No smoke without ireMichael Cleave Forwell had been born into a wealthy, well-ordered world. Educated at Gordonstoun, the school noted for having taught three generations of the British Royal family, and set to inherit a flourishing business portfolio, Forwell’s path through life had been carefully laid out for him from an early age.
Although he would have to wait for his inheritance, he could have had it easy, but Forwell wasn’t prepared to wait. Instead of sticking to the plan Forwell the business and marketing skills he had been taught and applied them to the drug trade. He rapidly went on to become arguably the biggest marijuana smuggler Britain has ever known. The infamous Howard Marks is believed to have made profits of around £30 million over the course of his smuggling career. At the height of its operations, Forwell’s organization could achieve that figure from a single shipment.
Now, with the publication of Forwell’s biography next year, the inside story of his rise and fall can finally be told.
It began inauspiciously. Forwell left school and decided to go traveling, making his way around the southern hemisphere and working a variety of jobs to pay for his board and lodging.
‘During the summer of ’76 I was tending bar in a pub in the Australian port town of Geraldton. I’d parked up there in my caravan during a solo trek around Australia because I’d been attracted by the laid-back feel of the place.
‘One of the regulars was an American by the name of Robert Lietzman. He was quiet, detached and aloof, a serious dude. Even at the parties held in the town he always seemed happiest sitting back, bourbon in hand, watching the action unfold.’
The two men soon became friends and after a while Lietzman finally admitted the reason behind his detached demeanor. He had been importing Thai marijuana into the country and doing until he had been caught in a sting operation. Released on bail and awaiting trial, Lietzman had been weighing up his options and decided it would be best all round if he skipped town.
"What started out as a group of college drop-outs pedalling dope to their friends had evolved into one of the most sophisticated and profitable drug rings on the planet."
Impressed and intrigued, Forwell agreed to help smuggle Lietzman out of the country in the smuggler’s yacht which was undergoing renovation in a local boat yard. ‘We sailed under the cover of a midnight moon and as we passed the Christmas Islands on our way to Thailand, Robert told me all about his past life and his plans for the future. I knew there and then that I wanted to be part of it. Within weeks I had imported my first load of weed into America in my hand luggage and made it through customs without a problem. The pattern had been set.’
It turned out to be a formidable pairing. Lietzman’s ability to procure cut-price marijuana and Forwell’s flair for finding innovative ways of concealing marijuana proved the perfect recipe for success.
As the profits began to roll in, the pair soon found themselves in the position of being knee-deep in cash with no legal reason as to how they had come by it. They bought cars, boats and seaplanes but the money was still coming in faster than they could spend it. It was then they hit upon the idea of buying a bar in Bangkok. It would provided them with a cover story for their wealth and a solid base to work from. ‘We figured we were spending all out time in bars anyway, so why not buy our own!’
Charlie Superstar, situated on Bangkok’s Patpong Road in the heart of the red light district, was a roaring success from the start and, as word of the extra-curricular activities of the owners spread throughout the underworld, became the hub of the global Thai marijuana trade.
On any given night, the corners of the bar would be packed full of dozens of American and European traffickers, along with local suppliers, negotiating prices, working out delivery schedules, hiring boat captains, arranging cash transfers and examining samples, all relatively openly.
The bar was the perfect place to do business. Although the DEA had dozens of agents stationed in Bangkok who visited The Superstar from time to time, no one considered them to be much of a threat. For one thing, everyone knew what they looked like making them easy to avoid. For another the agents were far more concerned with the trade in heroin coming out of Thailand, Burma and Laos – the so-called Golden Triangle.
The Ring, as it came to be known, was organised as a series of independent cells, each receiving their drugs from a single source. The leadership of the enterprise was composed of adrenaline junkies - helicopter pilots, rally drivers, powerboat racers, deep sea salvage experts and members of the Army’s elite Special Forces - whose methods were as slick as they were successful.
