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Bruce J. Perlowin could give the CIA lessons in how to run an operation - or a country. By J.L. Pimsleur* – “The Berkeley Monthly” – November 1985


Bruce Perlowin - The King Of PotThe biggest and most sophisticated marijuana smuggling organization in California history had its roots here in Berkeley, Richmond and Orinda. Details of the incredible operation of Bruce J. Perlowin came to light in September after the King of Pot was brought to the Bay Area from Texas as part of the federal government’s ongoing investigation into his 200-man international organization.


Perlowin, a ponytailed, bespectacled, studious and mild-mannered man who looks more like Mr. Peepers than one of the world’s biggest drug dealers, is currently fighting government efforts to have him testify before a federal grand jury in San Francisco. He is being held temporarily in a San Francisco sheriff’s department cell at the Hall of Justice. Assuming a semi-lotus position during a series of jailhouse interviews, he said he turned down offers by federal prosecutors to let him “walk,” and took a 15-year prison term rather than snitch on his former employees.


“There’s nothing I can do about being called before the grand jury,” says Perlowin. “However, I have absolutely no intention of testifying against all the people who worked for me in my organization. If I planned to betray all my friends I would have done it two and-a-half years ago and never spent a day in jail.”**


The staggering scope of his operation began to surface after a federal indictment was brought in September against one of his former associates, Larry C. Donnie, a San Francisco attorney. Prosecutors accused the 44-year-old lawyer of acting as a “money manipulator” for Perlowin’s mammoth drug operation, which smuggled over 250,000 tons of marijuana into the United States between 1979 and 1983-using an entire West Coast fishing fleet to ferry the stuff.


Federal prosecutors allege that Donnie acted as Perlowin’s “front man” because, as a fugitive from a federal arrest warrant in Florida, the boss could not make investments in his own name. Donnie was charged with illegally purchasing and concealing thousands of dollars in assets for Perlowin, including a Cessna airplane and a house in Ukiah.


The house is not exactly your basic rural fixer-upper. A $3 million armored fortress on a 246-acre plot, the house included a $100,000 gymnasium; a complete automobile repair shop; voice-activated, electronically controlled drapes; a steel-lined, bulletproof, computer-controlled central command post; 16 surveillance cameras with night-vision capability; a 14-line telephone and telex system; and a spiral staircase leading to the master bedroom which could be electrified to repel intruders.


Bruce Perlowin's Ukiah,CA HouseTo make the place feel homey, however, it also had solid-gold bathroom fixtures and $70,000 worth of carpeting, custom-made by the same firm that does the carpeting for the White House.


A special federal drug task force has been investigating Perlowin’s far-flung operation for nearly five years. According to U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, 30 of Perlowin’s associates have already been convicted on various drug charges in four states – California, Florida, Georgia and Michigan – including some characters that are almost as intriguing as Perlowin.


Perlowin’s former partners in the Midwest, for example, were the Shure brothers. Well known in academic circles, Fred Shure is a brilliant, Harvard-educated former University of Michigan professor of nuclear engineering. His brother, Ned Shure, was the proprietor of one of the university community’s most profitable textbook stores. Together, the Perlowin-Shure connection is believed to have trucked some 100,000 tons of high-grade marijuana between the West Coast and Ann Arbor.


In a series of interviews in his holding cell at the Hall of Justice, Perlowin declined to discuss the charges against his associates, but admitted that the government’s charges against him were “accurate.”


A small, slightly-built, 34-year-old Floridian, Perlowin said he had been dealing drugs since the age of 17. Since moving his operation from Florida to California in 1975, he said he had imported $150 million worth of marijuana, mostly high-grade “Punta Roja” (red bud) pot from central Colombia and Thailand.

That’s the wholesale value. The FBI and the DEA estimate the street value of Perlowin’s imports at well over a billion dollars.


Bruce's Flotilla of ShipsTo run his vast operation, Perlowin operated a flotilla of ships that was larger than the navies of all but a handful of the world’s nations. His fleet consisted of 94 marine vessels – including the Polar Sea, a 120-foot ocean-going tug, a 90-foot North Sea trawler, a converted mine-sweeper, more than a dozen steel albacore fishing boats from 47 to 85 feet long, shrimpers, crab boats, bait boats, motor sailors’, 29 60-foot fiberglass barges, a string of speedboats and a surveillance and communications yacht. He directly employed more than 200 people and hired on others as needed, including captains and crews, boat stagers, fishermen, professional pot salesmen, computer operators, electronic technicians and radiomen.


