Seal in 1982
Adler Berriman Seal
July 16, 1939
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.
|Died||February 19, 1986 (aged 46)|
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S.
|Cause of death||Gunshot|
|Other names||El Gordo|
|Occupation||Pilot, drug smuggler, gun smuggler|
|Parent(s)||Mary Lou Seal (née Delcambre) |
Benjamin Curtis Seal
|Criminal charge||Conspiracy to smuggle narcotics, guns|
Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal (July 16, 1939 – February 19, 1986) was a commercial airline pilot who became a major drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel. When Seal was convicted of smuggling charges, he became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and testified in several major drug trials. He was murdered in 1986 by contract killers hired by the cartel.
Barry Seal was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the son of Mary Lou (née Delcambre) and Benjamin Kurtis Seal, a candy wholesaler. Seal began to fly as a teenager, earning a student pilot certificate at 16 and a private pilot's certificate at 17. His flight instructor described him as a naturally gifted pilot.
In 1961, Seal enlisted in the Louisiana Army National Guard for six years: six months of active duty, followed by five and a half years of inactive duty. Seal's active duty began in July 1962. He was assigned to the 20th Special Forces Group and graduated from the United States Army Airborne School but never completed Special Forces selection and training. His non-active duty was served in the 245th Engineer Battalion, where his MOS was a radio telephone operator.
In 1964 Seal joined TWA as a flight engineer and was soon promoted to the first officer, then captain, flying a Boeing 707 on a regular Western Europe route. He was one of the youngest 707 command pilots in the TWA fleet. Seal's career with TWA ended in July 1972, when he was arrested for involvement in a conspiracy to smuggle a shipment of plastic explosives to Mexico using a DC-4. The case was eventually dismissed in 1974 for prosecutorial misconduct, but in the meantime, TWA fired Seal, who had falsely taken medical leave to participate in the scheme.
Drug smuggling career
Ironically, Seal's operations received an important boost when he was arrested and jailed in Honduras on the return leg of a drug-smuggling trip to Ecuador. Seal made important connections while in prison in Honduras, including Emile Camp, a fellow Louisiana pilot and smuggler who became one of Seal's closest associates, and Ellis McKenzie, a local Honduran smuggler. Also, after his release from prison Seal met William Reaves on the flight back to the U.S. It was Reaves who provided Seal with his first connection to the Medellín cartel.
To expand his smuggling capacity, Seal also hired William Bottoms, his ex-brother-in-law, as a pilot. From 1980 on Bottoms was the main pilot in Seal's smuggling enterprise, often flying with Camp while Seal oversaw planning and operations.
Seal's smuggling method was to use low-flying planes and airdrop drug packages in remote areas of Louisiana. They were then picked up by Seal's ground team and transported to the Colombian distributors in Florida. By 1982, Seal was using over a dozen aircraft in his smuggling operation. The number of planes and the frequency of flights soon attracted the attention of Louisiana State Police and Federal investigators.
To avoid this unwanted attention, Seal moved his aircraft to Mena Intermountain Regional Airport in Mena, Arkansas, where he did maintenance and modifications to improve the planes' carrying capacity and avionics. Seal's activities in Mena later became the subject of rumor and controversy, but according to Seal's biographer, former FBI agent Del Hahn, Seal did not use Mena as a drug transshipment point.
Florida indictments and convictions
By 1981, DEA agents in Florida were aware of Seal's smuggling activities. In April 1981, a DEA informant introduced Seal to an undercover DEA agent. After several months of contacts, the agent negotiated a deal with Seal to smuggle 1,200 pounds of methaqualone tablets into the United States (the tablets were counterfeits, made of chalk). The investigation into Seal was part of a major undercover operation called Operation Screamer in which over 80 pilots were eventually indicted. Two indictments were returned against Seal in March 1983. The first indictment charged Seal alone with two counts of conspiracy to distribute methaqualone. The second indictment charged Seal and three others with multiple counts of possession and distribution of methaqualone, phenobarbital, and meperidine.
Seal surrendered to federal authorities at the end of April 1983 and attempted to make a deal, first with the Florida task force, then with the Baton Rouge task force. Both rejected any deals, even though Seal told them a little about his involvement with the Ochoa family.  Absent a deal, Seal was tried in February 1984 and after a month-long trial was convicted on all the counts in the first indictment.