They chartered planes to over-fly their smuggling routes to warn of nearby coastguard patrols; they used a network of informers and moles to feed false information to government agents, sending them off on outrageous wild goose chases. They even hired market research consultants to study the techniques used by unsuccessful gangs and ensure they would not make the same mistakes.
What started out as little more than a group of college drop-outs pedalling dope to their friends had evolved into one of the most sophisticated and profitable drug rings on the planet.
By the early eighties Forwell and Lietzman had become leading figures in the Ring. They were now dealing with several tons of marijuana at a time and making more money than ever. Cash was everywhere. They had boxes of it under their beds, in wardrobes and in specially bought safe houses. Whatever they couldn’t stash or spend was stuffed into suitcases and deposited in their Credit Suisse accounts. Lietzman died in a plane crash soon afterwards but Forwell took on new partners and continued to smuggle more marijuana than ever.
Increasingly, Forwell’s time was spent trying to find new things to spend his millions on. He bought Rolexes by the caseload and fine jewelry. He developed a passion for white cars, particulary Jaguar Sovereigns and BMWs. He had homes in Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco and mini-fleets of white cars at each address.
One night in New York Forwell was flicking through a boating magazine when he saw an advertisement for the Delfino II, a 130-ft motor yacht costing one million dollars. ‘I picked up the phone and dialed the owner. When he answered I said: “I just bought your boat.”
"The pair soon found themselves knee-deep in cash. They bought cars, boats and seaplanes but the money was still coming in faster than they could spend it."
Berthing her on the seafront at Miami, Forwell had the en-suite bathroom kitted out in marble and glazed tiles imported from Italy. The fittings were finished in 24 carat gold. Four million dollars worth of additions later, the Delfino could stay self-sufficient at sea for up to six months. She had jet skis, sports boats, fishing and scuba gear, a landing pad and her own five-passenger helicopter.
By now Forwell was making so much money from smuggling that he no longer had any respect for it. One time he suspected members of the crew of the Delfino were pilfering supplies. He lined up his crew on the deck and held out his hand with a bundle of $5,000. He then told those in front of him that money meant nothing compared to the loyalty he expected from then. And with that, he tossed the money into the sea.
Forwell spent another million dollars buying two 40-foot racing powerboats, the Kimono and the Mariposa. Capable of around 90 mph, Forwell decided to use them to bring marijuana into the US from the mother ship. On that first each boat, loaded up with its precious cargo, passed under the Golden Gate Bridge at 60mph in broad daylight. Forwell was so excited about the venture that he even hired a helicopter to film his arrival.
Nothing was left to chance. Disguising his British accent, Forwell traveled the world using a false American passport in the name Rodney Wayne Boggs. ‘Whenever I flew anywhere I’d buy first class tickets at least six months in advance but switch them at the last minute to an alternative airline which had a reciprocal agreement. Back in the days before computers and the internet, it meant I was almost impossible to keep track of.’
By the summer of 1987 Forwell had been a smuggler for more than a decade and had never even come close to being caught. That same year he decided to try a new route, bringing the drugs into the east coast of America rather than the west. The importation was successful but the drugs sold poorly.
Forwell’s 22 ton load of marijuana had arrived in the US shortly after a rival gang – inspired in part by his success – had landed 42 tons. The market was flooded and the previously high price had fallen to an all-time low. It was nothing more than bad timing but for a gang which had seen so much success – financial and logistical – it was hugely disappointing. There simply had to be a better way of doing business.
With this in mind Forwell made contact with the main supplier of marijuana in Thailand, a diehard hippie named Brian Daniels who had supplied the 42 ton load.
After only a few meetings Forwell came up with a new proposal for his team. Instead of working on their own importation and risking finding the market collapsed once more, they would join forces with Daniels and used their transportation network to import marijuana on behalf of others for a 20 per cent share of the proceeds. It was a lucrative deal: Daniels was planning his biggest ever importation and the potential profits were huge.
