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Meet the Americans Serving Life in Jail for Weed

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Although her scrappy-looking site is a web designer's nightmare, it caught the attention of two New Yorkers, Michael Kennedy and David Holland, attorneys for High Times magazine. In 2012, they put together a petition asking for clemency for five elderly inmates on Curtis' list and sent it to President Obama. It went viral online among activists and brought these drug smugglers to national attention. In the petition, the attorneys ask Obama to recognize "the sea change in attitudes toward life sentences without parole and the change in societal beliefs about the benefits of marijuana and its potential for harm." The petition asks the president to use his executive power to grant them immediate release.

Dennis Cauchon, a former USA Today reporter, runs the Clemency Report, a website he hopes will draw attention to the barely publicized cause. The website's list contains a combination of 25 state and federal prisoners but also advocates for the release of 1 million prisoners, which would make the number of Americans in jail comparable to the number incarcerated in 1980. Before the drug war took off, Cauchon explains on the site, one out of every 500 Americans was behind bars. Now it's one out of every 140.

"The drug war has moved me for my entire life," he explains. "I tried to find a way to articulate it that the public would understand. When I first created the list, I called all the people who've been working on this issue for a long time and asked, 'Who moves you the most?'"

For years, Richard DeLisi has been the number-one person on Cauchon's Florida list, and last month DiLisi was "promoted" to the nation's top ten, Cauchon says.

Richard DeLisi was born February 10, 1949. He never much cared for school. Quick-witted but learning-disabled, he displayed an entrepreneurial edge at a young age, making money slinging newspapers he couldn't read in the summertime and, when it got colder, working on food trucks. His father was a mechanic, and his mom was a typical Italian housewife.

Growing to a whopping six-foot-one by age 14, Richie managed to keep his illiteracy under wraps using brute force. "Nobody but my close friends knew I couldn't read," he says now. "If somebody tried to goof on me, I'd go off on them."

He dropped out of school at age 16. That was also the first time he smoked pot -- in the back of a '55 Chevy with his brother-in-law on their way back down Flatbush Avenue from Burger Flame. In his 20s, Richie became a professional drag racer for the National Hot Rod Association, driving a car called "One Waco Kid." He had four children with three women.

If his reputation was for being a burner with a temper, that of his father's was much worse. One day in 1965, Theodore Sr. was out in Jamaica Bay on his fishing boat The Peg. He and four buddies were throwing chum off a boat and shooting the sharks that came for it with British military rifles. An errant bullet ricocheted off the water and hit a 17-year-old girl who had just gotten her license as she sped down an adjacent causeway. The girl was shot in the back of the neck, which caused her brain fluid to leak out and her brand-new Camaro to crash through a railing. The neighborhood searched for the Knapp Street Sniper, as the suspect was known, until Theodore Sr. turned himself in. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, although the charges were dropped due to it being a freak accident.

"He had to get out of the neighborhood because he killed a neighborhood girl," says Chuck DeLisi, Teddy and Richie's middle brother, who would later serve as a lieutenant in the family's smuggling operation and eventually spend three years and two months in jail. "He was really upset about it and didn't want to live with it, so he moved down to Florida." That was in 1967. A Reader's Digest article titled "A Bullet From Nowhere" would be the family's first press, long before their drug-smuggling escapades would dominate headlines in the Sun Sentinel and beyond.


As the DC-4 made its third swoop above the makeshift runway, John Beserany groaned.

It was a January night in 1980, and the 29-year-old with a head of curly black hair and a handlebar mustache was crouched on top of a farmhouse roof in rural Hardee County, about 60 miles east of Sarasota. As the designated lookout, Beserany remembers watching the plane's front beam cut an incriminating swath of light through the orange groves that surrounded him and his 29 partners in crime.

The group had gone over the plan meticulously. If there were any deviation, the odds of safely landing the plane filled with 7.5 tons of marijuana would be almost nil. Police had been on high alert for low-flying aircraft, so the team needed to be as stealthy as possible.

Three weeks earlier, however, pilot Jim Wilson had refused to practice, say multiple people involved in the plot. Teddy DeLisi remembers how they had driven out to a secluded airstrip -- a route that didn't pass over any roads, homes, or strip malls. Along with brother Richie, the two scoured the area under the guise of a dove-hunting trip. The group had even gone so far as to secure permits and pack shotguns to avoid suspicion from police. But after taking a look around, the veteran flier decided he didn't need to do a test run. "He said he knew the area like the back of his hand," Teddy says.

But when it came time to execute the plan, Wilson's confidence was gone. He squinted into the inky night, trying to locate the tiny lights his coconspirators were using to illuminate the 200-foot-wide dirt runway.

What happened next came to define the DeLisi brothers' lives, and they along with others who were there remember the details: Wilson took a risk by dipping the plane down to get his bearings, but he was still too far north. He circled back again and again. The third time, he descended right over the abode of a forest ranger, who would later testify that the resulting vibration caused the dishes on his countertops to rattle and break.

Suspicious, the forest ranger headed out in a truck directly toward the plane, which had finally landed. About 20 men were urgently pulling bale upon bale of Colombian weed from its cargo bay, knowing the police had probably been alerted.

Teddy DeLisi was supposed to prevent anyone from calling the police. His job was to drive up and down an adjacent road, tying up the area's party line by dialing the farmhouses' numbers from various pay phones. But the forest ranger had a radio, and the next thing Beserany knew, he was watching police cars swarm the area from his bird's-eye view on the roof.

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.