Strange Encounters of a Cadaver Kind

Jun 15, 2010 - by Ron Chepesiuk

Special to Crime Magazine

Ron Chepesiuk’s new book, Sergeant Smack, The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson., Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers

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

PROLOGUE

December 9, 1972Itwas 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.”

Leslie “Ike” Atkinson

On this particular flight, Atkinson and Southerland each carried an AWOL bag, in addition to a suitcase. One kilo of heroin could fetch as much $50,000 in the U.S. Not bad for a $16,000 investment and a flight’s work. Military servicemen can fly on a military flight or “hop,” so long as space is available. The delays between flights can vary from an hour or two to as many as 24 hours. At times the wait and uncertainty can be aggravating, but invariably, the serviceman will get to his destination safely. And, of course, the best thing about the hops—they are free.

On this typically sweltering Bangkok day, the two travelers found space available for a grueling trans-Atlantic flight that would take them to Honolulu, Hawaii, via a relatively short hop to Okinawa and on to Travis Air Force Base in the San Francisco Bay area before flying cross-continent to the airbase at Dover, Delaware. The tired travelers would then rent a car and drive the 10-hour trip to Goldsboro, North Carolina, Atkinson’s hometown.

Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport had a U.S. military air base, but Atkinson preferred to fly from the U-Tapao air base in Sattihip, Thailand, located 100 miles to the south of Bangkok. Don Muang was always frantically busy and it was much easier to get a hop out of U-Tapao.

Sure enough, space was available at U-Tapao, at least for the first leg to Okinawa, and Ike and Sonny had no problem moving through security. There were no X-rays machines in those days and security guards often did not hand-check the luggage. Besides, it was almost impossible to detect the contraband stitched into the bottom of the AWOL bags. They boarded a large Lockheed C-5A Galaxy double-decker transport cargo plane, an enormous bird that could carry a payload of 125,000 pounds over a distance of 8,000 miles, take off and land in relatively short distances and taxi on substandard surfaces during emergencies. Shortly, Ike Atkinson would be very happy that he had flown this fortress-like military transport aircraft, which seemingly had an inexhaustible fuel supply.

After the plane reached cruising speed, the two pilots began taking turns coming back to chat with the passengers. Fresh from a war zone, the passengers had some first-hand knowledge of the situation, and the pilots were eager to learn what they knew. The United States Air Force (USAF) had deployed combat aircraft in Thailand since 1961, and its units trained annually with other Asian air forces. The U-Tapao base was activated in June 1966, and the following April, as the American presence in Southeast Asia increased, the number of aircraft based there swelled. B-52 bombers began raids over Vietnam. In fact, more than 80 percent of all USAF air strikes over North Vietnam originated from there and from other air bases in Thailand, and by 1970 Thailand had become part of the secret bombing of Cambodia.

Leslie “Ike” Atkinson

A month before this flight, Richard Nixon won his second term as president, defeating Democrat George McGovern in the biggest landslide in U.S. history. Three weeks later, the U.S. troop withdrawal from Vietnam was completed under Nixon’s watch, although 16,000 military advisors and other government and civilian administrators remained to assist South Vietnamese military forces. Two days after Atkinson’s flight was scheduled to land at Dover Air Force Base, the U.S.-North Vietnam peace negotiations collapsed in Paris. So it was a pivotal time in the Vietnam War and inquiring pilots wanted to know: Do you think we are winning the war? How long do you think the war will last? Nobody on board really discussed the merits of the seemingly never-ending war because most of the passengers, given their backgrounds, supported it.

For Ike Atkinson, the war was more of an opportunity—that is, something to be exploited as he pursued his criminal objectives. He ignored the conversation around him and napped, dreaming of the stuff that drug trafficking empires are made of. It was a typical flight, but then as the plane approached the Okinawa air field and the pilots prepared for landing, Atkinson was jolted out of his reverie by an announcement that came over the intercom: “We have problems with our landing gear, but we expect to correct the problem shortly.” A collective gasp rippled through the cabin. Never completely comfortable with flying, Atkinson asked himself: “Did the Lord bring me up here to die?” Ike looked at Sonny; his friend was so cool and collected he looked as if he had taken a tranquillizer. The passengers tried to stay calm as the plane flew in circles, seemingly endlessly. Then another announcement came: the crew was dropping fuel.