Seal becomes an informant
Facing a heavy sentence, and having been rejected by regional drug task forces in both Florida and Louisiana, Seal decided to try contacting the Vice President's Drug Task Force, a special program in the office of then-Vice President George Bush. The office referred Seal to DEA headquarters, which assigned DEA agent Ernst Jacobsen to debrief Seal and evaluate his potential as an informant. Jacobsen was impressed with Seal's connections, especially his connections with the Ochoa family, and on March 28, Seal signed a letter agreeing to serve as a DEA informant. Seal then pleaded guilty to the second indictment in Florida, and was released with his sentence to depend on his performance as an informant.
The Florida Task Force plan called for Seal to set up a cocaine purchase with the Ochoas and other cartel members, providing the basis for indictments in the U.S. Seal had previously dealt with the cartel through another associate so that they were unaware of his real name. Through his cartel contacts in Miami, Seal arranged a meeting using the name Ellis McKenzie (the real name of another Seal associate). He flew down to Medellín for the meeting on April 3, accompanied by a Miami based cartel pilot who was unaware of Seal's role as an informant.
Undercover work in Nicaragua
Participants at the meeting included Pablo Escobar and Jorge, Fabio, and Juan David Ochoa. The Colombian government had recently conducted a major raid on the cartel's manufacturing facilities at a remote jungle location called Tranquilandia, and they told Seal that they were making arrangements to set up shipping and production facilities in Nicaragua, where they had struck a deal with the Sandinista government.
These arrangements were not yet complete, so Seal's first shipment was to be a direct flight to the U.S. Originally planned for mid-April, the flight did not take place until the end of May. When it did take place, the overloaded plane crashed at the Colombia airfield on takeoff. The cartel provided a new plane, but it lacked the capacity for a direct flight to the U.S., so the cartel arranged a stopover in Nicaragua earlier than planned, at an airfield in Los Brasiles near Managua. After refueling, Seal left Los Brasiles flying without lights, and when he came close to Managua, he was fired on by Nicaraguan military units. The plane was hit and Seal had to make an emergency landing at Sandino International Airport in Managua. The drugs were unloaded from the plane by the military and Seal and his co-pilot were taken to detention in downtown Managua, where they were released to the cartel's Nicaraguan contact, Federico Vaughan, a senior aide to Tomas Borge, Nicaraguan Minister of the Interior.
In Managua, Seal met again with Pablo Escobar, who was setting up a cocaine lab for production. After a discussion about how to move the increased flow of cocaine, Escobar decided to keep the first shipment in Nicaragua and have Seal return to the States and buy a larger plane.
The plane Seal acquired was a C-123K, a large aircraft used primarily for military transport. Before returning to Nicaragua, the DEA arranged for CIA technicians to install hidden cameras inside the plane.
Seal returned to the Los Brasiles airfield in Nicaragua on June 25. The pickup went as planned this time, and the cameras successfully photographed Seal and several Nicaraguan soldiers loading cocaine onto the plane, aided by Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (another important cartel member), and Federico Vaughan. On his return to the U.S. Seal landed the plane at Homestead Air Force Base and the drugs were transferred into a Winnebago camper, which Seal turned over to his Colombian contact
The drugs could not be allowed to be distributed, and the immediate arrest of those handling the vehicle would suggest to the Colombians that Seal had betrayed them, so DEA agents staged an accident with the camper, allowing the driver to escape. Unfortunately, the driver was arrested by local police, and the circumstances of the seizure raised the suspicions of the cartel.
Seal made one more trip to Nicaragua on July 7, bringing money to Escobar to pay the Nicaraguans for landing rights. Another shipment was also planned at this time, but under instructions from the DEA, Seal told Escobar his landing site was under DEA surveillance and unsafe for transport, to avoid the need to seize a second load. The DEA felt this would be impossible to explain away, and Seal returned to the U.S. without a cargo.
The DEA plan was to keep Seal working with the cartel on other parts of the supply chain, such as moving cocaine base into Nicaragua from Colombia, and inspecting smuggling airfields in Mexico and the U.S. The ultimate hope was to arrest the cartel leaders in a jurisdiction where it would be easy to extract them.
However, the Nicaragua undercover operation came to an end soon after Seal's return from his second trip when it was exposed in the press. A leak regarding the operation came before Seal's second trip. On June 29, Gen. Paul Gorman, U.S. Military Commander Southern Command, made a speech revealing that the U.S. had evidence that elements of the Nicaraguan government were involved in drug smuggling, though Gorham did not mention Seal or the undercover flights. It is not clear whether Seal and his crew were informed of this leak before they returned to Nicaragua.
