August 6, 2011

STRANGER: Jason Ryan
LOCATION: Lana, 210 Rutledge Avenue, Charleston, South Carolina
THEME: An evening with an author

By the time you read this, Jason Ryan will be a father.

Water will have broken, transport to the hospital will have occurred, and a new life will have come — or more accurately been laboriously squeezed — into the world. Two weeks before his wife’s due date, Jason saw the upcoming birth as a significant portion of the prelude to the next major phase of his life, following his marriage, home renovation, and first book.

It was the book that had brought us together for an interview on a warm Saturday night in Charleston. With his wife resting soundly at home, Jason spared the evening to share his experiences writing “Jackpot: High Times, High Seas and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs,” a non-fiction account of the South’s infamous marijuana smugglers.

My friend Andrew (he asked that I give him a shout-out) put me in touch with Jason, and that mercifully meant I’d have dinner company the second night of a weekend trip to the Palmetto State. It was my inaugural visit to Charleston and after my three days in the South I was won over by its quiet streets, abundance of great restaurants and utterly charming, friendly people.

Maybe I’m romanticizing the idea of the welcoming South, maybe I got lucky and met the best of the city’s population, maybe I’m amazed at the way you pulled me out of line. Maybe I just awkwardly reference Wings songs for no real reason.

Regardless, Charleston wins my endorsement.

After a great Friday night meal at Jestine’s Kitchen — peanut butter and banana sandwich as an appetizer, pecan-crusted fried chicken as an entree, and Coca-Cola cake for dessert — I was optimistic about the quality of food at Jason’s chosen restaurant Lana.

I arrived late, naturally, and he was already at the table. Apologizing for my tardiness (I’m detecting a trend) he brushed it off nonchalantly.

This was a new experience for me, sitting down to dinner with another journalist. At 35 dinners in, Jason’s the first fellow reporter I’ve interviewed. By way of icebreaker, we chatted about our careers, our upbringings, and how we got into journalism.

Jason grew up in Connecticut, South Florida, and South Carolina before getting a business degree from Georgetown University in Washington, DC. After graduating he realized he wanted to be a reporter and moved back to the Palmetto State, getting a job as a reporter with a newspaper in Beaufort before a job reporting on state capitol politics.

When people ask why I wanted to be a reporter, I tend to defer a real answer by joking that after graduating university with a law degree I wanted to try an even less ethical profession.

Jason thankfully gave me an honest answer on why he chose a career in print, saying he’d always liked reading and periodicals, and as he got older his interest in news escalated.

“I’d always liked to ask a lot of questions, raising my hand class, things like that, so I think that might tell why I drifted toward that,” he said of becoming a journalist. “I guess I’ve always been curious about a lot of things, and I like being able to be kind of like the watchdog role. Reading the news you form opinions and have a mindset about how things work, so if you can hold some people accountable, I thought that was a positive thing, so I enjoyed that kind of role.”

It was while working as a reporter that Jason stumbled across the story of South Carolina’s pot smugglers that would eventually form the basis of his book “Jackpot.”

For a newspaper feature Jason interviewed a South Carolinian about her experiences working on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film set in, rather obviously, the Caribbean. She’d been hired because she lived down there, and that got Jason to asking why she moved to the Caribbean. After a fair amount of coaxing, she told Jason that her father was a marijuana smuggler. After he was indicted, the family took off to the Caribbean. Soon after, the father split from his family and they hadn’t seen him for 25 years. That story fascinated Jason and got him digging into the history of pot smuggling.

“It probably took about 15 months or so before I thought, ‘This is a book and this should be told,’” he said. The gentlemen smugglers — so called because they rarely used guns or violence — exploited the rural South in the 1970s and ’80s, particularly South Carolina with its marshes and then-lack of state and federal agent patrols, as a prime arrival point for ships smuggling pot from the Caribbean.

The smugglers were pitched against federal investigators pursuing Operation Jackpot, which captured more than 100 nonviolent marijuana smugglers and kingpins, taking them from their million-dollar lifestyles to behind bars. Jason’s website has more on the full story.

Believing the true-life story ripe for a book, Jason prepared a proposal and sample chapter. He secured an agent after about a year. It took another year to get a contract for the book. In total “Jackpot” took him three to four years to write.