Thinking about the consequences was chilling. “Why are they telling us all this bad news,” Ike thought? “Because they think we are brave, tough military people?” But he concluded—it’s better to meet one’s fate with eyes wide open. Finally, a few minutes later another announcement was made: the landing gear is free and the plane will be landing shortly. Some of the passengers cheered; others clapped. Ike and Sonny looked at each other and both flashed a chest high thumbs-up sign.

The landing was smooth and the big bird taxied down the landing strip before coming to a stop about 100 yards from the terminal of the Kadena Air Base. The base, which dates back to just before the Allies invaded Okinawa in 1945, spreads across Kadena Town, Chatan Town and Okinawa City in the central part of the main island of Okinawa. It is the largest and most active U.S. air base in the Orient, and today it is home to the 18th Wing, a subordinate of the U.S. Fifth Air Force.

Kadena is an airport Ike had seen often on his journeys to and from Bangkok and the U.S. In fact, Eddie Wooten, one of his best pals, had a bar in Okinawa. On his flights, Ike would stop to visit his old friend and at times plot a scheme or two on how to smuggle heroin into the U.S. But on this trip Ike knew Wooten was not in Okinawa. A bus came to retrieve the passengers and their luggage. Moving into the terminal, some of them joked about their harrowing trip. Ike and Sonny went to the service counter to check the flights. They were told space was available on the next leg of their flight, but they would have to change planes. “We want to make sure the landing gear is working properly, and it’s going to take some time to do it,” they were told. “Put your name on the flight manifest and we will get you home.”

The next flight would leave early in the morning, so the travelers went looking for a nearby hotel. On the way, Atkinson told Sonny they would have paid Eddy Wooten a visit if he had been in Okinawa. When Ike and Sonny arrived at the airport early the next morning, they could see a number of mechanics looking over the landing gear of the C-5A they had flown from Thailand. They saw a different plane taxing up the runway. Built by Lockheed, the C-141 was more of a troop carrier than a cargo plane.

In the early 1960s, Uncle Sam introduced the C-141 to replace the slower cargo planes. One of the existing C-141s, the so-called “Hanoi Taxi,” would be used in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, a series of diplomatic negotiations that in January 1973 made possible the return of 591 American prisoners of war held by North Vietnam. Ike was happy to ride a different plane. He would not have to worry so much about meeting his maker somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

An airman came into the airport terminal, calling out the names of those who were traveling “space available.” “Yes sir! That’s us,” Ike said cheerfully, and he and Sonny picked up their AWOL bags, checked their suitcases and headed for the door and their flight to Honolulu.

On board, Ike noted a lot of friendly faces. It seemed everybody on last night’s flight was on this one as well. Two of the faces were new though. They belonged to two high-ranking, uniformed airmen with somber expressions, who sat at the plane’s rear.

Once the plane was airborne and reached cruising speed, one of the somber airmen came to the front of the plane and made an announcement. “The curtain at the back of the plane is drawn for a reason,” he said. “On board are the bodies of two of our brave service men who have given their lives in Vietnam. Do not go to the back of the plane for any reason. If you must use the rest room, please use the one at the front of plane.”

This would be a new experience for Atkinson. He had never knowingly flown with the bodies of dead GIs aboard. He knew that, given the heavy toll in the Vietnam War, the military had flown thousands of corpses back to the U.S. for burial. But why the announcement?

Most of the dead bodies were “processed” at the main military mortuary at the Tan Son Knut Air Base just outside Saigon. On June 20, 1967, the U.S. Army opened a second, less active mortuary at the Da Nang Air Base. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam led to the deactivation of the Da Nang Mortuary by February 1972. By this time, the number of bodies processed at Tan Son Knut Mortuary had decreased significantly because of the declining U.S. troop strength in Vietnam. 

Having two corpses on board gave Ike a creepy feeling. It did not help that the airmen came back repeatedly during the flight to issue their blunt admonition: Don’t go behind the curtain! “What’s up with those damn fools?” Ike thought. “Why would we want to go behind the curtain?” What with his earlier near-death experience, Ike thought this was turning out to be one weird flight indeed. From Okinawa, the plane flew to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Unlike the initial leg, the flight was uneventful, but when the plane reached the tarmac at Hickam, the airport swarmed with military vehicles and personnel. Atkinson had never seen security like that before on a hop. However, after a 24-hour layover, the plane was on its way to the U.S. mainland.

The trip got more bizarre once the flight landed at Travis Air Force Base. Situated in the San Francisco Bay area and known as “the Gateway to the Pacific,” Travis handles more passenger and air traffic than any other military airbase in the U.S. On this pleasant California day in December, the tarmac swarmed with military personnel and vehicles, which moved into position around the C-141. Ike’s stomach churned; after all, he and Sonny were carrying four kilos of heroin. But would the authorities use an entire military police unit to make a bust?

