Part 2: Newspaper brass muzzled probe

(This is the second part of the previous post about how the Sarasota Herald-Tribune spiked its own investigation into the role an anchorman played in an international pot ring.)

I took a job at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune as a police reporter in 1992. I had toiled at some other daily newspapers but obviously lacked a certain tact or ear for corporate politics. (Journalism school didn’t offer classes in brown-nosing or how to feign laughter at the City Editor’s bad jokes.) Silly me, I thought it was enough to be very good at one’s job. I was about to swallow a big bitter pill that had fallen to the floor and gathered hair and lint.

A virtual thunderclap detonated over Sarasota when a sheriff’s press release announced in October 1993 that the ABC-affiliate anchorman/weatherman Jim Jackson had been arrested on an old felony warrant issued out of Miami in 1986. In the old case, when James Jackson Minard, true name, was a mere lad of 38-years-old, he and his brother-in-law Richard Barrett were stopped near a phone booth with about100 pounds of pot in their car. (As you will read, it wasn’t just the anchor’s name but his brother-in-law’s name that should have set off alarms with those looking to connect the dots.)

Like many frauds who seek shelter, Jackson had enmeshed himself in charitable causes and Sarasota society circles. (Sarasota likes to think of itself as a beacon of culture in a redneck landscape.) In 1993, for what it’s worth, his newscast had the highest Nielsen and Arbitron ratings for the local market the previous six years. The station had hired him in 1986.

Jackson, ever the self-effacing one, told the Sarasota Magazine just before the 1993 warrant arrest:

“The camera can pretty much spot a phony right away. For some reason–and for the life of me I don’t understand it–television carries this aura of stardom.And we’re not stars. We’re just workaday stiffs like everybody else.” 

Deputies served the 1993 arrest warrant on Jackson while he was at work and took him back the four house to Miami. There apparently had been a big mistake, as Jackson and his supporters spun it. For the 100 pounds of Mary Jane in his truck, Jackson had been sentenced to five years probation but it was supposed to have been lifted in 1988. However, someone in the Dade County courts made an entry in the computer system in May 1993 that Jackson had missed a court date, thereby triggering a notice of a probation violation and the ensuing warrant. It could never be explained.

Jackson’s employer was working overtime to defend their star, and it was working. The rival Bradenton Herald blared the headline: “TV Figure Mistakenly Arrested.” Jackson, with his wife at his side, went on TV the next day to say that “a long time ago” he “had made a mistake with marijuana. ” His station general manager said they knew about his arrest when they hired him in 1986.

I smelled a rat. With the permission of then City Editor Eddie Robinnette and Assistant City Editor Tom Buckingham, I had the green light to learn about Mr. TV Star. I couldn’t have been happier.
I soon started receiving phone calls from various characters associated with Mr. Jackson from the not-so-distant past. They told me that they did not believe in a “computer error” and that someone had made the entry to get even.

But what had Jackson done to deserve such a fate?

Meanwhile, the paper had also been reporting the last few years on the exploits of the Sarasota Police in a case known as “Operation Cuisinart,” which took it’s name, I would later learn, from gourmet chef Richard Barrett, Jackson’s brother-in-law.

This drug and money laundering probe netted 60 defendants, almost all of whom pleaded guilty for their roles smuggling 23,500 pounds of pot from Jamaica to Sarasota and then in to Canada. At the top of the food chain was Pierre Doyer, a Canadian who with his partners laundered the drug profits buy buying a Quebec ski resort and other real estate. Police in both countries seized about $210 million in assets — cash, houses, a Rolls Royce and other bootie–related to the case.

Sarasota Police detective B.J.Sullivan, an Illinois country boy, had won numerous investigative honors for his work in Operation Cuisinart. When you talked with B.J., you knew you were dealing with a sharp, credible, principled man who downplayed his intelligence behind his folksy persona. He had spent more than five years doing the hard analytical tasks on the case.

One day, after the Jackson tempest, I was sitting in Sullivan’s detective lair interviewing him about his work. (The case generated 50 filing drawers.) Near his desk, a baby blue bed-sheet covered a section of wall. With me standing right next to him, Sullivan lifted up the sheet to show the dates of the eight pot voyages from Jamaica and who had crewed the ships. With my own eyes I saw James Jackson Minard listed as a crew member. Sullivan would not discuss Jackson’s involvement but others more intimately connected would fill me in.

From one local officer, Jim Sweeting, I had heard that Jackson got stopped one night while under surveillance. Police found cocaine in his car and took him in for questioning. This was after his 1986 arrest for 100 pounds so he was still very much involved in dealing marijuana. And for any of you thing pot is just a harmless drug, maybe it is. But any time you have enough money involved you will have the collateral guns and violence no matter what the commodity.

