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Did They Drive Over The Line?
Sam Moses
May 27, 1985
Former racer John Paul Sr. and his Indy 500-driving namesake face serious charges in a drug case
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May 27, 1985

Did They Drive Over The Line?

Former racer John Paul Sr. and his Indy 500-driving namesake face serious charges in a drug case

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Five months later the "old pirate" was a fugitive, charged with attempted murder and attempted kidnapping. The victim, Stephen Carson, in return for immunity from prosecution, had testified before a federal grand jury about a marijuana smuggling operation that he, Carson, had been part of. Three months later, Carson was shot in the chest, abdomen and leg at a boat-landing in Crescent Beach, Fla. That was on the night of April 19, 1983. Carson told police that as he returned from fishing, John Sr. approached him with a gun in his hand and ordered him into the trunk of his car. Carson claims that when he ran, Paul fired five times, then fled when Carson's fishing companion began shouting.

In the company of a lawyer, Paul turned himself in on June 27 of that year. He declined to reveal where he had been for the two intervening months, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment the next day and after 10 more days in jail was released on $500,000 bond. But he failed to appear for his trial, scheduled to begin Dec. 12, and remained a fugitive for 13 months, until Jan. 11, 1985. Working with the FBI, Swiss police apprehended Paul that day outside a Geneva bank where he had an account under an alias. According to sources close to the investigation, John Sr. is thought to have two Swiss bank accounts involving staggering sums—possibly as much as $100 million. Currently he is fighting extradition.

While Paul was on the lam, the charges had multiplied. It was the state of Florida that had brought the attempted murder and attempted kidnapping charges. A federal grand jury sitting at Jacksonville handed up an indictment against him and seven other persons. It was unsealed shortly after John Sr. was arrested in Switzerland. Now he was named as the "organizer, supervisor and manager" of a smuggling ring that brought 50 tons of marijuana into the U.S. from Colombia between 1975 and '81, and he was charged not only with drug trafficking but also racketeering and attempted bribery of a grand jury witness. The pot allegedly was moved through the Bahamas and unloaded mostly along the east coast of Florida and in Louisiana bayous. The operation allegedly used a number of vessels and facilities, from Paul's yacht Argonaut to assorted shrimp boats, tugboats, cabin cruisers and, on land, rental trucks, 18-wheelers and storage warehouses.

In a separate 17-count indictment handed up by an Atlanta grand jury on Oct. 16, 1984, John Sr. was charged with laundering a total of $467,000 in currency. Yet another Paul, John Sr.'s father, Lee J., was indicted on four of those counts. According to John Jr., his grandfather is "outside the country."

In 1982, according to the indictment, John Paul Sr. abandoned the Colombia route. Under the name John Drew, he put $47,000 down on a 596-acre farm in Georgia and built an underground chamber 200' X 40', and 20 feet deep, covering it wit $125,000 worth of steel beams, bridge planking and turf. He also purchased a $32,774 generator and $33,000 worth of grow lights. But the seeding of this suspected underground marijuana farm never took place. The FBI believes Paul had used the chamber as a hideout.

Five of the other seven men indicted in Jacksonville are fugitives. The remaining two face trial on June 3. One is John Paul Jr. He's married now and the father of a 6-month-old daughter. John Jr. is charged with being "employed by and associated with" the marijuana enterprise. If convicted, he could face a total of 50 years in prison and an $80,000 fine.

John Jr. surrendered to U.S. marshals in Jacksonville on Jan. 22, and after three days of incarceration—"shuttled around between jails in Florida swamps, which they do just to keep you isolated, I guess, with my legs and arms shackled"—he was released on $125,000 bond, paid by Phil Conte, owner of the IMSA team on which he now races. He pleaded not guilty on Jan. 29 and two days later set a track record for the Daytona 24-hour race. In five races in the Conte Racing March-Buick sports car this year, young Paul has set three track records.

It was a long winter for John Jr. When the indictment was made public, he quickly offered to resign from both his IMSA ride with Conte and his Indy Car ride with Shierson Racing. The Shierson Indy Car was sponsored by Domino's Pizza, which is owned by Tom Monaghan, owner of the Detroit Tigers. Paul's offer to resign was accepted by Shierson Racing. His identical offer to Conte's IMSA endurance racing team was flatly rejected. "I'm an ex-marine," said Conte. "I never deserted my country, and I'll never desert a friend. Normally in this country, a person is innocent until proven guilty." Conte's company, C.G.I. Industries, makes electrical switchboards in Paramount, Calif., an industrial suburb of Los Angeles. The team is unsponsored but supported by Buick, which supplies its powerful V-6 turbo engines.

Paul got his present Indy 500 car, a new March-Cosworth owned by Sherman Armstrong, a Winchester, Ind. industrialist, on May 4. Willy T Ribbs, the gifted and rapidly rising black driver who had been concentrating exclusively on sports car and GT racing for the past two years, had tested in the March-Cosworth at the Speedway but decided to wait until he was better prepared for the imposing task of driving in the 500.

John Jr. is undesirable to image-conscious owners and sponsors because of not only the impending trial but also a previous conviction. That had come on Jan. 10, 1979, six months after his father had brought him to Atlanta. According to police, Paul Jr. and one Christopher Schill, then 27, were loading equipment onto a pickup truck on the bank of a canal in the Louisiana bayous after dark. Patrolling customs agents had heard them from a highway, and during questioning, one smelled marijuana on their clothing. Soon thereafter, John Sr. was apprehended on the water in a 42-foot boat named Lady Royale. According to police, there was marijuana residue on the boat, and $10,000 in John Sr.'s possession. A truck rented to John Sr. under the alias John Davis was found nearby. It contained 1,565 pounds of marijuana. The Pauls and Schill pleaded guilty to marijuana possession charges. Each was placed on three years' probation and fined $32,500. Word of the case was a mere whispered rumor in the pits until it was reported in AutoWeek by Steve Potter in May 1983.

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