

Whether this is mere coincidence, or a message from the gods, remains at this point unknown.

DARK In either case, the link will be explored in an upcoming story. But it demonstrates the remarkable continuity of control of the U.S. drug trade—over decades—by a group which is shy about only one thing… Its identity.

They don't want us to even know their name. We call them the American Drug Lords.  

In sunny Venice Florida, we have been bearing witness to something dark.

With the return of "'Barry & 'the boys," it just got darker.

What does "checked out and found to have no substance" mean?

It is Thursday October 5, 1967. In New Orleans, an exasperated investigator working for New Orleans’ D.A. Jim Garrison’s probe into the Kennedy assassination, is finally back in his hotel room. It has been another long sweaty day.  

Tom Bethell is an Oxford graduate whose meticulous habits put him at odds with others in the free-wheeling New Orleans D.A.'s Office. 

shaw2Now he takes the time to update his diary. 

“I spoke to Martin Waldron in the afternoon, and he told me that the New York Times had been given a lead for a possible Clay Shaw-David Ferrie link, which, he said, had not been checked out, and so he gave it to me.”

“It concerned a man called Shaw who rented an airport somewhere with plans to fly bombing missions over Cuba. The information was dug up by some history professor called Sadler in South Carolina while doing a thesis or something like that. Alcock reached Sadler by phone but concluded that there was nothing to the lead.”

To this entry, Bethell appends a note in 1969:

“This is an illustration of the kind of dishonest reporting that has been going on in the Los Angeles Free Press.

"In their March 21, 1969, issue they refer to (i.e. Art refers to) Shaw's "possible involvement, according to information in Garrison's files, with other people from New Orleans Trade Mart in a plot to bomb Cuba in 1947 from a Florida airport rented by a "Shaw."

"The "information in Garrison's files" is simply a lead provided by a reporter from the New York Times, which was checked out and found to have no substance.” (emphases mine.)

Tom-Bethel1l Today Bethell is a senior editor of a conservative magazine, The American Spectator, and a member of a conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution.

In a book he wrote on the Garrison probe, he admitted handing over key files from the prosecution to Clay Shaw's defense lawyers before the trial. 

"I ended up betraying Garrison to Shaw's attorneys," he boasts.

Bethell didn’t believe in Garrison’s investigation. On the other hand, Bethell doesn’t believe in evolution, or global warming either. So, there's that.

Moreover "checked out and found to have no substance" seems both a little vague, and a little much. Not that he'd listen, but here's what we could tell him:

Au contraire.

Sending divers down the memory hole


      A new book recently offered partial confirmation for reporting here about the Venice Airport’s history of use for gunrunning, international drug trafficking, and as a staging area for launching coups in Central America and across the Caribbean Basin.

CIA contract pilot David Ferrie took off from the Venice Municipal Airport on sabotage missions into Cuba, states A Farewell to Justice by Joan Mellen, which profiles New Orleans’ D.A. Jim Garrison’s thwarted investigation into the Kennedy assassination.

Among the ranks of American pirates, freebooting pilots, soldiers of fortune, and covert  operatives calling the Venice Airport home during the past 50 years, we have learned, are a surprising number of names, likeDavid Ferrie, which are more than familiar.

They come from the murky world of international drug trafficking; or the even-murkier world of the Kennedy assassination.

Emerging from the "memory hole" and into the sunlight, their names alone evoke rumors and dark whisperings about secret American involvement in assassinations and coups in the Caribbean, and Central and South America. 

DAVE2"They were running stuff out of there—like B-25’s being used as attack aircraft—at the Bay of Pigs,” a former covert operative who was there told us. “Over time the ‘town fathers’ just got exceedingly friendly with that group.”

What does it mean when— absent any real history of our life and times—an investigation into the history of the Venice Airport is able to clear up a controversy from New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison's investigation into the Kennedy assassination?       

News you should have heard 50 years ago

mar16-4723 There was a coup launched in 1947  from an airport in Florida: the Venice Municipal Airport.

Fighter planes, tanks, and machine guns were seized,  in Venice, and New Orleans.

"The planes seized here," reported the Associated Press from New Orleans, "are a P-38 fighter plane and a SG5, similar to two others attached by customs officials at Venice Florida at about the same time."

While we don't pretend to special knowledge on the subject of the Kennedy assassination, New Orleans was, apparently, where Clay Shaw was living at the time.

But even if Clay Shaw and David Ferrie were attending the annual Spooks in Service Conference on the far side of the moon when the coup was launched, what's noteworthy is that several coup participants, like Edward Browder, Jr, are also familiar names in Kennedy assassination lore. 

firearms seized1What are the odds of that?  Probably greater than most of us would like to think. 

Browder ran guns to Fidel Castro with Jack Ruby, to cite just one example. A year after the Kennedy assassination, he flew a B-25 bomber to Haiti to a good buddy of George DeMohrenschilt, the White Russian good buddy of Lee Harvey Oswald his ownself.

Like Barry Seal, Ed Browder was a CIA pilot who seems to have been involved in everything everywhere…He was there for the CIA's first big coup, in Guatemala in 1954, with those other shining lights of probity, E. Howard Hunt and David Atlee Philips.

But it appears he was ahead of his time, with an entrepreneurial streak that got him in trouble with his bosses back at the shop. In an early example of what 50 years later became the Pentagon's embed program, he wrote Henry Luce and offered to sell TIME magazine exclusive rights to cover an upcoming coup in Costa Rica.   

