- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) - Death comes to everyone, even those - like Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. - who have been dead for 40 years.

His first passing was by far the more newsworthy.

It was 1974, and Florida’s statewide grand jury had indicted Stansel for smuggling more than 12 tons of marijuana. Prosecutors described Stansel, then a 37-year-old fisherman and charter boat captain out of Tarpon Springs, as a “soldier of fortune.”

When arrested that June, he had $25,000 in cash, receipts for two $25,000 Rolex watches, signed blank tourist visas that would allow him into Nicaragua at any time, unused checks on a Swiss bank account, flags from six countries and a passport indicating he had been in 12 in the preceding 30 days.

Stansel posted bail with a $500,000 cashier’s check, surrendered his U.S. passport and left the Hillsborough County Jail to await a trial scheduled for Jan. 5, 1975, in Daytona Beach.

On the morning of Jan. 5, Stansel’s attorney announced that he had disappeared in a scuba diving accident off Roatan, Honduras, on New Year’s Eve. His body had not been recovered but airplanes were searching the shoreline.

Few believed the story. On the other hand, no one could find him.

In 1976, officials in Honduras reported capturing Stansel. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced he was in custody and sent officers to pick him up. All they found was an empty cell.

Years passed. Law enforcement officials heard stories that Stansel was smuggling drugs in Honduras, Panama or some other port in Central or South America. Pinellas sheriff’s deputies said he was a frequent visitor to Tarpon Springs and St. Petersburg.

“It’s like chasing a phantom,” said Lt. Michael Hawkins, head of the Pinellas sheriff’s vice unit in the 1980s. “But there is no doubt he’s alive, and there is no doubt he frequents Pinellas County.”

As it turns out, Hawkins was half right.

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Stansel was a poster boy for Florida’s ascendancy in the 1970s as a prime destination for pot smugglers.

A key date, headline-wise, was March 5, 1973, with the seizure of nine tons of marijuana brought ashore on the Steinhatchee River in Dixie County. Officials arrested seven men from St. Petersburg Beach and Cortez. Only later did they learn that the nine tons was just half the load. The smugglers did not have enough trucks to get it all out of the area. In that era, smugglers, sometimes with the help of local officials, used semitrailer trucks to haul loads of marijuana from remote shores on the gulf to big cities.

Sometimes, the smugglers got caught.

David L. McGee, a Pensacola lawyer and for years the prosecutor in charge of a federal drug task force in North Florida, said a number of the accused would offer up sightings of Stansel in an effort to get their charges reduced.

“It was like sightings of Elvis or Big Foot,” McGee said.

And about as accurate.

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The story in the May 28, 2015, edition of the Cairns (Australia) Post reads:

The Daintree community has been left heartbroken by the road death of local tourism stalwart Dennis “Lee” Lafferty.

The 75-year-old crocodile cruise operator died after his ute (pickup truck) failed to negotiate a bend on the Mossman Daintree Rd and hit a tree on Tuesday.

He was the 19th person to die on Far North roads since the start of the year.

There has been an outpouring of grief in the town where he operated the Daintree River Cruise Centre for 28 years.

But the story did not report that in Tarpon Springs, Florida, “Lafferty” went by the name Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. He was actually 78 years old.

The story of how Stansel got from Florida to Honduras and then 9,000 miles to Australia, and the way he spent those years, has not been told until now.

Last week, after the funeral in Australia, Janet Wood and several others who knew Stansel in Australia agreed to tell their story.

Stansel married Wood - one of the women who reported him missing - in 1975. She returned to the United States briefly after his reported disappearance at Roatan and then disappeared. For years her family did not know where she was.

Wood said she met Stansel after he spotted her at the famed Chart Room Bar in Key West in 1973. It was a watering hole for an eclectic mix of politicians, millionaires, artists, musicians, treasure hunters and various unsavory types. Singer Jimmy Buffett and treasure hunter Mel Fisher were frequent visitors in those days.

Stansel asked a friend to introduce him to Wood and both were smitten, she recalled. Their romance blossomed in the Keys in an era when drug smugglers used it as a stopover on trips to Jamaica and Colombia.

Wood says Stansel told her of a great-uncle who went to Australia in the 1920s or ‘30s and came back telling everyone how beautiful it was.

He saw a chance to start over, she said, and create a new and better life.

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In 1975, Wood and Stansel began their trip by boat. They planned to sail their way around the world, but Wood became ill. She thought she was getting seasick but later discovered she was pregnant when she lost the child. They went ashore in Venezuela, flew to Peru, to Tahiti and then to New Hebrides where, she said, they got married. The trip ended in Australia where they settled in far north Queensland.

He wanted to get as close to the Great Barrier Reef as possible, Wood said.

At first, their new home was a 53-foot boat designed and built by Stansel, who was known locally as Dennis Lee Lafferty. They named it the Jessie Ray, after their first daughter, born in 1976. They worked out of Port Douglas, a resort community on the Coral Sea with a climate very much like Florida’s. Another daughter, Kianna, was born in 1980.

They lived on the boat for seven years before buying land a short distance away on the Daintree River. Lafferty designed and built a house for them. In 1987, they started the Daintree River Cruise Centre and began offering boat trips on the crocodile-filled river surrounded by a dense rain forest.

Lafferty became widely known as a marine biologist and expert boat captain. He made friends with environmental experts who came to study the area’s remarkable flora and fauna. Wood said he made cast nets unlike any that were in use in Australia at the time and used live bait, hauling in fish like nobody else.

The Daintree area has become a popular tourist and resort area in recent years but was very remote in the 1970s. Immigrating to Australia was no problem back then because the country was lightly populated and urging white, English-speaking foreigners to become citizens.

“I came in under my own name,” Wood recalled. “I was not being investigated.” She would not say where Stansel got the Lafferty name, but a check of public records indicates that several men with the same name live in Australia and the United States and several are listed in death records of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Our challenge was to make a living and keep a low profile,” she said. “We had a couple of close calls. Once someone thought I was Patty Hearst. I was afraid, but we had a good life. I’m surprised no one ever came looking for him.”

She described her husband as “very calm” in any situation and said he would not have told her if he knew someone had recognized him or if anyone who knew him visited the area.

During their years together, she said, her husband kept many things to himself to protect her. She says the stories about him being seen around the Caribbean or in Florida and the story about him being captured in Honduras were not true.

After 1975, “he was never there,” Wood said, referring to Central and South America and Florida.

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In Florida, officials did not know of Stansel’s death or where he had spent the past 40 years until contacted by a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

Many witnesses and law enforcement officers who were involved in the case are dead. Some officials think it would have been extremely difficult to prosecute Stansel even if he had been caught this many years later.

At the time, the maximum charge for possession of marijuana was five years in prison. It didn’t matter how much marijuana a person had. Many people on both sides of the law look back on that era as a time when importing was something of a lark, before penalties were increased and cocaine became the product of choice. Both made smuggling much more dangerous.

Bob Cummings, a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement official, was one of the agents on the Stansel case in the 1970s. Contacted earlier this month, Cummings could even recall the case number assigned for it: 532-28-0064.

“It is forever emblazoned in my mind,” Cummings recalled. “When we locked on to them, they were like pirates. They started in Tarpon Springs poor and made a hell of a lot of money.”

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Information from: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.), http://www.tampabay.com.

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