A fuller account of U.S. efforts in Nicaragua appeared on July 17 in an article by reporter Edmond Jacoby, published on the front page of the Washington Times. Although not a complete account, it gave enough information to spell an end to Seal's work with the cartel, and to the DEA's hopes of capturing the cartel outside Colombia.
Undercover work in the U.S.
Following the exposure of the Nicaraguan investigation, the DEA had to move quickly to arrest the cartel distributors in Miami. The DEA had been informed before the publication of the Jacoby article, so they were still able to have Seal set up a meeting with the chief cartel supervisor in Miami, Carlos Bustamonte, and arrested him on July 17, along with other cartel employees.
The evidence acquired from the arrest, plus the evidence gathered by Seal, provided the basis for the first drug trafficking indictment in the U.S. against Escobar and the Ochoas.
Despite the exposure, Seal was able to put together a second major undercover operation for the DEA later that year. This operation involved a long, complicated cocaine shipment from Bolivia, refueling in Colombia, refueling again in Texas, and delivering the cocaine in Las Vegas. The DEA refused to let Seal leave the country due to the danger he was in, so Seal arranged for his ex-brother-in-law William Bottoms to make the flight. The flight, in January 1985, was successful and led to arrests and convictions.
In February Seal also played a central role in an undercover operation against Norman Saunders, chief minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, a former British colony south of the Bahamas. Saunders was videotaped paying a bribe to Seal in Miami, and was also successfully prosecuted.
Continuing legal problems
While Seal had come to an agreement with the DEA and the Florida drug task force in March 1984, he was still under active investigation by state and federal authorities in Baton Rouge, LA, and Little Rock, AR. In October 1984, a grand jury in Louisiana was convened and began interviewing witnesses against Seal. Seal attempted to push back against the investigation by appearing in a television news series broadcast by WBRZ in Baton Rouge in November 1984. The series, titled "Uncle Sam Wants You", ran on five consecutive evenings. It included an interview where Seal denied he was a smuggler and depicted Seal as harassed by the government. The state narcotics agents who were investigating Seal in Baton Rouge sued over their depiction in the series, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
Soon after the broadcast, the heads of the Florida and Louisiana task forces met to work out an agreement that would allow Seal to continue working with the Florida task force and testify as a witness at trial. They agreed to a sentence for Seal's Louisiana activities no greater than the sentence he received for his Florida smuggling, with both sentences to run concurrently.
Contract on Seal
Seal was originally introduced to the Medellín cartel members as a pilot named Ellis McKenzie. Although the newspaper report and the arrest of their Miami distributors confirmed that their pilot was DEA, it was not until the cartel members received a copy of Seal's television documentary that they learned McKenzie was Seal. They put out a contract to kidnap or murder Seal.
Max Mermelstein, a high-level cartel distributor in Miami, later testified in court that he was shown the documentary a few days after it was broadcast and was told that the cartel wanted Seal either captured or killed: the price was $500,000 if Seal was killed, and $1,000,000 if he was captured alive. Mermelstein testified that he accepted the contract, believing that a refusal would mean death. He received a phone call from Fabio Ochoa and Escobar, who both thanked him for his help, and was given $100,000 for any costs he incurred. Before Mermelstein had located Seal, however, he was arrested by a federal task force in June 1985. He soon told the task force about the contract, and Seal was informed that the cartel was offering $500,000 for his death.
Seal in court
Seal was taken into federal custody in June 1985 and spent several months testifying in court. He was the primary witness in three trials: the trial of Saunders and the other Turks and Caicos officials in July; the trial of the cartel distributors in Miami in August; the trial of the cartel distributors who had arranged the shipment of cocaine from Bolivia to Las Vegas, also in August. All three trials resulted in convictions for all defendants. Seal also made a public appearance before the President's Commission on Organized Crime, recounting his experiences as a drug smuggler.
Sentencing in Florida
Following his testimony in the Miami trials, Seal appeared in Florida court again over his second indictment in the Big Screamer operation. Although Seal had pleaded guilty, with the support of his DEA supervisors, he was sentenced to five years of unsupervised probation. Following his testimony in Las Vegas, Seal spent another month in a witness protection center. In October 1985 he returned to court over the first indictment in Big Screamer, for which he had originally been sentenced to ten years. After listening to summaries of Seal's successful work for the DEA, Judge Norman Roettger sentenced Seal to time served (a little over three months in witness protection) and three years probation.