But I wanted on-the-record confirmation. As FBI agent Rod Huff told me on the phone in a polite brush-off, “I wouldn’t quit your story.”

Sources such as former brother-in-law Barrett called me as I also tracked some other Jackson associates from his not so distant past. I could hardly wait for the page one expose. . Barrett had pleaded guilty to trafficking charges and served a few years in a Florida prison. But it was his own extended family member, Jackson, who started the party by snitching on him. An associate of Barrett’s “snitched off” the Canadians.

Barrett said that when authorties detained him he saw the FBI-302 form. “It was Jim talking to the Feds. It was a debriefing form. All I had to do was corroborate the story.” Barrett admits that he also cooperated with police. He knew that Jackson had been meeting daily with Sarasota police Captain Al Hogle. Jackson was supposed to have unloaded one of the vessels. Barrett had also seen on the form that police tried to make it look like a tip about the operation had come in through “Crime Stoppers,” none other than a Channel 40 show. “It helped me put it together real quick.” He thinks Jackson’s “help” lead to more than half the arrests in the case.

A former roommate of Jackson’s at the time, who happened to be a TV camera person, told me then that Jackson had a cocaine habit and was dealing blow out of their condo. Jackson knew all the drug players in Sarasota, many of whom had come to his wedding to Barrett’s sister. The ex-roommate knew something was up because their was a boat at the place and a Jamaican guy once came up in the middle of the night.

The former roomie was listening to the scanner the night the cops popped Jackson. “I started listening and when I heard that it was a white Fiero I knew that it was Jim. I heard them say they had found a white substance in the car. Over the air I heard them say, ‘Jim Jackson Minard.’ ” Like a good roommate, he immediately drove back to the house to clean up drug paraphernalia because he knew police would be visiting soon when they were done with Jackson. Sure enough, police came to look at the vessel Tenacious at their place.

It was shortly after the traffic stop on Jackson that the arrests started to occur faster than snowbirds arriving for the winter. Another former Jackson roommate at the condo, Joe Bruno, made no bones about his anger for anchor. Bruno too did federal time.

“The guy essentially rolled over on me and all my friends,” he said. “All during those years that he claimed that he turned his life around he was selling coke out of my house.” He said that Jackson on one mission had run aground a boat with a 300-pound “stash compartment.”

“When they grabbed him in 1988 they knew they had the weak link to break this thing wide open. I don’t have any real strong vindictiveness towards him but he is a public figure. He affects people’s lives and they should know who the hell they are dealing with. Jim hasn’t paid anything as far as I can see.”

And one person who knew Jackson back in the day, April Ramsay, said that he used to put a penny in a dime bag of marijuana to make it weigh more before sale.And so it went. More sources went on the record about Jackson’s conduct while he was still on probation and working at the station. He would have been about 40 or 41 years old when involved with the pot smuggling.

One day about three weeks after the Jackson hoopla broke, Executive Editor Diane McFarlin got wind of my reporting, marched up to myself and my two supervising editors and promptly killed the story. I can’t be sure on McFarlin’s exact words but it was to the effect, “He’s too popular.” The air left me. The other editors didn’t utter a word. Since the story was killed I never bothered to seek comment from Jackson.

I muddled through my final six months at the paper, banished to the Bradenton bureau. I was also on the outs with my then girlfriend, who also was a reporter. When my friend called me one day in 1994 to say that she was leaving her apartment in Berkeley, I jumped at the chance to move back to the Bay Area even though I had no job. I wanted to get on at the Chronicle or Mercury but those jobs didn’t come around that often. I answered an ad for an investigator, earned my license in 1997 and that’s what I have been doing.

About three years ago I wondered about the Canadian, Pierre Doyer, allegedly at the top of the food chain. I knew that Doyer had fought extradition for about five years and had finally lost in a historical legal decision. (Detective Sullivan had once told me that there were bigger fish than Doyer but that Doyer refused to play ball.) I made a Freedom of Information Act Request on Doyer to the Federal Burea of Prisons. I just couldn’t help wondering what happend to Doyer if Jackson had sailed right along in his career, albeit likely looking over his shoulder time to time.

About six months ago I got a big huge envelope in the mail on my FOIA request. Doyer, a father of two, had been transferred to Raybrook prison in New York. I learned that Doyer had a heart condition and had died of heart attack playing tennis in prison on July 4, 2000. He was a year older than Jackson and was 54 when he died. Doyer had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for running a “continuing criminal enterrprise.”

Jim Jackson in 1995 moved across the state to take an anchor job in West Palm Beach. I read that he since left that gig to become a morning radio disc jockey and had also started a couple of legit businesses unrelated to slinging or humping dope.
Who said life was fair?