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Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?
Guest columnist

Recently, on a chilly February day under the moss covered live oaks at Honey Creek, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia Retreat Center in Camden County, approximately 30 retired local, state, and federal drug enforcement officers gathered for the second “Old Narc’s Reunion.”

 As the retired agents arrived, boxes of old photographs, personnel rosters, old field notes, and case files were unpacked and displayed on tables like family heirlooms from an old cedar chest; each one surfacing memories from when the old narcs who brought them were beginning their law enforcement careers in the 1970s.

The reunion idea began in 2017 when retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Executive Assistant Director Harry G. Coursey, Jr. and retired GBI Deputy Director for Investigations Paul L. Carter decided to invite drug enforcement agents, current and retired, to Camden County for the 38th anniversary of the seizure of the shrimp boat “Miss Vicki” and 26 tons of Columbian marijuana in Shellbine Creek. Coursey, who now resides in Liberty County, worked undercover with retired GBI Special Agent Michael G. Mason to bring the Miss Vicki and the 26 tons of marijuana to the dock in Camden County where the vessel and contraband were seized by the GBI and former Camden County Sheriff Jimmy Middleton.

The investigation lasted 18 months with Coursey and Mason conducting undercover meetings with the drug smugglers in Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida and in Richmond Hill where Coursey resided at the time. The size of the seizure and the resources required to conduct the investigation caught the attention of former U.S. Congressman Bo Ginn who recorded the incident in his Extensions of Remarks before Congress on March 8, 1979. Congressman Ginn’s remarks included a two-part series on the seizure which appeared in the Atlanta Constitution.

In the 1970s and 1980s illicit drug smuggling was rampant on Georgia’s coast and in South Georgia on rural airports, and clandestine airstrips. In response, the GBI established drug enforcement offices such as the Southern Coastal Area Narcotics (SCAN) office in Savannah, the Atlanta Smuggling Squad, and the Albany Smuggling Squad in southwest Georgia to address this lucrative venture. The GBI agents worked hand in hand with U.S. Customs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, local and state law enforcement agencies throughout the United States and appropriate prosecutors to curb this illegal activity. As a result, hundreds of would be smugglers, crooked law enforcement officers and elected officials were arrested, marine vessels and aircraft seized, and millions of dollars forfeited in Superior and Federal Courts throughout Georgia and the United States.

One would not recognize the older, clean cut, distinguished retiree at Honey Creek compared to the photographs of the same undercover narcotic officers, displayed like family pictures, who were indistinguishable from the drug smugglers they arrested. To be a “narc” in this era meant spending long hours, days, and sometimes weeks waiting in the woods and marshes of South Georgia for the “mother lode” to land or dock. The technology of today was unavailable as were the personnel resources. It was not uncommon for an agent to work undercover alone for long periods with nothing more than a small revolver and undercover driver’s license for protection. One former narc, John B. “Mad Dog” Edwards, remarked that the best weapon he ever possessed was his mouth and the ability to talk (B.S.) his way out of “touchy situations.”

Staff members of Bryan County Sheriff Clyde R. Smith and the reservation staff at Honey Creek facilitated this reunion, held February 11–12. Early in the planning process, Sheriff Smith remarked, “trying to get a bunch of old narcs together is a lot like trying to herd cats.” Attendees came from as far away as Montana and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Colleagues who had not seen each other since before they retired united once again to remember shrimp boats like the Miss Vicki, the Brenda Lee, marijuana and cocaine laden aircraft, wiretaps, clandestine meetings, surveillances, and “buy busts”. There were solemn moments too when a friend would ask, “Who has heard from ...?” and “When did... die?”

This second “Old Narc’s Reunion” was dedicated in memory of GBI Special Agent Frank Mitchell Ellerbe who was stabbed to death on January 12, 1983 while executing a search warrant in McIntosh County.

Similar to military personnel who have served in combat zones, there seems to be no bond as strong for an old narc as the bond formed while lying in wait with fellow narcs for days on a clandestine air strip in Appling County, or freezing at an airport in Decatur County, or being completely wet from standing in the marsh grass on Georgia’s coast. Narcs who have the unfortunate experience of being present when a colleague is run over by a “getaway” vehicle, a “shoot out” in a motel room, or witnessing a friend killed during the execution of a search warrant become exceptionally close. Tom Durden, District Attorney for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit remarked, “It is an honor to be affiliated with these guys.”

The most senior “old narc” attending was retired GBI Special Agent Frank McGuire who began his law enforcement career in 1962 as a Radio Operator for the Georgia State Patrol in Atlanta. McGuire reminisced of days before there were computers to query vehicle registration information and how a request for a California license plate registration was relayed via law enforcement radio stations through each state to California where the search would be manually conducted and relayed back to the requesting trooper. Frank said that the results would take as long as 24 hours. Today, a similar query takes less than a minute.

The youngest attendee was Special Agent Kevin Waters from the GBI’s Southeast Regional Drug Enforcement Office who listened too intently and too long to the pontifications of retired GBI agents Pat Skinner, Rick Giles, and John “Possum” Willis.

The reunion culminated with a “low country mull” provided by retired Glynn County Chief of Police Carl Alexander and retired Camden County Deputy Sheriff Jerry Middleton. A few narcs, who are still young enough, enjoyed libations and more stories were told.

I remembered as I left Honey Creek, the quote read by Civil War Historian Shelby Foote at the end of The Civil War series by Ken Burns, as a fitting end for “old narcs” and the old smugglers we chased and sometimes caught.

“In time, even death itself might be abolished; who knows but it may be given to us after this life to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning role call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again to hastily don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the long roll summons to battle.

Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day? And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say, Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”

— Private Barry Benson, Army of Northern Virginia, 1880

About the author: Mike Fordham began his GBI career in 1979 as a Narcotics Agent assigned to the Atlanta based Local Violator Squad. He worked Local Violator, Major Violator, and Air Smuggling Investigations for over 20 years. In 1989 Fordham piloted DARE America’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education curriculum in Georgia and administered the program throughout the state. In 1999 he was promoted to the Special Agent in Charge of the GBI’s Savannah Regional Drug Enforcement Office. He retired in 2011 and currently serves as an investigator with the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office and as an Adjunct Professor of Criminal Justice at Savannah Technical College.

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