His operation was so sophisticated it even included his own “counter-intelligence” unit, which monitored the movements of Coast Guard craft and kept track of DEA and FBI agents.


Similiar Boats were usedThe actual smuggling operation worked like this: Growers in south-central Colombia would fly the marijuana to isolated coastal sections where there were no paved roads and no transportation by train or bus – nothing but big beaches and small villages. The bales of marijuana were kicked out of the planes as they flew low over the beaches. “We would hire whole villages to gather, store and secure the marijuana,” said Perlowin. “Meanwhile, we’d outfit our boats for whatever was in season. We’d rig for tuna during tuna season etc., and send the boats to Costa Rica to refuel get provisions and stand by. As soon as the radio message came that the stuff was on the beach, the boats could get here in a couple of days.”


Bur how did Perlowin’s people manage to offload thousands of pounds of pot in the heart of San Francisco Bay without being spotted?


Bruce Perlowin's PierSimple. He owned the pier.


A meticulous man with a talent for organization and a reverence for detail, before moving his operation from Florida to California Perlowin conducted one of the most remarkable research projects in the history of crime. He hired a Berkeley firm, Information On Demand, to analyze every major marijuana bust on the West Coast during the previous ten years. The idea was “to find out where everyone else had made their mistakes – and then design an operation to avoid them.”


The data disclosed that the weakest link in failed smuggling operations had been the vulnerability of the drop-off points – coves, estuaries, abandoned docks, vacant warehouses and so forth – over which the smugglers had limited and unreliable control. Perlowin eliminated that problem by buying his own dock, a 1,000-foot concrete pier in San Francisco Bay. It was ideally situated, just north of the Red Rock Marina in Richmond.


“Logistically, it was one of the finest offloading spots in the country,” says Perlowin. “It was 40 minutes by boat from the Golden Gate Bridge and right in the radar shadow of the Richmond Bridge.”


Bruce's BoatPerlowin’s boats would come in to dock and “disappear” – drop off the radar screen. In effect, he said, they would become “invisible.” Perlowin maintained that it was safer to “hide in plain sight” – run his boats in and out of a heavy traffic area – than call attention to himself by trying to sneak around some estuary in Mendocino.


The theory worked to perfection “In Florida,” he says, “you bring in a boatload of fish and everyone thinks its marijuana. In San Francisco, you bring in a boatload of marijuana and everyone thinks its fish.”


Meanwhile, the money-laundering arm of his operation was stretching half way around the world – from a gambling casino in Las Vegas to a pair of trust companies in Luxembourg to banks in the Cayman Islands, Netherlands Antilles, Panama, Costa Rica and the British West Indies, to a loan brokerage firm in Sarasota, Florida, and back to a string of shell corporations in Nevada.

Headquarters for the Perlowin operation moved around the Bay Area. “The Ukiah house I considered a home and didn’t do business there as a general rule,” he says. Business was conducted out of a house in Berkeley, an apartment in San Francisco and a house in San Rafael. Headquarters for running the dock and houseboat building company he owned (called Shelter Engineering) was an office in San Anselmo.


Marijuana sales headquarters were in various “stash houses” or ranches his operatives bought and rented north of San Francisco. They purchased three such houses outright, with a total value of approximately $1 million, and rented half-a-dozen others.


Bruce Perlowin - The King Of PotPerlowin’s VIP headquarters was a house in Orinda lived in by a distinguished-looking 62-year-old gentleman, and impeccable dresser, highly-educated – an individual Perlowin calls “a perfect front man for the organization.” This house, lavishly furnished, was used to entertain the Colombians as well as bankers and businessmen connected primarily with the money-laundering end of the operation.


Surveillance headquarters was a rented house in San Rafael, on a mountain top in direct line of sight of the dock. From here the North Bay was monitored with powerful two-man binoculars and broad-band scanners. A voice-activated tape player recorded all police, Coast Guard, DEA, FBI and other law enforcement radio transmissions. The tapes were reviewed nightly.