Sentencing in Louisiana
When Seal received only time served and probation, Louisiana state and federal drug investigators were faced with a dilemma. They had anticipated Seal would serve substantial time in Florida and were now bound by the agreement Florida and Louisiana drug task forces had made in December 1984. The Florida sentence meant no jail time for Seal in Louisiana as well. Yet Seal was pleading guilty to buying 200 kilograms of cocaine, already more serious than the Florida charges. Also, before the agreement was reached, the Louisiana task force investigation had been looking into Seal's involvement in smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine.
At Seal's sentencing hearing in January 1986, Judge Frank Polozola acknowledged that he was bound by the agreement, but informed Seal and his lawyer of his dissatisfaction with Seal's failure to receive jail time in Florida, forcing Polozola to sentence Seal to probation on much more serious charges in Louisiana. He warned Seal that he intended to set strict probation provisions and that if Seal violated these, the plea bargain could be revoked and Seal re-sentenced.
The probation conditions prohibited Seal from leaving Baton Rouge without written permission from Judge Polozola banned Seal from employing armed security personnel and ordered him to spend every night at a halfway house for the first six months of his probation. Seal was assigned to the Salvation Army's Community Treatment Center in Baton Rouge.
On the evening of February 19, Seal was shot to death in front of the Salvation Army Center, three weeks into his probation. When Seal pulled into the house's lot and parked, a man got out of a car behind the center's donation drop boxes and opened fire with a silenced MAC-10 machine gun. Seal was hit six times and died instantly.
Six Colombians were quickly arrested in connection with the murder. Three of them: Luis Carlos Quintero-Cruz, Miguel Vélez, and Bernardo Antonio Vásquez, were indicted on state charges for capital murder. A fourth man was indicted separately on lesser charges, and evidence of direct involvement was insufficient for two, who were released and deported.
In addition to the state charges against the killers, federal charges were filed against Fabio Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, and a third cartel member, Rafael Cardona, for conspiring to violate Seal's civil rights by murdering him.
The murder trial
Widespread publicity and the general public outcry caused a delay of several months before Seal's murder trial began. It proved impossible to impanel sufficient jurors in Baton Rouge, so the venue was moved to Lake Charles. The trial began in April 1987. The most important witnesses were Max Mermelstein and Luis Carlos Uribe-Munera.
Mermelstein, who had told the DEA of the murder contract after his arrest in 1985, testified that Ochoa, Escobar, and Cardona had asked him to take the contract and provided him with money and weapons to do the job. He had seen Cardona test-fire the murder weapon in Mermelstein's garage and bullets that matched the murder weapon were later extracted from the garage wall by FBI forensics. Mermelstein also knew the defendant Vélez. He testified that Vélez was present when he was given the contract and that Vélez later asked Mermelstein to turn the contract over to him.
Uribe-Munera was a Colombian drug smuggler for the cartel. He testified that in January 1986, he was ordered by Jorge Ochoa to kill Seal. When he learned that he would probably be killed afterward, he refused. He was then shot five times by cartel gunmen, but survived and eventually sought asylum at the U.S. embassy in Bogota. He was brought to the U. S. where he agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.
There was also extensive eyewitness and forensic evidence against Quintero-Cruz, Vélez, and Vásquez. A witness identified Vélez as the driver of the vehicle in the halfway house parking lot. Another eyewitness saw Quintero-Cruz outside the car, handing the MAC-10 to the car driver through the window after the murder. All three men's fingerprints were found in the vehicle. Vasquez was identified as the purchaser of the halfway house vehicle by the car agency salesman and paid for hotel rooms and rental cars using his name. All three were found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.
Seal was married three times. His first marriage, to Barbara Dodson, lasted from 1963 to 1971. The second marriage, to Lynn Ross, lasted from 1971 to 1972. In 1973, he married Deborah DuBois. The marriage ended with his death in 1986. Seal had 6 children; 2 from his first wife, one from a relationship he had in between marriages, and three more with Debbie.
Seal's career as a smuggler and an informant, and his later violent death, has led to several controversies.
