31-year fugitive from Black Tuna drug gang arrested
A key member of the infamous Miami-based Black Tuna Gang, the biggest U.S. marijuana-smuggling operation of its time, was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service Thursday morning in West Palm Beach -- more than 31 years after he skipped out of a federal trial.
Mark Steven Phillips, 62, was captured at his rented apartment in a senior living community, law officers said.
``The judge wants to see you, Mark,'' a deputy U.S. marshal told Phillips after rousting him out of bed.
``The judge wants to see me from 30 years ago,'' Phillips responded, according to the Marshals Service.
Phillips was arrested in May 1979 along with a dozen others in what was then the nation's biggest pot importation cases in history -- before the dawn of the Cocaine Cowboy era in Miami. The trial was before U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who is still on the bench. Phillips was convicted in absentia on racketeering, possession and distribution charges in February 1980.
He is scheduled to have his first court appearance in decades before a Miami federal magistrate Thursday afternoon.
A joint DEA/FBI task force in Miami that took down the Black Tuna Gang estimated the ring smuggled 500 tons of marijuana into the United States over a 16-month period. The case was the first combined investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI on drug profits behind the marijuana trade.
The gang operated, at least briefly, from a suite in Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel, according to the DEA.
The Tunas invested in yachts, particularly Fort Lauderdale-based Striker Aluminum Yachts. Its treasurer, Phillips, whose family owned the company, retrofitted yachts for maximum carrying capacity, painting water lines on the hulls to give the illusion they weren't riding low even when they were laden with tons of marijuana.
The grass was transported in these modified boats and unloaded at a series of waterfront ``stash houses'' in posh neighborhoods.
The Black Tuna gang also used state-of-the-art electronic equipment to stay in touch with marijuana-laden freighters and to monitor DEA and Customs communications channels.
A DEA-FBI probe of Florida banks called Operation Banco, which began in 1977, traced the group's drug profits through South Florida banks until members of the Black Tuna Gang made a large cash deposit in a Miami Beach bank.
In the racketeering indictment, Phillips was accused of showing two vessels in 1977 to a co-conspirator that had been used in the smuggling of 20 tons of marijuana into the United States. He also was accused of going to a Miami address to pick up a suitcase filled with cash, and paying $223,000 to buy a yacht for future marijuana smuggling trips.
After his arrest, Phillips was released from custody on July 5, 1979, on a $25,000 bond. He took part in his trial for more than a month, but then failed to show up on Nov. 5. King issued a bench warrant charging him as a fugitive.
The Marshals Service soon learned Phillips had fled the country.
In 1993, relying on informants, deputies discovered that he was in Santiago, Chile, had assumed a new identity, Marcus Steffan, and had married a Chilean woman. He also created a fishing company with her, calling it Fishing Research Inc., according to the marshals.
Eight years passed before deputy marshals received new information that he was traveling between Chile and Germany. They learned from German authorities that Phillips had obtained a driver's license and passport in that country in the name of ``Marcus Steffan.''
According to the marshals, the ``fake'' passport was valid for the next 10 years.
Knowing his new identity, deputy marshals began running checks on Phillips to see if he had entered the United States. They found that he flew into New York from London in August of 2000, and again several other times in 1999 and 1998.
In February 2001, they discovered that he had been renting two New York penthouse apartments for $10,000 a month, using the name of Steffan Marcus, but that he had been evicted the previous year.
Deputy marshals learned that Phillips flew from New York to Miami in January 2001, but they missed him by one month. He had continued on to Chile. He stayed there until 2010, when deputy marshals assigned to the Cold Case Fugitive Squad realized that he had slipped back into the United States and obtained a Florida driver's license under his real name in September.
The address on his new license was in Miami's historic black neighborhood, Overtown: 1050 NW 14th St., Apt. 430. It was the address of a motel.
Deputy marshals continued to track him down, this time to West Palm Beach, where they arrested him Thursday at the senior living community.
``Phillips never attempted to use his fake name,'' said Marshals Service spokesman Barry Golden. ``All of his belongings were contained in one travel bag.''
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