Black Tuna Gang Leader Gets Out of Jail

Robert Platshorn was the first big bust of the War on Drugs. Almost 30 years later, he's free and talking.

The trial came to a close in February 1980, with Platshorn sentenced to 64 years in prison, Meinster to 54. Out of all the defendants, Platshorn would remain in prison the longest.

The monochromatic world of prison was as different as it could be from the bright and vibrant seascapes of South Florida. In Marion Supermax — an Illinois federal prison for only the most violent offenders — tormented souls howled through the night. The clangor of fists and feet striking steel bars echoed in the corridors.

Platshorn was a born rebel. He rebelled against the marijuana laws he believed were wrong — the very laws that would seize many of his best years in prison. Now, his every movement was controlled by the institution. Still, he found ways to resist, ways that wouldn't necessarily land him in solitary confinement. He smuggled — cigarettes. The vehicles for contraband were food carts, not luxury yachts, but the tiny smuggles soothed a bruised ego. Asked if he smoked grass in the pen, Plat­shorn grins and says, "Can I plead the Fifth?"

Robert Platshorn, a 64-year-old former pot smuggler, has eschewed his ragged prison sweats for slicker duds since his April Fool's Day release.
Jacek Gancarz
Robert Platshorn, a 64-year-old former pot smuggler, has eschewed his ragged prison sweats for slicker duds since his April Fool's Day release.
Platshorn's daughter, Hope, sits in his lap. She died at age 12 of an asthmatic condition while Platshorn was in federal prison.
Courtesy of the Platshorn family
Platshorn's daughter, Hope, sits in his lap. She died at age 12 of an asthmatic condition while Platshorn was in federal prison.

Despite some small victories, Platshorn's life as he knew it was over. He'd be leaving behind his wife Lynn and two children. He and his previous wife had also remained close, but she was suffering from complications of lupus and died long before he was released, as did his 12-year-old daughter, Hope, from an asthmatic condition. "We made plans we knew would never happen," Platshorn says.

It would be a long time before he'd breathe free air again, so he and Lynn decided to divorce.

The Black Tunas' lengthy prison sentences presented a cautionary tale for the smuggling trade. Said Judge King: "In a thunderous warning, the Congress said, 'The illegal traffic in drugs should be attacked with the full power of the federal government.' The price for participation in this traffic should be prohibitive. It should be made too dangerous to be attractive."

But self-congratulatory statements from law enforcement officials about the pall that the Black Tunas case had thrown over the drug smuggling business sounded hollow in the face of new supply sources and new drugs.

Larger-than-life tales of exotic locales and near misses among the buccaneering marijuana smugglers would be replaced by stories of the carnage wrought by cocaine cartels, sensationalized in television shows such as Miami Vice and films like Scarface. Platshorn and company stood at the edge of the preceding epoch.

The story of the Tunas can still be found on the DEA's website. But while the group's demise is touted as one of the agency's great victories, insiders say the Black Tuna Gang is in fact the emblem of the feds' ultimate defeat.


Platshorn is standing in a long, shuffling line at the DMV in West Palm Beach, just one of a hundred seeking validation in the form of a plastic card. He wears a pair of baggy swim trunks, a gray polo, and a cap that reads "Stuntman's Association." He could be someone's grandpa, slight and jolly-looking, darkened by a perpetual tan from years on a boat far off Florida's Atlantic Coast.

Unlike most of the people here, Platshorn won't be getting a license. In fact he hasn't driven a car in 30 years, so he'd have to take a refresher course. He's here to get a state ID, also known as a walking ID.

Jobless, nearly penniless, and living at a halfway house, he has only one means of identification, a prison ID card — Robert Platshorn, prisoner number 00603-004. His son, Matthew, who lives in Reno, Nevada, hasn't been to see him in the two months since his release. Platshorn doesn't want him to come to this place.

The only job he's been able to secure, cold-calling for AT&T — an old ex-con standby — ended in abrupt and abject failure. He made a few calls but was angrily rejected each time, something for which Platshorn had no stomach. Even the renowned pitchman couldn't sell a prospective customer on the other end of an unsolicited phone call.

His movement and activities are still controlled at the halfway house. He can't leave permanently until he has a steady 9-to-5 job — a prospect that disgusts the black marketeer, who has never punched a clock. This new life has stripped him to the bones. All he has are the adventures of the past, which now seem more myth than reality in this age of state-of-the-art, home-based hydroponic pot farms. Nobody smuggles marijuana anymore. In this new market, Platshorn is a relic of the past and the jealous guardian of his own legend, which he hopes will provide a ticket to something approaching prosperity.

Platshorn walks up to a curt, blond, middle-age DMV employee sorting the human traffic. She asks him for his ID.

"It's been 25 years," Platshorn says.

She glares at him.

"What?" she asks. "Are you saying you're 25 or that it's 25 years since your license expired?"

"It's 25 years expired."

"Do you have a copy?"

"No."

"Do you think it's in the archives?"

"I've been in jail."

With little resolved, Platshorn waits in line. All around is the incomprehensible droning of myriad languages and dialects and the occasional flash of the camera for license pictures. His turn finally arrives.

After a few questions, he declares, "I'm the longest-serving marijuana prisoner."

The woman behind the desk raises her eyebrows, but she doesn't look up from the computer monitor.

"Lesson learned?" she asks.

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2 comments
garyboyle87
garyboyle87

I wish Bobby a lot of luck. I was in marion Illinois supermax with him in the early 80's. He is a good guy and did not deserve to do all that time let alone spend hard time in a supermax such as marion I will buy his book as he has one great story to tell..

 
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