The South Bay was monitored from a 37-foot Pacesetter motor home parked on property which Perlowin’s organization rented on Skyline Boulevard. From the outside the motor home looked perfectly normal. Inside, however, it was packed with $1 million worth of sophisticated electronic equipment that not only enabled Perlowin to keep in radio contact with his own boats, but to track every Coast Guard craft from Panama to Alaska and Hawaii. He also tracked all routes flown by the Coast Guard’s surveillance planes.


CB antennas were mounted in the rearview mirrors. Then antenna for Perlowin’s marine single-sideband radio was concealed inside the motor home’s flagpole, with the American flag flying on top. High in several redwood trees on the property were mounted other antennas for marine VHF radios and broad-band scanners. To insure privacy, Perlowin own communications were carried out over his own secret frequencies – accomplished by having his electronics experts shave the standard crystals to specifications that enabled him to transmit and receive in-between regular frequencies.


At one point it struck Perlowin that his communications network was far superior to anything that the local Office of Emergency Services could muster. In a major emergency, he noted, all radio frequencies would be jammed from overuse.


Bruce Perlowin - The King Of PotNever one to think small, Perlowin had his own plan. If a major earthquake or other disaster struck the Bay Area, he had contingency plans to mobilize his entire organization to assist in the rescue operations. “With all our boats, trucks, 4-wheel drive vehicles, vans, pick-ups, wagoneers, jeeps, emergency repair trucks and spotter cars, and our ability to communicate with each other by radio – not to mention personnel used to working under dangerous and stressful conditions – we would have made an impressive impact helping the authorities,” Perlowin mused. “When the emergency was over we’d disappear and go back underground.”


But Perlowin’s altruism will never be tested. In March 1983, in Chicago, he was finally arrested. Ironically, what he was doing there had nothing to do with any drug deals. He was on his way to a three-day White Tantric Yoga seminar conducted by his spiritual advisor, Yogi Bhajan.


Despite his painstaking planning, in the end it was not his marijuana operation that tripped him up, but his money-laundering organization. One of his operatives in Sarasota, under pressure from the Feds on a separate drug rap, cut a deal for himself by handing over compromising documents on Perlowin’s money-cleansing methods to the FBI.


When he was busted, Perlowin had marijuana shipments contracted for – or already on the high seas – worth $120 million.


Through it all, Perlowin insists, he is proud of one thing. He stood firm on a basic principle: He never dealt cocaine, which he considers a “vicious and destructive” drug peddled by “violent people.”


Perlowin now spends his days in Federal Prison in Texarkana, and rarely has any man adjusted so well to prison life. Perlowin claims his confinement has improved his self-discipline and helped him to purge himself of “negative habits” (such as drug smuggling almost exclusively - to the exclusion to other meaningful life endeavors). He virtually vibrates with inner peace.


His days now, he says, are the “most calm and relaxed of my life.” A vegetarian, he says he meditates twice daily and reads 15 books a week. He is using his time to study for three degrees and, by the time he gets out of prison, he expects to hold PhD’s in nutrition, psychology and criminology.

Perlowin said he plans to combine the formidable organizational skills he developed as one of the world’s biggest drug dealers with his knowledge of Yoga, meditation and nutrition to forge a revolutionary new holistic approach to prison reform and rehabilitation.


He insists that the current prison system is in a “shambles,” with an 84 percent recidivism rate. “Everyone agrees it isn’t working.”


But he maintains that his method of reducing stress and changing violent behavior through Yogic techniques can turn the system around and produce at least an 80 percent success rate.


With the support of prison authorities, he’s already been allowed to put some of his theories into practice in a small pilot program in Texarkana.


“I’ve been an outlaw half my life,” he notes, “So I certainly comprehend the criminal mind.” On the other hand, he adds, he also understands the humanistic approaches that are necessary to genuinely alter the criminal’s conception of himself and society.


The private prison business is on the verge of becoming a $200 million industry,” Perlowin says with a modest smile, and he’s confident that when he’s released, sometime around 1990, he’ll be in the forefront of that business.


“Who,” he asks, “is better qualified?”


*J.L. Pimsleur is an award-winning reporter who has interviewed everyone from Fidel Castro and Malcolm X to Marilyn Monroe.


**True to his word, Bruce Perlowin never did testify against the far flung members of his organization and did all his time in prison. Because of that at least 100 people form the Perlowin Marijuana Smuggling Organization were never charged with any crimes.