‘I knew the good luck I’d enjoyed up until that point couldn’t possibly last. All around, other groups involved in smuggling were falling like flies. There were so many people in prison or awaiting trial that I couldn’t keep track of them all. Working with Daniels seemed the perfect solution. With one shipment we could made enough money to continue the lives we loved without ever having to break the law again.’
Forwell used his biggest ship, the Encounter Bay, for the job. It took 17 hours to load all the drugs on board. There were 8250 bales of marijuana in all, a total weight of almost 72 tonnes. The wholesale value of the drugs was around $300 million while the street value of this single shipment was well in excess of $1 billion.
As the Encounter Bay set off Forwell treated himself to a congratulatory drink. All the bases had been covered; every element of the trip, the offload and the distribution had been worked out in advance right down to the smallest detail. Every possible precaution had been taken and a dozen contingency plans were in place. The buyers were waiting and the Forwell knew the drugs on the boat would be converted to hard cash within hours of arriving on dry land. Rich as he was, he was soon set to become considerably richer. All he had to do was sit back and wait.
* * *
On June 22 1988 the Encounter Bay was some 800 miles from the US coast and ready to transfer its drugs. What no one realized was that the down-on-his luck fisherman Forwell had recruited to help off-load the drugs was in fact an undercover DEA agent.
The captain spotted a vast ship on the horizon. This was the Boutwell, a 3250-tonne Coastguard cutter. Heavily armed and twice as fast as the Encounter Bay, there would be no escape.
Within an hour, the Boutwell was looming large, less than 1,000 yards from her target. Her captain, Cecil Allison, picked up the radio and called for the Encounter Bay to stop. There was no reply, even when a series of warning shots were fired across the drug ship’s bow.
The Captain of the Encounter Bay had no time to talk to the coastguard. Instead he had bee frantically trying to make contact with Forwell via satellite phone, finally tracking him down to a house in Singapore.
‘He sounded hysterical. He said ‘the Coastguard are onto us, they’re right on top of us.’ I told him I couldn’t authorize that and that he needed to calm down. I really didn’t think it could be that bad. Then I heard him slide open the window of the bridge and he held the receiver outside. Then I heard the gunshots. And that’s when I knew I had to get out of there.’
As Forwell put the phone down and prepared to leave his entire life behind, the Boutwell issued a warning to the Encounter Bay to get all the crew out of the engine room. Seconds later more than 50 rounds of machine gun fire smashed into the ship’s side tearing its hydraulics to pieces and finally bringing it to halt.
* * *
Forwell wasn’t the only one to go on the run. Other high-ranking members of the Ring who had invested in the Encounter Bay shipment fled to the four corners of the earth. With millions of pounds stashed away, they had little trouble obtaining false passports and new identities so they could stay under the radar while continuing to live in the lap of luxury.
Slowly but surely, however, the long arm of the law began to catch up with them. Minor players in the drug operations were arrested and given the choice of co-operating with the authorities of spending the rest of their lives behind bars. Few had any choice but to help track down the missing members of the gang.
Senior members of The Ring were falling like nine pins and after three years Forwell found himself in the uncomfortable position of being one of the last remaining fugitives. That was bad. It meant that he would have nothing to bargain with. He had no choice but to keep on running.
He moved to Australia and invested some of his millions in a legitimate Crayfish farm with the intention of going straight but lost it all when, ironically, his business partner turned out to be a crook and ran off with his investment. Forwell took the last of his savings and moved from country to country, constantly looking over his shoulder.
He was finally arrested late in 1993 in the most unlikely of locations – Camden antiques market – by a British detective following up a tip-off that Forwell was a regular there.
Extradited to the US and sentenced to 15 years, he was granted parole in 2001. He now works as a photographer and lives in central London. ‘People always ask me what I miss most,’ he says. ‘Out of everything, it has to be the power boats. They were amazing.’
An authorized biography of Michael Forwell titled Blow Back, written by Lee Bullman and published by Sidgwick & Jackson.
Reefer Men: The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Drugs Ring by Tony Thompson, is published by Hodder and is out now.