J. Edgar Hoover was unamused. And one day Browder would have 25 years in prison to reflect about where it all went wrong.

"Building revolutionary consciousness, one tank at a time."

foto9xu3 In addition to the two P-38’s busted in Venice, another two were seized in New Orleans.

"Two P-38 planes reportedly consigned for Cuba to aid in a revolution are safely impounded at Venice," reported the March 16,1947 Sarasota Herald Tribune, paraphrasing the Miami Herald.

 “Another two P-38's were impounded in New Orleans, along with cache of rifles, revolvers, machine guns… even several tanks and amphibious landing craft.”

The two amphibious landing craft were loaded with tanks. They were ready to launch when U.S.  Customs officials swooped in.  Authorities also found “a huge weapons cache” at one of the conspirators homes, in Gulfport, Mississippi, about 50 miles down the coast from New Orleans.

The planes, tanks, and weapons belonged to the man in Gulfport sitting 0n a weapons cache,  identified as “the president  of a company which carries on mahogany operations in Central America."

This will turn out to be a crucial piece of information in our next story. Having a  mahogany operation is either a more popular hobby than we ever thought possible… Or a useful cover for spooks.

(But then, why mahagony, instead of birch, or pine?)

This was obviously a well-funded coup.  These boys were not planning on hiding in the hills while building revolutionary consciousness.

Nope. Not these insurgentes. Not when you've got tanks.

"All rightie-right! Four tanks, four warplanes, and 21 machine guns.What next?"

 poppingWhat were they planning on doing with all that firepower?

“Officials declined to comment on reports prevalent in Miami and Havana that the planes were a part of a plot to attempt a revolt against the Cuban government.”

But back then, we protested silently, Cuba wasn't yet riddled with Commies.

“The two planes seized in Venice were gassed up and ready to take off for a destination which customs officials refused to reveal. The MIAMI HERALD stated flatly that the planes were part of a plot to start a revolution in Cuba.”

Participants were cagey about what they were up to; their statements filled with contradictions and obvious disinformation. Still it is clear that they weren’t launching a coup in Cuba.

They were launching a coup from Cuba.

They were planning to take over Venezuela, where a recent  election had brought to power, depending on who you were listening to,  a mildly leftist President with hopes of improving the lot of his overwhelmingly poor fellow citizens, or a hardened member of the international communist conspiracy.

DEAD-THAN-RED In a story called "Guns Across the Caribbean,"  TIME MAGAZINE  put the coup into perspective.

"In waterfront cafes in Miami and New Orleans, coups are being plotted against a half-dozen governments. Ideology mattered little: the plots were against governments  on both the right (Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic) and the Left (Cuba, Guatemala, Venezuela.)"

 What did matter?

"At hand in the U.S. were stacks of surplus guns, as well as plenty of adventurers, fighter pilots, aerial gunners and combat infantrymen who would fight at the drop of a dollar.

Winning World War II, in other words, had not been without negative consequences.

"Keeping natives and wild beasts from harrassing my workers, Your Honor"

 fracasUnder the headline Three Convicted of Gun-Running Conspiracy  the St Petersburg Times reported that “A former bomber pilot and two partners in a “construction company”  pleaded guilty in Federal Court yesterday to conspiring to ship war equipment including tanks and aerial bombs, to British Honduras.”

Just as a rule of thumb, if your cover story as a “construction company” gets placed in quotes by reporters, its probably not a good sign.  But then, 50 years ago, cover stories were considerably less sophisticated.

William Iverson Marsalis was the former bomber pilot. He'd been a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Air Corps in World War II.  With the benefit of hindsight, today its easy to see that Marsalis was probably just following orders from “unnamed superiors” in America's brand-new national security state, which was just then (in 1947) being born.

Marsalis, the story related, had explained the landing ships, the tanks, the P-38 fighters and the munitions dump in simple fashion. He said the guns were for a hunting trip.

“Marsalis explained he was thinking of opening logging operations in British Honduras, and needed the arms to keep the natives and wild beasts from attacking his workers in the jungle.”

"Encouraging former U.S. soldiers with farming backgrounds, is all, your Honor"

rappleyea The subtext here, as far as we could tell, seems to be "Keeping natives and wild beasts from attacking your workers in the jungle" is a job responsible employers should not take lightly.

Hence, the tanks. The warplanes. The machine guns. The landing ships. The two-car garage converted to a munitions dump.

Marsalis, the judge stated, had had a “splendid war record.”

Did he just want to keep the good times rolling?

Two other men were convicted with Marsalis. Both were executives of the famous Higgins Boat Company of New Orleans, which made tens of thousands of landing craft that GI’s used to hit the beaches in Normandy, in Italy, and all over the South Pacific.

We found an old article with a picture of one of them. George Rappleyea (on the left) was the vice-president of Higgins. Does he look like a dangerous adventurer?  A wild-eyed soldier of fortune?

No. He looks like a bean-counting front man. And we'd bet five bucks (all we can afford) that he's a good friend of…Clay Shaw.

That's when we began to wonder.  Who are these guys?

And so we looked up what we could on the coup-plotter-in-chief,  a man named Karl Eisenhardt.

In our next story we'll tell you what we found.

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Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.