Chong Feature

In Homestead - the last piece of American terra firma before the floating realm of the Florida Keys, a place of blurred borders and naturally occurring surrealism - the summer heat has been known to drive the worst townsfolk to baroque conspiracies, and the best to strange odysseys of self-discovery. And sometimes both at once.

In the summer of 1978, for example, the city's vice mayor was found to have bought and loaded with 40 tons of marijuana a certain shrimp boat, moored at the time of its seizure in Savannah, Georgia. Years after serving an eighteen-month prison term, the same former vice-mayor last week campaigned to win back a seat on the city council - and nearly succeeded. "Touched by the heat," says one sage observer, explaining both of the politician's strange episodes in a single breath. Summer in Homestead, like summer in all Southern farm towns, can be more than a tad tedious. The heat that by any rights should break in September never does; the torpor and boredom roll on well into October, inspiring unlikely dramas.

So it happened, in August 1990, that two long-time residents of Homestead sat talking at a Dunkin Donuts near the corner of North Kendall Drive and 137th Avenue. Their meeting in suburban Kendall was a chance to get out of sweltering, insular Homestead, almost like a trip to the big city for a pair of country cousins. But more important, the location of the out-of-town rendezvous served the purpose of secrecy. The two men - one a cop, one a drug smuggler - had come to discuss business.

Anyone who had bothered to observe the pair would have been intrigued by a collection of contrasts. At six-foot-three and 285 pounds, smuggler Rick Swarnes weighed nearly twice as much as Randy Chong, and stood a full head taller than the Homestead detective. Shaggy, blond, sunburned, and possessed of a blinding grin, Swarnes's visage was a direct counterpoint to Chong's poker face, which was topped by a neat thatch of raven-black hair. Chong, at age 33, was only a couple of years younger than Swarnes, but looked at least a decade less mature.

Throughout their professional lives, each man had made the most of the fact that he didn't look the part he played. Chong, the first Oriental cop in Homestead, was in fact a physical-fitness junkie, a firearms instructor, and a survivor of more than 200 heart-pounding SWAT missions. Yet his slim build, his odd, rolling gait, and the presence of a hearing aid at his ear gave him a deceptively feeble appearance. The fact that Chong looked more like a visiting mathematics professor from Boston than a veteran lawman made him ideal for undercover police work.

Nor did Rick Swarnes appear to be what he was - a fact that helped him ply his trade for years, unmolested. If he had combed his hair and lost his beer belly, Swarnes would resemble the blue-eyed quarterback of a Midwestern college football team, ten years after his last touchdown pass. "He doesn't look the part of a doper," Chong says of Swarnes. "He looks like a tourist coming down from somewhere. He's a clean-cut guy, not a stereotypical smuggler, not a dirt-bag." (Rick Swarnes is a pseudonym; federal and local authorities refuse to reveal the identity of the informant because of his ongoing participation in undercover drug cases.)

The burly smuggler was the descendant of white Southerners who migrated to South Florida in the early years of the century; born and reared in deep South Dade, he spoke with a drawl that wouldn't be misunderstood in Georgia or Alabama. Chong, by contrast, spoke with an accent straight out of Kingston, Jamaica, his birthplace. At roughly the same time Swarnes's forebears were moving to Florida, Chong's Chinese grandparents were being seduced into leaving their homeland by the promise of good wages for plantation sugar-cane cutters in Jamaica. The wages did not turn out to be as good as promised, but Chong's grandparents had little choice -they had to remain in the English colony. In 1975, when Chong was seventeen years old, his father moved the family from Jamaica to South Florida in search of a better life.

As Rick Swarnes wolfed down doughnuts and coffee, and Chong, a teetotaler who assiduously watched his diet, abstained from both unhealthful substances, the smuggler told the detective what he had refused to discuss on the telephone: An associate in Miami had given him the telephone number of a cartel broker in Colombia. The broker wanted Swarnes's help transporting a shipment of cocaine to Miami. A lot of cocaine.

In the years before a 1989 promotion to sergeant, Chong had worked in Homestead's narcotics bureau, occasionally using Swarnes as a confidential informant in drug cases involving up to four or five kilos of cocaine and a few thousand dollars in cash. Along the way, the Homestead Police Department had shunted several hundred dollars in seized funds to Swarnes for valuable information. Now Swarnes was talking about something quite different. "They wanted him to take anywhere from 400 to 2000 kilos from Colombia to the United States by way of Jamaica," Chong recalls. "This was the big time."

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