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A chummy drug ring at a famed beach bar shakes up Pensacola's image of itself, as solid citizens are sentenced.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published December 5, 2004
PENSACOLA - There was no violence, no guns, no bling-bling.
Just a group of friends looking for some good coke at a good price.
So they pooled their money and sent Mitchell "Jackie" Seale, a 50-year-old beach bum, to Miami to buy powdered cocaine a kilo at a time.
It worked perfectly for at least two years.
Seale would drive his beat-up Chevrolet Blazer 11 hours to Miami, buy the drugs, drive back to Pensacola and distribute it to his friends. They were mostly productive members of this Bible Belt town - a millionaire, a middle school teacher, a substance abuse counselor. It was such a casual enterprise some even wrote checks for their drugs and cashed them at their favorite beach bar, the Sandshaker, owned by Seale's friends and fellow cokeheads, Robert and Linda Murphy.
"This was not your typical cocaine conspiracy," said Clinton Couch, a Pensacola defense attorney. "This was something different: It was a cocaine cooperative."
It all started to unravel in October 2003, when federal agents buried a microphone and camera in Seale's lawn. Two months later, 53 people were arrested in one of the largest cocaine trafficking arrests in Escambia County history.
All but eight have pleaded guilty or were convicted. Seale and the Murphys are in federal prison. The Sandshaker, which had become a local landmark after 30 years of business, was seized by federal agents and will be auctioned off this week.
The arrests scandalized Pensacola, a city of 60,000 better known as a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism. This is where an abortion clinic was bombed on Christmas Day 1984, and in 1994, angry protests outside an abortion clinic climaxed with the murder of an abortion doctor. It's home to Dinosaur Adventure Land, a theme park run by creationists that challenges the veracity of Darwin's theory of evolution.
"That's what was part of the shock to the community, because Pensacola enjoys or is burdened - however you look at it - with conservative values," said Couch. "There seems to be a niche or an isolated group out on the beach which are not particularly conservative.
"I think that was what was surprising, that there's this other culture out there. People who live a few miles inland were unaware of this.""Not your stereotypical group'
Charlie Griffith started working drug crimes for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office in 1997. Most of his cases were small crack buys, pot busts, a few meth labs.
He and other detectives had heard the rumors about coke at the beach, but it was nearly impossible to get information. The groups were too tightly knit.
But in 2001, sheriff's detectives arrested local businessman Frank Yonker on charges of bringing cocaine and marijuana to Pensacola from Texas. During one of his interviews, Yonker told Griffith he sold cocaine to Jackie Seale when Seale's Miami connection was unavailable.
Griffith, along with a DEA agent and an FDLE officer, started focusing on Seale, who was well-known in Pensacola Beach, a "good-time Charlie," said his lawyer, Clinton Couch.
Seale took over his father's engineering business when his father died, then sold the business and lived off the money.
He supplemented his income by selling cocaine.
Seale knew he had a problem - his girlfriend wanted him to quit - but the lure of the drug was too great.
"He was a big, dumb teddy bear who happened to deal coke," said Chuck Steele, a 59-year-old beach resident who knows many of the defendants, including Seale. "He was so wide open about it."
Which made the investigation all the easier for authorities.
They checked Seale's phone records to see whom he was talking to, creating a database. Griffith, a boyish-looking guy who wears Florida State sweat shirts and jeans to work, pored over the information, looking for patterns.
After 30,000 calls, they got a warrant to record Seale's phone conversations.
The investigation blossomed. Detectives found that Seale was selling to a cross-section of the community:
Robert Murphy, a 52-year-old insurance salesman with three children and a love of fishing.
Linda Murphy, Robert's 51-year-old wife and owner of the Sandshaker bar, who often volunteered at her daughter's school.
Pamela Reynolds, a 52-year-old middle school teacher and girls soccer coach.
Charles Lamar Switzer, a wealthy, retired outdoor advertising company executive who once served on the board of the Pensacola Junior College Foundation.
Others implicated included two lawyers, a substance abuse counselor, a hairdresser, a plumber, a chef and a boat captain.
