Cocaine, more so than any other narcotic, is the drug most frequently interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In late 2016, the Coast Guard announced it had seized about $2 billion worth of cocaine during a 10-week operation that began in October. (At 26.5 tons, the weight of the seized stimulant rivaled the bulk of four African bull elephants.) Water is the route of choice for drug runners. Some 95 percent of cocaine smuggling operations, a Coast Guard rear admiral told the BBC in 2015, involves traveling via boat.
In the Gulf Coast, a container vessel or freighter may serve as a mother ship, which offloads the drug to sailboats, go-fast cigarette boats, fishing boats and other smaller boats. “Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention,” wrote journalist Erik Vance at Slate in 2013. “And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.” And if the divers sent after the contraband cannot find it, perhaps someone else will.
In 2016, that someone else was Thomas Zachary Breeding.
Breeding, 32, was a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. The fisherman had accumulated a few run-ins with the law, including drug and gun convictions, the Panama City News Herald reported. In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Breeding for giving false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prosecutors also alleged he obstructed the agency’s investigation into why the fisherman had entered grouper spawning grounds, closed to fishing; Breeding, they argued, deliberately sought to catch a valuable species of fish called gag grouper. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
But, until Breeding found the 45-pound cocaine bale, the fisherman said that he had kept a previously clean slate when it came to the narcotics trade.
“I do not know where the drugs came from and haven’t ever been involved in the drug trade before. I was just a hard-working, young commercial fisherman,” Breeding wrote recently in a letter to the News Herald, penned from Florida’s Washington County Jail. “I was working as a long line boat captain out of Panama City when I found a package containing 20 kilos of cocaine.”
It was a what-if scenario of the type that fuels Florida crime potboilers: A fisherman finds a package of drugs valued at a huge street sum, and makes a decision. In Breeding’s case, he was 50 miles south of Panama City when he found between $500,000 and $650,000 of cocaine floating in the gulf.
As impressive as the sum was, in the annals of washed-ashore cocaine — white lobster, as villagers along the Central American coast euphemize it — its street value was not a record. In 2013, five fishermen found $2.5 million of cocaine in the waters off north Florida. A metal tube filled with an estimated $5 million worth of cocaine washed up in Ireland last summer.
But it was an object lesson in what not to do. In December, Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a celebrity Miami fisherman, found a kilogram brick of cocaine. He promptly alerted the authorities.
Breeding did not. He instead handed over the 45-pound haul to four other people, on the condition they would sell the cocaine and pay a cut to Breeding. All five were caught in the summer — Breeding, a felon, had a firearm in his car when he was arrested — and faced conspiracy charges for the distribution of a controlled substance. Breeding pleaded guilty Wednesday, the News Herald reported, as did the other members of the network; they are awaiting a Feb. 16 sentencing. Breeding may be punished with up to life imprisonment and a fine in the millions of dollars.
In his letter, the fisherman asked that those who find the white lobster not follow his path. “I would like to let the public know the dangers and what not to do if this situation comes about,” Breeding wrote. “This changed my life and way of thinking and also made me aware of some of the dangers that can be found off shore in the Gulf.”
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