Meet the Americans Serving Life in Jail for Weed

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"Abort, abort, abort," he yelled into his radio before chucking it off the roof and then jumping. Beserany, as well as the men unloading the bales, ran into the nearby woods. The smugglers hid for a good 12 hours before Beserany decided to peek his head out onto the main road. As chance would have it, a cop car was passing. Beserany, who was bleeding from his palms, told the officer he had just gotten into a fight with his girlfriend.

His unconvincing story got him booked into the Hardee County Jail, which would precipitate a series of events that ultimately landed 29 men behind bars. Law enforcement was able to trace the DC-4 to Paul Pettie, a Broward County judge who also served as the DeLisis' lawyer. Later, Pettie would flip, becoming a major witness for the prosecution.

The DeLisi brothers were arrested. They bonded out on $400,000 apiece and spent 18 months on the lam. They were eventually apprehended and sentenced to five years in state prison each.

Florida passed its own version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act -- or RICO -- in 1977. Under that law, the state could file a civil suit alongside a criminal one if the defendant were considered part of an organized crime ring. It was supposed to allow the state to stymie illegal activity by hitting people where it hurt -- in their pockets.

The DeLisi case was Florida's first chance to test that law. Prosecutors hoped that by taking away the brothers' homes, the two would be unlikely to reoffend. "Our ultimate hope is that the people who are dealing drugs in Florida reach the conclusion that they could be using bad business judgment and take their trade somewhere else," Don North, assistant to then-Attorney General Jim Smith, told the Sun Sentinel in 1980. "The RICO statute will be a very effective tool in taking away these illegally gained assets."

When the DeLisis were busted in Hardee County, police confiscated their homes and cars -- pretty much everything apart from their business, 320Automotive in Pompano. The brothers decided to make their money back the only way they knew how.

Eight months after they had been released from their five-year sentences, in October 1984, the brothers were seated inside a Chinese restaurant on 125th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. Richie was there with his girlfriend, Colette; his brother Teddy; and his brother's girlfriend, Carmen Celeiro. Over a plate of beef and oyster sauce, Richie said he knew how to make things square. His friend J.J. White, a pilot, was going to hook them up with one last planeload of 1,500 pounds. And he was going to do it for free, without taking a cut, so the guys could pay off their attorneys' fees, get themselves a new house, and bulk up their business.

An affidavit shows that White was actually a Florida Department of Law Enforcement informant and that the agency monitored his contact with the brothers over the course of four months as they set up the deal. On July 24, 1988, at 8:30 in the morning, FDLE officers caught two men offloading bales into a 1985 Chevy pickup and a 1987 Ford LTD near the Lake Wales Airport. Officers later apprehended them during a traffic stop.

The DeLisis had gotten off with a relative slap on the wrist the first time, but changes had occurred since their initial offense.

Crucially, Florida's RICO Act made any criminal conspiracy a first-degree felony punishable by 30 years in prison. "Those laws were set up to go against large-scale operations like the Mafia, and the states retroactively decided to use these charges against people selling pornography and drugs," says Norm Kent, an attorney with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. "The states abused it for other things, particularly Florida and Texas, the major nerve centers of the drug trade. And if you look, that's where you see the most draconian sentences."

Also by the mid-'80s, America was square in the middle of the drug crisis. President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory federal minimum sentences for drug offenders -- five, ten, or 20 years, depending on the amount of drugs involved.

That same year, Geraldo Rivera produced American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, the fifth-highest-rated syndicated special at the time. One memorable interview from the show was with Richie DeLisi. Seated at a Key Largo bar in amber aviators and a plaid shirt while sipping a mugged beer, he told the anchor he'd turned $12,000 into $50 million.

"Why'd you stop?" Rivera asked.

"I got busted," DeLisi replied.

That part of the broadcast lasted all of 20 seconds.

DeLisi now says his segment was -edited to make it look as if he were -bragging, and that's partly why Judge Dennis Maloney, who presided over the Lake Wales case, decided to give Richie and his brother Teddy upward departure -- more than the recommended sentence for their crimes. Although a pretrial investigation suggested that Richie serve 12 to 17 years, each of the brothers was given 90. Maloney recently declined to comment.

The cost of hosting an inmate in state prison is $17,338 per year.

"They wanted to nab me after that Geraldo interview," Richie DeLisi says now from prison. He claims that he was talked into doing the deal by White. ("I was set up by a guy who made a deal with the devil and the government") and that he would have done things differently had he not been cursed with dyslexia ("I wanted to be righteous, but I never even learned how to sign a check").

Regardless of who's to blame, taxpayers shoulder the burden. The cost of hosting an inmate in state prison is $17,338 per year, according to the Department of Corrections. Not including medical expenses, that means DeLisi has cost Florida $450,788 so far and stands to cost $208,056 more if he serves his full sentence. A geriatric, DeLisi has also gotten hearing aids and billed a litany of surgeries to taxpayers.

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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.