At first glance, Bruce Perlowin seems rather mousy--slight, bespectacled, soft-spoken, with a scraggly beard and tangled hair tied back in a ponytail--sort of a leftover flower child from the ‘60s.
He talks about the love-ins, about “everyone sitting around in the sun, getting to know each other, listening to the band playing.” He says that his great dream was “to raise the consciousness of the planet"--through yoga and “smoking a little pot.”
But when you ask Perlowin, 34, about what he used to do for a living--before federal lawmen caught up with him and he was sentenced to from 10 to 15 years in prison--he makes it clear that the dream got sidetracked, and on a grand scale.
Fleet of 90 Vessels
He talks about the fleet of 90 vessels--including fishing boats, speed boats and even a converted minesweeper--that he used to haul about 340,000 pounds of marijuana into California over a five-year period, with sales totaling $120 million.
He tells how he hired a research firm in Berkeley to learn how other major drug dealers had operated, “finding out what mistakes they had made” and seeking out the “weak spots” in law enforcement so he could set up his own counterintelligence system.
He mentions the hilltop surveillance centers overlooking San Francisco Bay, crammed with sophisticated electronic gear used to monitor the Coast Guard, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs agents and local police.
He brags a little about the 1,000-foot pier he bought in the bay, safely under the radar shadow cast by the Richmond Bridge, where he set up a dummy boat-building works to cover massive offloadings of marijuana--"right under their noses.”
He describes an elaborate “money-laundering” scheme--involving a Las Vegas casino, a Luxembourg Trust, a Panamanian corporation and a bank in the Grand Cayman Islands--that he used to process the vast flow of small-denomination “street bills” generated by his illicit business.
And he reminisces--a bit sadly--about the $3-million mansion that he built in a lovely canyon in rural Mendocino County; complete with bullet-proof walls lined with steel, a stairway that could be electrified to repel invaders and a complex communications center that tied him to the disparate operations of his international drug-smuggling ring.
“I was the biggest in California--one of the biggest anywhere,” Perlowin said. “Nobody else came close to the scale we were operating on.”
Federal officials don’t dispute the point.
“He’s for real,” said Asst. U.S. Atty. James Lassart, head of the federal task force in San Francisco that put Perlowin behind bars.
‘What He Says Is True’
“When you first meet him, you think he’s kind of flaky,” Lassart said. “But after you get to know him, you realize what he says is true. We’ve corroborated it.
“He’s a very intelligent man. Very organized. He ran a very heady operation--the biggest we’ve ever seen.”
Perlowin--who has been spending most of his time recently at the federal penitentiary in Texarkana, Tex., where he has been serving concurrent sentences after pleading guilty to racketeering, income tax evasion, currency violations, smuggling and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise--is currently in the San Francisco County Jail.
Prosecutors here are trying to get him to testify before a federal grand jury about some of his more than 200 associates in the smuggling operation.
Although Perlowin says he has yet to talk, others have, and 30 members of the ring have been convicted in California, Florida and Michigan. Perlowin’s former attorney, Harvey Sande, was indicted by the grand jury here, and additional indictments are expected soon.
Perlowin--while refusing to testify against “friends"--is willing to admit now that the smuggling operation was wrong.
‘Addicted to Greed’
“I was addicted to greed,” he said during a recent interview at the jail. “I wanted to own everything. When I got the money, I said the heck with changing consciousness.”
Perlowin said it all started in the Miami, Fla., area in the 1960s, when he was a teen-ager.
“I thought people should smoke pot, take LSD, to expand their perceptions,” he said. “We’d skip school and go to the botanical gardens. It was a beautiful park, and you were there with people you really cared for . . . smoking pot . . . and wherever you looked, there were your friends . . . .
“One time the high school called and told my dad I was a pusher--it was the only time he ever hit me. I said, ‘No, I’m a dealer.’ The pusher doesn’t care about people. I did.”
Using that rationale, Perlowin said, he eventually expanded his operations until he could sell 50 pounds of marijuana a week, “then a couple of hundred, then even more . . . .”
Perlowin said that in October, 1975, he provided the drivers and vehicles to transport a 7,000-pound load of marijuana that arrived in South Florida from Jamaica. “I was 24 years old,” he said, “and I’d just made $100,000 in 10 days.”
Some of that load was sent to the San Francisco area in airline luggage, and Perlowin went along to have a look at the possibilities in the Bay Area.
San Francisco Right Place
“One night, I met a guy on Skyline Drive, overlooking the city,” he said. “It was a beautiful scene--the stars, the lights of San Francisco below, the sound of a coyote howling at the full moon. Right then, I realized, this is the place.”
Perlowin said he established a base at a mobile home park in Palo Alto--"a place where I could start meeting people and grooming them to become salesmen, a place where I could make better and better connections.”
He said that to achieve his new ambition, “to run one of the largest smuggling operations in the nation,” he needed information--"where the Coast Guard, the DEA and the Customs people were, where their weak spots were, what mistakes other dealers had made, so I could avoid them.”
To get this information, Perlowin said, he hired a research firm in Berkeley. “I told them I was making a movie,” he said. “They found out what I needed to know. . . .”
The drug smuggler said that when it came to deciding where to acquire his product, the choice was clear.
Colombian ‘Red Bud’
“Californians are very picky about their weed,” he said. “They always want top quality. . . . We decided to import Punta Roja, or ‘Red Bud,’ a highly potent plant grown in the interior of Colombia. . . .