"It's not your stereotypical group," said Griffith.
In October 2003, a judge authorized Griffith to install a camera in Seale's home. It showed what detectives already knew: Seale was an addict who snorted several grams a day.
Detectives wanted to wait a bit longer to make arrests, however. They thought Seale was going to Miami before the holidays to buy cocaine and wanted to gather more evidence and more defendants.
The agents dubbed the investigation Operation Sandshaker.
But on Dec. 8, a patch of trampled grass drew Seale's attention.
He found a wire, followed it inside and discovered a camera in his office.
But he wasn't worried.
"He thought his girlfriend had hired a private investigator," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Acheson. "It never occurred to him that it was the police."Mass arrests
Now that Seale knew about the camera, the arrests had to happen fast.
Griffith and his boss, Sgt. Ricky Shelby, amassed nearly 100 officers from around the state. They descended in a convoy to make the arrests.
Seale and his girlfriend were the first to be cuffed. They were nabbed in her Honda Accord.
One by one, the others were arrested. The charges included money laundering, conspiracy, trafficking and possession. Eleven people were tried in federal court, the rest in state court.
"It was staggering; it just knocked us flat," said Steele. "It was a big sense of betrayal, that the police had infiltrated so deeply."
Linda Murphy, facing a federal prison sentence, posted bail and returned to the Sandshaker.
Just before Christmas, she tacked up a prayer next to her desk in the back room of the bar.
"Prayer focus," it said. "Those struggling with strong emotions."Landmark on the beach
The Sandshaker is the oldest and most famous bar on Pensacola Beach.
It's a vestige of old Florida, where you could walk in barefoot, grab a bag of chips and a cold beer before heading to the beach. Even prosecutors and cops went there.
Murphy had started 30-odd years ago as a bartender at the Sandshaker; she saved enough to buy the bar. She's known locally as the inventor of the Bushwacker, a frothy, buttery, rum-based frozen drink that has become a standard in bar guides.
"She was a hard worker," said Steele, who used to date Murphy.
A Pensacola girl, Murphy married Robert 10 years ago. He was a divorcee with a cocaine problem and two grown children, but she loved him.
They had a daughter and a seemingly normal life.
Linda volunteered at her daughter's elementary school. Robert went to work. But their shared cocaine addiction - and their friendship with Jackie Seale - ultimately destroyed them.
Robert pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Seale pleaded guilty and received 15 years; he also gave prosecutors enough information to arrest and convict his drug supplier in Miami, Domingo "Chino" Gonzales.
Switzer, the retired millionaire, was convicted in state court on cocaine trafficking and possession. He is awaiting sentencing.
As part of her deal with prosecutors, Murphy also entered a guilty plea and allowed the government to seize not only her house, but also the Sandshaker, because it had been used to launder money.
The bar has been closed since it was damaged by Hurricane Ivan.
"It's unfortunate for Linda Murphy," said Acheson, the federal prosecutor. "She had the most to lose."
In the federal court system, judges must sentence defendants based upon guidelines, which are based on the amount of drugs sold.
Even with all of her cooperation, Chief U.S. District Judge Roger Vison said the guidelines were "draconian," and delayed sentencing to allow Murphy to testify against other defendants - thus reducing her sentence by cooperating further with the government.
In return for her cooperation, she got a two-year federal prison sentence, which she began Thursday.
Murphy sobbed as she was sentenced, and even thanked law enforcement for ending her cocaine addiction.
"She's doing really well," said Stephanie Taylor, Linda Murphy's sister. "She's ready to get it over with."
Many beach residents think the sentences were too harsh, especially for people who don't have criminal records and are active, productive community members.
"None of this stuff is reversible," said Steele.
Cops and prosecutors have a different view.
"Shouldn't a person that has the ability to run a family and a business also have the ability to know right from wrong?" wondered Sgt. Shelby.
"There are risks and rewards in life. Linda Murphy and the others took the risks and now there's no reward."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at email@example.com
[Last modified December 4, 2004, 00:57:38]