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He served time, now wants to serve you

A former drug smuggler who says he's turned his life around is a candidate for the County Commission's District 4 seat.

By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published August 17, 2006


For nearly a decade, Jim Brunswick flew low and lived high.

He owned two airplanes. He drove new Corvettes and BMWs and Jaguars. Sometimes, he said, he would carry more than $60,000 in his car.

On drug smuggling runs to the Bahamas, Brunswick buzzed so close to the clear water that he could see fish swimming beneath the surface.

Life was good.

But the good life landed Brunswick in prison twice in the 1980s after felony drug convictions for conspiracy to traffic in marijuana and cocaine.

Now, Brunswick makes less than $32,000 annually as a utilities operator for Citrus County.

Gone are the drugs and the wild parties and the flashy cars.

Inside his pickup truck he keeps stacks of campaign fliers. On the outside of the truck, he has posted a large sign advertising his bid for the County Commission, District 4 seat.

More than 13 years after finishing his last stint behind bars, Brunswick, 52, says he has turned his life around.

And he says he's the man to turn Citrus County around, too, by "bringing government back to the people."

"I'm evidence that people do change," he said.

But Brunswick said that doesn't mean he wants to hide his past.

"I'm going to either win this election being honest or lose this election being honest," he said.

* * *

Brunswick isn't the only candidate in the District 4 race with a criminal history. His Democratic opponent, Bernie Leven, 58, has a misdemeanor DUI charge on his record from the early 1980s. Republican John Thrumston, 40, was charged with a marijuana possession misdemeanor in 1988.

But Brunswick is the only one who has faced felony charges and served prison time in Florida.

The Floral City resident said his troubles with the law started when some of his friends began experimenting with drugs.

"It was something I was sucked into," he said.

Brunswick's first drug arrest was in Ohio in 1972, when he was 18, according to information he supplied to the Citrus Times along with his candidate questionnaire. He was charged with selling a hallucinogen. The next year he was arrested again for possession of a hallucinogen for sale.

In 1976 Brunswick moved from Cincinnati to South Florida. That, he said, is when his drug smuggling days began.

"Back then you could walk down the beach and find a bale. It seemed like everybody did it," he said. "You went around with a Rolex on your hand and flip-flops on your feet, and you were just having fun. ... I was living what Jimmy Buffett writes, something at the time I thought was right, but now I know differently."

In 1979, he got caught.

That's when Brunswick and another man bought five bales - 200 pounds - of marijuana from undercover Fort Lauderdale police detectives for $48,000, according to newspaper reports.

Police charged Brunswick, then 25, with conspiring to possess and sell marijuana and with delivery of cocaine.

A lengthy legal battle followed in what one local newspaper called "a landmark role-reversal drug case."

Brunswick's attorney argued that the case was an example of "government over-reaching" and pointed to inconsistencies in the detectives' statements.

But in 1980 a jury convicted Brunswick and a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison for the marijuana charge and five years' probation for the cocaine charge.

While his attorney appealed the conviction, Brunswick was released. He moved to El Paso and got married.

In 1982 his appeals failed and Brunswick began his stint in state prison. He was released 32 months later.

Brunswick said depression about his unsuccessful marriage, which ended in divorce when he went to prison, drove him toward drugs once again.

"The first thing I wanted to do was get high and start doing coke again," Brunswick said.

* * *

He did. And 22 months later, a drug arrest at the Tampa Airport Hilton landed Brunswick back in jail.

The Hillsborough County sheriff's detective's arrest affidavit is short on details. It states Brunswick and another man, Gilbert Estrada, conspired to deliver 18 ounces of cocaine to an undercover detective on March 10, 1987. Their asking price was $21,000, according to the affidavit.

"I was on a self-destructive trip," Brunswick recalled. "I had been using a lot and drinking. That was a low point in my life. It was like being rescued from the situation I was in."

Brunswick was charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to traffic in less than 400 grams of cocaine in November of that year, right before the trial was slated to start.

A judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison. The minimum mandatory sentence was five years. Brunswick said he served six or seven years before he was paroled.

In prison, Brunswick said, he studied political science, including Machiavelli's The Prince. He practiced his Spanish skills. He learned to be a paralegal. He started studying water and wastewater treatment. And he developed a renewed interest in his Jewish faith.

"I did everything I could to exercise my mind," he said. "I wanted to utilize my mind the best way I could."

He filed an appeal from the Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach in November 1988.

In a sworn affidavit, Brunswick argued that he was supposed to receive a mitigated sentence after giving Drug Enforcement Administration officials details about "international cocaine, marijuana and gun smuggling" activities.

His appeal was denied.

* * *

Brunswick said that after he served his time, he left prison determined to get his life back on track.

"People reach recovery. They hit a certain level," he said. "You're sick of your life the way it is, and that's how you change."

Brunswick said he found new friends and dedicated himself to becoming as educated as possible in his new field, water and wastewater treatment.

He is certified by the state and has taken classes at California State University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Florida and the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

It hasn't been easy.

"I've had to work twice as hard," he said. "You have to be way more ahead of everyone else and work a lot harder."

After a misdemeanor DUI arrest in Inverness in 1996, Brunswick said he stopped drinking. That was a huge hurdle, he said. And now, he said sobriety is the most important thing in his life.

In 1995, Brunswick began working in Citrus County, helping to run water and wastewater treatment plants. On his application, he admitted that he had been convicted of a felony.

In his early evaluations, county officials described him as "exceptional," "conscientious" and an "excellent example to other employees."

Today, though, Brunswick is on probation at work, with some of his supervisors calling him an "unreliable employee."

Brunswick said that's because in 2004 he filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the county. The case is still pending.

Meanwhile, Brunswick, who said he has received clemency from the state, is focusing on his campaign.

"I'm remorseful for what I have done," he said. "I want to be judged for what I've done in the last 13 years."

That includes hosting fundraisers with his wife, Jonnie Sue, and helping friends in Alcoholics Anonymous get sober and stay that way.

And now, Brunswick said, he counts police officers among his friends and works hard to help them clean up his Floral City neighborhood.

Brunswick said his backers know about his record and still strongly support his run for office.

He said his experiences with drug abuse make him an even better County Commission candidate.

Doing drugs, he said, is "all about you, you, you and now, now, now."

Brunswick said now he sees a bigger picture. "I know it's not only about me anymore. It's about everybody. ... It puts me in more of an understanding position to know what people are going through," he said.

* * *

How much of an issue Brunswick's record will be in the upcoming primary is unclear.

Members of the Citrus Democratic Executive Committee were scheduled to meet Wednesday night, and officials have said they would discuss disavowing Brunswick's candidacy.

Brunswick says that's because he isn't an establishment candidate. And he said no matter what local party officials say, he's not pulling out.

"They're worried that I'm going to win this race," he said.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 860-7309.

[Last modified August 17, 2006, 07:10:12]


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