Unfortunately one of Jason’s most obvious leads, the woman in the Caribbean, was reluctant to talk. So Jason started reading through news archives, interviewing some of the “soft, low-hanging” fruit including prosecutors interested in sharing their success stories. After building up his knowledge base he then started approaching the smugglers.

Apparently it’s not the easiest task in the world to track down pot smugglers that were jailed for years and after their release could be living anywhere. “It could be tough. Sometimes you couldn’t find someone, you kept looking until someone knew where they were. They could be living abroad or just unlisted. Sometimes you got names that were nicknames,” Jason said.

“You do a lot of cold calling and you say, ‘Hi, this is my name,’ they’ve obviously never heard of you. You say you’re writing on something that happened 30 years ago, there’s a little bit of skepticism. And it’s weird what the reactions are. Some are like, ‘I’ll have to think about it,’ some say, ‘Sure, come over,’ and others really start grilling you, start doing investigating, getting references for you.”

Despite these hurdles he still managed to track down some kingpins.

Once he finally found the kingpins, Jason said he was careful to ease into his questions and not open with one that would put the interviewee instantly on guard. “Like with any interview, if it’s controversial or sensitive at all you want to work on them a little bit. There’s some psychology, it’s not like you’re pulling the wool over their eyes or something like that, but you wouldn’t start off on the wrong foot with some kind of accusation. So you approach it delicately.”

But he was also up against the clock with some interviewees, for example limited to a brief lunch interview (dining with a stranger!), so he had to balance keeping his subjects relaxed but also cramming questions about years of smuggling into a short amount of time.

Thankfully we had plenty of time at Lana, so I was able to hurl my uncoordinated line of questioning at Jason, interrupted only briefly by the arrival of our starters.

I went for the lamb spanakopita — ground lamb, spinach, tomato, goat and feta cheese wrapped in pastry with a mint relish. The photos on my site somehow always manage to make the dishes look less appetizing than they really were, and it’s the same with my starter at Lana. The mint relish gave the pastries a fresh edge, while the cheese a perfect complement as it seeped through the tender pieces of lamb.

Jason chose the “Fritto Misto,” a serving of shrimp, zucchini, squash, and fennel in a roasted pepper vinaigrette. He gave high marks to his starter.

A promising start to the meal not only because of the food but also because Jason gave thoughtful, detailed answers to my questions. I wondered if the people he interviewed for his book were the same.

Jason was pleasantly surprised about how open some of the smugglers were in talking about their lives. While the prosecutors had “fuzzy memories” of the time because to them it was another case, albeit an important one, for the kingpins this was their lives. “So they’re happy, generally speaking, to relive these glory days and they have more vivid memories because it was a lot more painful for them,” Jason said.

Those memories include making millions of dollars, having homes in the Caribbean, and sailing private boats. The smugglers saw themselves as simply taking part in the supply-and-demand chain of a valid economy: pot.

Jason says the smugglers could have a point. “They would say the Wall Street bankers, and other big corporate CEOs and things like that are the ones who are dishonest and who are ripping people off. You got what you paid for with the smugglers and they delivered what they advertised, so how are they the crooks?” At the same time, he concedes the smugglers were operating an illegal trade.

He was also skeptical when prosecutors would lambast the smugglers and speak in near-hyperbole about the damage of the pot trading. “I think if I knew they had killed people, of course that would have cast a different light on it. I guess when you look at their crimes, you look at who’s the victim, and I had difficulty finding a victim. I didn’t necessarily take sides but when you hear some of the prosecutors speak about the evil that’s been committed; I wasn’t totally sympathetic to that.”

But Jason doesn’t think the smugglers were unfairly punished because they knew they were breaking the law.

Nowadays the former kingpins are surviving the best they can outside of prison, though none of the smugglers have totally reinvented themselves. Jason thinks many of the ex-convicts are struggling to adjust away from the routine of life behind bars.

“They’re institutionalized, they’ve just lived in prisons so long, used to getting meals and being stuck there and having this routine. So when they’re finally free, they’re not, because they can’t see beyond the day. Now they work a menial job, they get their meals and the next day the same. But they can’t break out, they can’t leave or do anything different because they’re just used to being under someone’s thumb and they don’t realize they’re not. And that’s a sadness,” he said.