“To get the Red Bud to the coast, we would fly it over three mountain ranges in old planes--DC-3s, DC-4s and DC-6s--and air drop it on a beach. We’d hire an entire fishing village to gather up the bales and store them until we got there.”
Perlowin said his men got there in heavy-duty, long-range fishing boats ranging up to 80 feet in length--craft designed for shrimp, crab, tuna, cod and the like, but equally capable of hauling 15 tons of marijuana apiece. Larger boats--a 124-foot tug and an 85-foot minesweeper--were kept ready in case a breakdown necessitated a tow or offloading at sea.
The ocean trips from Colombia, for the most part, were uneventful--three-week voyages during which the boats were rigged out as though fishing for whatever catch was appropriate for season.
The real trick was to avoid the various federal agencies patrolling the coast near San Francisco by air and sea, and Perlowin said he set up two surveillance sites to keep track of them--one in a mobile home parked off Skyline Boulevard, on the south side of the Golden Gate, the other on a hilltop in San Rafael, north of the Golden Gate.
Soundproof Radio Room
“From the outside, the motor home looked completely normal, but inside a closet was a soundproof radio room,” Perlowin said. “A normal-looking bunk lowered to become a chart table plotting the entire West Coast, showing the positions of our boats and Coast Guard boats. The flagpole, the rear-view mirrors and the redwood trees behind the home all had antennas hidden on them. . . .
“On the hill in San Rafael, we had banks of scanners, overlooking the bay and the pier.”
Perlowin said the pier, a 1,000-foot concrete dock that once served as home port to the Richmond ferry, was equipped with cranes, forklifts, fuel storage tanks and a warehouse--everything needed to service the incoming boats and transfer their illicit cargo to trucks and vans.
“We purchased 40 barges, brought them to the pier, and started a construction company as a front, converting the barges into houseboats,” Perlowin said.
“I looked like a 14-year-old--not the image of a person capable of buying docks and building houseboats. But I had this man--Harry Foster--who was perfect for the job. . . . He was an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman--an impeccable dresser, well educated and refined and a superb talker and salesman. He played the role of the owner of the pier and the houseboat construction company. He was the only smuggler I ever knew who came to work in a three-piece suit. . . .
“On the nights we off-loaded the boats at the dock, he would guard the front gate,” Perlowin said. “The local police made their rounds about 11 every night, right in the middle of our off-loading schedule. They’d take one look at Harry and just keep on going. . . .”
Foster Was a ‘General’
Perlowin said that among his work force of about 150, Foster (currently serving a 7-year sentence) was ranked as a “general"--one of the experienced smugglers and wholesalers brought west from Florida.
“My second line was the ‘majors'--locals with some smuggling or sales experience,” Perlowin said. “My third line was the ‘workers'--people glad to have the opportunity to make some money. . . .
“Last were the ‘minor players'--people who were temporary . . . passing through either out of desperation, a lapse in moral fortitude or a willingness to take a gamble . . . . This sub-group was made up of local fishermen who had lost, or were on the verge of losing, their jobs because of the depressed fishing industry. . . . It is with great embarrassment that I admit I used this situation to my advantage.”
But if there’s remorse now, Perlowin admits that there was little then--back when the cash was flowing in so fast that he had to set up the complex money-laundering scheme to process it all.
As described by Perlowin and federal investigators, the cash--much of it in $5, $10 and $20 bills--was packed into airline carry-on bags in a manner that avoided detection by electronic screening devices. The money was then flown to a casino in Las Vegas, where--for a 4% commission--it was exchanged for $100 bills.
The $100 bills were flown overseas and placed in two Luxembourg trusts. Through these trusts, the money was funneled through a Panamanian corporation to a bank in the Grand Cayman Islands, then drawn from the bank account as legitimate, non-taxable offshore loans.
Some of those loans were used in the construction of the rambling, redwood-and-glass home that Perlowin built beside a meandering creek in the remote back country near Ukiah.
Perlowin said that his drug business was continuing to grow and that he envisioned the place as the headquarters for what would become a worldwide drug-smuggling network. Security was provided by a $200,000 stone wall, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, television surveillance cameras, heat- and pressure-sensing devices, voice-actuated drapes and a pack of guard dogs.
Off the main bedroom--at the top of the staircase that could be electrified to discourage intruders--was the steel-lined “command post.” Perlowin said it contained a 14-line telephone system, a Telex machine, a computer and radio equipment that would permit him to communicate with operations around the globe.
“Then I started getting back into yoga,” Perlowin said. “I stopped doing Percodan and Quaaludes. I started eating healthy foods . . . . I wanted to quit living in an illegal style, I really did.
“But you can’t just walk away from an operation that massive,” he said. “So I figured, just nine more months . . . . I had already made a profit of $30 million. In that next nine months, I could have made another $120 million.”
Even as Perlowin was mapping out plans for that last, great haul, one of his employees, documentation in hand, was beginning to talk to the FBI.
On March 11, 1984, Perlowin was on a jetliner, “headed for a yoga course in Detroit,” when the plane made a stopover in Chicago.
One Man Had a Badge
“Everybody else got off,” he recalled. “Then these guys came in, and one of them fished out a badge. He said, ‘I have a warrant for your arrest.’ That was it. . . .
“They told me about the other arrests. They told me they had the books. They had my whole operation.”
Perlowin figures that with time off for good behavior, he could be out by 1989 or so. In the meantime--like so many of his fellow inmates in the federal penitentiary system--he’s doing a lot of studying about prison reform.
And when he gets out?
“I’m thinking about getting into real estate,” he said.