Exposure of the Nicaraguan undercover operation
In 1988 the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing that looked into how the Seal's 1984 trip to Nicaragua was leaked to the press. Questioned about the identity of the source, DEA agent Ernst Jacobson replied, "I heard that the leak came from an aide in the White House". He stated that Iran–Contra figure Oliver North had attended two meetings about the sting operation and had the motivation to release the information. UPI reported: "By linking the Sandinistas with drug traffic ... aid to the rebels accused of human rights violations might seem more palatable".
Subcommittee chairman William J. Hughes strongly suggested that North was the source of the leak, but Representative Bill McCollum said, "...we don't know who leaked this. No one has been able to tell us". Citing testimony of DEA Administrator John C. Lawn, the report of the Kerry Committee released in December 1988 pinned the leak on North stating he "decided to play politics with the issue". In an interview with Frontline, North said he was told by his superiors on the National Security Council to brief Senator Paula Hawkins about the operation, but he denied leaking the report. Hawkins told Frontline that neither she nor her staff leaked the information after the briefing. Jacoby later denied that North was the source of his story and attributed it to a deceased staff member for Representative Dan Daniel.
Criticism of U.S. failure to protect Seal
Louisiana Attorney General William Guste wrote to United States Attorney General Edwin Meese criticizing the government's failure to protect Seal as a witness. At Guste's request, Meese launched an investigation to determine whether or not attorneys in Louisiana, Miami, and Washington had mishandled the case, and to determine whether or not Seal should have been forced into protective custody. Government attorneys stated that Seal placed himself in danger by refusing to move his family and enter a witness protection program.
- Seal is portrayed by Dennis Hopper in Doublecrossed (1991), a docudrama made for HBO.
- Seal is portrayed by Michael Paré in the American crime drama film The Infiltrator (2016), in two brief, historically inaccurate scenes that exercise dramatic license to depict the film's title character, Robert Mazur, as a passenger in a car being driven by Seal who is killed in a motorcycle drive-by shooting.
- Seal is portrayed by Tom Cruise in the crime drama-comedy film American Made (2017), loosely based on Seal's life, produced by Imagine Entertainment. Little of the film is historically accurate; most of the plot, such as the assassination of Seal's brother-in-law, was invented for purposes of the film.
- Seal is portrayed by theater director Thaddeus Phillips in the 2013 TV series Alias El Mexicano.
- Seal is portrayed by Dylan Bruno in Season 1, Episode 4, of the Netflix series Narcos (2015).
- Hahn (2016), p. 25.
- Hahn (2016), p. 28.
- Hahn (2016), p. 28-29.
- Hahn (2016), p. 31-37.
- Hahn (2016), p. 61.
- Hahn (2016), p. 48–50.
- Gugliotta & Leen (1989), p. 147.
- Hahn (2016), p. 64–65.
- STATE of Louisiana v. Miguel VELEZ, Bernardo Vasquez, and Luis Carlos Quintero-Cruz, 588 So.2d 116 (Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Third Circuit. 1991).
- Gugliotta & Leen (1989), p. 147-148.
- Hahn (2016), p. 63-64.
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- Gugliotta & Leen (1989), p. 238.
- Gyan, Joe (2015-10-16). "Slain drug smuggler Barry Seal's daughter sues to halt movie on her father's life". The Advocate.
- "Family of murdered drug smuggler sue Universal over Tom Cruise film Mena". The Guardian. 2015-10-16.
- Zentz, Wendy (July 29, 1988). "North's name bandied about on news leak". UPI. UPI. Retrieved June 12, 2017.
- "Drugs, law enforcement, and foreign policy :a report /". 10 May 1989. hdl:2027/pst.000014976124. Cite journal requires
- "Transcripts - Drug Wars". Special Reports. FRONTLINE. PBS. Retrieved June 17, 2017.
- "Special Reports - Interview - Drug Wars". FRONTLINE. PBS. Retrieved 15 April 2015.
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- Kozol, Ronald (April 13, 1986). "Informants murder puts head on authorities". Nation/world. Chicago Tribune. 139 (103) (Final ed.). Section 1, page 5. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
- Chris Willman (1991-07-20). "TV Reviews : 'Doublecrossed': Story of Drugs and Politics". Articles.latimes.com. Retrieved 2018-01-17.
- "American Made (2017)". History vs. Hollywood. Retrieved 2020-06-03.
- Hahn, Del (2016). Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal. Pelican Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 978-1-4556-2101-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Gugliotta, Guy; Leen, Jeff (1989). Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel - An Astonishing True Story of Murder, Money and International Corruption. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-0-6716-4957-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)