|Allen Long began his quest for fame in the 1960s as the lead singer of a garage band that once opened for the Byrds.|
Then, as young men will do, he radically changed course and tried his hand at documentary filmmaking. But when the money ran out for his movie on drug running, Long became a smuggler himself and earned a different sort of fame by introducing Americans to "Colombian gold," the Dom Perignon of marijuana.
With the bohemian good looks of a young Jim Morrison and a drug habit to match, Long smuggled 972,000 pounds of his "gold" into the United States between 1972 and 1984, much of it in the bellies of C-130 cargo planes, according to biographer Robert Sabbag. He claims he never owned a gun or harmed anyone during his career selling dope.
Long's story, chronicled in Sabbag's 2002 book Smoke Screen, has captured the imagination of at least one Hollywood producer who hopes to turn it into a film with one of today's rakish superstars -- such as the actor Matthew McConaughey -- playing the part of the charming young drug runner.
At the moment, however, as he sits in Cook County Jail, Long's fantastic tale has taken a far less glamorous turn than most Hollywood stories. Long, 58, has been charged with trying to pick up 13 black duffel bags filled with nearly 1,200 pounds of marijuana from a self-storage facility on Chicago's Southwest Side.
In a jailhouse interview, Long, his once flowing hair now shorn and tinged with gray, insists he left his drug-running days behind him years ago and that the March 28 drug bust wasn't what it appears to be.
"I am no longer actively a smuggler, but I know people in Europe and Asia and South America and Mexico and Canada who are still in the game," said Long, who grew up in a well-to-do Virginia family and claims to be part owner of a restaurant and an investor in golf tee-time software there.
Long says that at the time of his arrest, he was working for the Central Intelligence Agency, using his old smuggling connections to identify national security threats.
"Nothing scares me more than the idea of a biochemical weapon being let loose in the United States," Long said. "I thought I could use 20 years of smuggling expertise to do something good for my country. It seemed this was my chance to do something my kids could be proud of, other than their dad being a big-time pot smuggler."
The Sun-Times was unable to confirm Long's CIA story. The CIA declined comment, as did a Cook County prosecutor supervising Long's case.
Long's lawyer said he has corroborated parts of his client's story with a Drug Enforcement Administration official, but was unable to speak to Long's alleged CIA contact.
Says 9/11 changed his life
"I know my defense is like 'the dog ate my homework,' " Long said.
His involvement with the intelligence agency began after Sept. 11, said Long, who was in New York promoting Smoke Screen the day of the World Trade Center attacks.
"It changed my life," he said.
After reading the 9/11 Commission Report, which said the United States needed better "human intelligence" to help prevent terrorist attacks, Long said he approached DEA's Alex Toth to offer his assistance.
Long said he first met Toth in a bar in the Caribbean in the '80s when he was living under a false identity as a fugitive and selling Miller beer.
When he decided to quit his life on the lam, Long surrendered to Toth in 1991 in Tampa, Fla., because he trusted the DEA agent, Long said. He was freed from federal prison in 1994.
The two men met again in June 2005 at a Starbucks in Carlsbad, Calif., where Long pitched his counter-terrorism proposal and Toth told him he could not use intelligence from drug smugglers he was sworn to arrest, Long said.
Still, according to Long, Toth liked the idea, so he introduced Long to a CIA official at an Arlington, Va., hotel Aug. 16, 2005. After Toth left, Long presented an outline of his plan, Operation WeedEater, to the CIA official, Long said.
The CIA official told Long he could not immediately give him the $250,000 a year for five years and a $50,000 signing bonus he was after, but encouraged him to start schmoozing his smuggler pals and money would eventually come, Long said.
As a result, Long said, he identified corrupt U.S. customs agents in Mexico at a pre-screening facility for trucks crossing the border into the United States and also discovered Indonesians were being smuggled over the border. Indonesia, Long points out, is an al-Qaida stronghold.
'I think Allen is a patriot'
Peter Vilkelis, Long's attorney, met with Toth in Washington where the DEA official confirmed he had spoken to Long about his plan to exploit his smuggling contacts to uncover threats to homeland security, Vilkelis said.
Toth acknowledged introducing Long to a CIA official, Vilkelis added.
"I think Allen is a patriot, and I hope the government does not leave him hanging," said Vilkelis, a former Cook County assistant state's attorney and a board member of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws.
The Illinois State Police team that arrested Long also nabbed Ricardo Juarez, 49, of Chico, Calif., who was with Long at Public Storage, 4220 W. 47th.
Long said he enlisted Juarez, who served a four-year narcotics sentence in the 1990s, to help with his anti-terrorism plot. They were tracking a pot shipment tied to crooked customs officials, he said.
"I told them [the police] I am not really here to smuggle drugs," Long said.
Juarez's attorney declined to comment.
Lt. Lincoln Hampton, a State Police spokesman, said investigators received intelligence about Long that led them to make a "controlled delivery" to him. "The investigation is ongoing," he said.
Reached by phone, Toth said he is in charge of the DEA's drug enforcement in the Caribbean and Latin America. He referred questions about Long to a DEA spokesman, who declined to comment.