June, 15, 2010 Special to Crime Magazine
An excerpt from Ron Chepesiuk’s new book, Sergeant Smack, The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson., Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers. (www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com)
by Ron Chepesiuk
December 9, 1972—It was to be a routine flight, one of dozens the retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant had taken since 1966 when he first arrived in Bangkok, Thailand. Given the colorful nickname “Sergeant Smack” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), 47-year old Leslie “Ike” Atkinson, the squat retired U.S. Army master sergeant, was dressed appropriately for the long flight to the U.S. mainland: khaki pants, casual loafers and a loose white short-sleeve sports shirt. With his short-cropped curly black hair and military bearing, Atkinson looked like one of the scores of American servicemen, active and retired, black and white, who came to Bangkok in search of romance and excitement.
With Atkinson in the black Mercedes that sped through the chaotic streets of Bangkok was 30-year-old Thomas Southerland, a friend and fellow African American from Wilmington, North Carolina, whom Atkinson had known for nearly a decade. Like his companion, the trim, tight-lipped Southerland, or Sonny, as friends knew him, was a gambler—a card shark and hustler—and, their paths had crossed often in the numerous craps and poker games common in the black communities of eastern North Carolina. Southerland had visited Bangkok frequently, and over time Atkinson had become almost like an older brother to him.
Relaxing in the car, Ike assessed Southerland and could not help but admire what he saw. Fitted resplendent in an Army uniform complete with battle and service ribbons, Sonny looked like a war hero. He carried a military card that identified his rank as sergeant. His special orders explained that he had served a 12-year hitch in the Army, and they instructed anyone reading the orders to please accord all privileges worthy of such service. In reality, Southerland’s orders were totally bogus, forged by Atkinson himself, who, as a retired 20-year service veteran, knew the military system inside and out. His “privileges” made obtaining military uniforms, NCO stripes and badges as easy as shopping for groceries.
Forging IDs was so easy to do, in fact, that Atkinson did it himself in the comfort of his bungalow on a klong (a small canal), located in the heart of Bangkok. Southerland could spend several years in prison for impersonating a U.S. military non-commissioned officer; it was a serious criminal offense. But he looked confident; after all, he had performed this role before—as a courier, carrying heroin in the standard army AWOL bags. Specifically designed for military travel, the bags looked like gym bags, except that they folded out like an accordion and contained hidden pockets. The false bottom of the AWOL bag had been stitched and fitted to carry two kilos each of a potent type of heroin commonly known on the “street” as “China White.”