That sadness touches on a human angle to the story that Jason uncovered in reporting his book. Beyond the cops-and-robbers plot, families were torn apart when the smugglers were sent to jail, children growing up with one parent in prison. “As much excitement and fun as there is, there are very sad parts of the story,” he said.

“I think I was lucky to get a lot of the interviews that I did”

That story evolved during the several years it took Jason to write “Jackpot.” He ended up including much more detail than was in his original book proposal, in part because interviews he secured after winning approval of his proposal produced valuable information.

One kingpin interview even took place just weeks before his deadline for handing in the book, and it proved vital in filling gaps in the story. “There were significant holes in the manuscript so it was a really intense last month or so,” Jason said, remembering his scramble to update the text with the interview. “It was a lot of writing in the last month. I’m happy with what I produced, but it was certainly a crunch.”

What was the main takeaway from conception to publication of the book?

“It came down to two groups of people who both had goals in mind. One was to make money by smuggling drugs but there’s a line they wouldn’t cross, they wouldn’t kill people. And then on the other side were these cops, prosecutors who wanted to use all these new tools and be very aggressive, taking things, trying people in court. But for them too there was a line that they wouldn’t cross. They wouldn’t force false testimony. They would help the defendants get a lawyer before speaking. They were gentlemen in their own way too,” Jason said.

Since its release, reaction to the book has been good, with the smugglers and the cops telling Jason he did them justice. “I think it was pretty fair and well-grounded and comprehensive. The book moves fast but I give a lot of detail. I haven’t had complaints from people involved,” he said. “And that’s a really good feeling. And I think I was lucky to get a lot of the interviews that I did, but I think my hard work in pursuing them meant I got a lot of authentic voices in the story.”

Jason is now mulling ideas for his next book, though is staying tight-lipped on that for now.

Unable to pry further into that area of his life, I was glad the main courses arrived because I was able to throw out the simpler question of what Jason thought of his food.

He chose the “Gnocchi ai Funghi,” house-made pasta served with wild mushrooms, pancetta, roasted garlic, sage, and Porcini cream. I didn’t try any of his food, but he had no complaints and must like the meals Lana offers because he appears to be a welcome regular at the restaurant.

I went for chicken pan roasted “Basque-style,” which apparently means cooking it with olive oil, proscuitto, peppers, tomato and potato croquettes. I’ve never been to Spain’s Basque Country so I can’t vouch for whether it’s an authentic dish out there, but regardless it was a decent meal. The portion was huge, with rich, sturdy flavors.

Later that evening the owner of Lana, apparently a friend of Jason’s, very kindly brought over a doggie bag of food for Jason’s wife. From the way Jason talks about his wife it’s clear there’s a lot of affection in the relationship, and her support helped him through writing his book. “She would also listen to me and was very supportive, so that was good. I didn’t want her to get sick of it. She couldn’t keep track of all the people like I could, but she was a good sounding board,” he said.

Smart by any objective measure, Jason was engaging dinner company.

As we wrapped up dinner and readied our plans to get a nightcap nearby, conversation rolled back to Jason’s looming first-time fatherhood, a topic that always made him smile.

Whenever he would talk about the newest addition to the Ryan family tree, Jason would lean back, grinning, his voice rising ever-so-slightly. “It’s just so hard to imagine from one day to the next there will be another person in our family. I’m excited about it. I think it will be a lot of fun. I think it will make this world new again for me and kind of snap whatever habits or routine that I’m going through. I think I’m going to be grateful for that.”

Ever the writer, Jason pitched his new child and other life changes as the next chapter in an ongoing saga. He said, “I finished this book, my wife and I have restored our house, which was a lot of work. Those things are wrapped up now and it’s time for some new adventures. We’ve been happy with the results of those projects, so now it’s time to try something new.”

3 thoughts on “#35 Jason Ryan’s Jackpot

  1. Chris Patterson Reply

    How can I reach out to Jason? His book involves my father who was an undercover special agent for Customs. He would like to expand on this story.

  2. Fred Fillinghsm Reply

    How can I reach out to Jason? I sent him a couple of pages from my manuscript which he used with my permission of course, in his book, Jackpot. He said to contact him when I was ready to publish, but the email he gave me (this was years ago) is not functioning. I’m sure he would be glad to hear from me.
    Fred Fillingham

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