Ike relaxed a little when he saw that two buses had come to pick up the passengers. They were directed to a holding area inside the terminal, where the passengers could see the C-141 through a big terminal window. Floodlights lit up the plane, and the military police remained in place. The hours slipped by; finally someone came and began to check the passengers’ identification cards.

Ike had time to think. “This trip is getting stranger and stranger. Should we switch to a civilian plane?” Ike asked Sonny. “We are almost home, man,” said Sonny. “Why should we spend the money?” Later, Ike wished he had followed his instincts instead of listening to his friend. Once again, the C-141 was airborne, this time heading cross country for Dover Air Force Base, located two miles south of Dover, Delaware’s capital. Once again, the bodies of the two dead GIs were on board and the same airmen took turns pronouncing the same stern admonition. But about an hour from Dover, an announcement was made. The plane would not land as scheduled. Instead it was going to be re-directed to Andrews Air Force Base, southeast of Washington, DC, near the town of Morningside.

“I thought what the hell is going on?” Atkinson recalled. “Why’s our flight being re-directed? The trip was getting more like the Twilight Zone by the minute. It was enough

to make me think that maybe I should buy my own plane.” The landing was routine but when the door was opened, the passengers were surprised to see several military police standing at the bottom of the walk. With them were some men in black suits, who looked like FBI types. The passengers were directed off the plane to two waiting buses. Ike’s mind raced. A military police (MP) jeep led the buses to a small terminal, where the passengers were told to disembark and go to a spartanly furnished room containing nothing but cold steel chairs to sit on. Four MPs stood guard; Ike moved quickly to take a seat besides Sonny. “What do you think is going on?” Ike asked his friend. “I don’t know but it can’t be good,” Sonny replied.

 Ike glanced at the floor and the two AWOL bags that carried the heroin. “Let’s stay cool,” Ike said. Sonny nodded. Then one of the FBI types came in and said: “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I have some instructions. No one is to talk. When I call your name, come with me.” One by one, the passengers were led away. A few hours passed, and Sonny was called out. Then a MP came back and picked up Sonny’s AWOL bag. Ike’s heart nearly fell to his stomach, but he knew Sonny would not panic and could be counted on to keep his mouth shut, no matter the circumstances.

Finally, Ike was the last one left and they came for him. It was after midnight. Ike was taken to an office that contained a chair, desk, filing cabinet and a big American flag under which hung a picture of a smiling President Nixon. Behind the desk, sat one of the men in dark suits. “I see from the manifest that you are Sergeant Leslie Atkinson, retired.

Good evening, Mr. Atkinson,” the man said. “It’s been a long journey. You must be tired. Would you like a cup of coffee?” Atkinson declined the offer, wondering if the interview was about to become a mind game. “My name is Mr. Marr and I am the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland. Let me get to the point. We believe you are smuggling heroin from Thailand. Where is it?”

Atkinson did not flinch; he looked Marr right in the eye. “I don’t mess with drugs. I don’t know what you are talking about.” Michael Marr made cold eye contact with Atkinson and began squeezing. “Mr. Atkinson. What did you do with the heroin on the two corpses that were on the flight coming from Travis?” Atkinson looked at the man as if he was crazy and snapped: “What?” In a strange way, he felt a little relieved. So this was not about the heroin in the AWOL bags.

Atkinson said nothing more. Marr stopped the interrogation, realizing it was going nowhere. “We have been taking the plane apart, panel by panel,” Marr said. “We will find it.”

About a half hour of awkward silence ensued and then the phone rang. Atkinson could see by Marr’s expression that he did not like the news. “What? Are you sure?” Marr asked. He listened to the answer and then hung up the phone.  Marr looked at Atkinson intently; then he sighed. “You can go now.”

Sonny was gone by then. Outside in the street, Atkinson found a waiting cab and hopped in. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his brow. He thought about the interrogation, the dead bodies and the heroin that was supposed to be in them. It made absolutely no sense, but obviously, a high ranking U.S. official would not waste his time on him unless he thought he was on to something. In the intensity of the moment, Atkinson had forgotten about Sonny and he wondered where he was. Ike concluded that his friend would have waited for him at the airport, so something must have happened. Maybe he was arrested. Atkinson told the cabby to take him to a nice hotel.

He remembered that a friend, a well-known drug dealer, lived in the Washington, D.C. area. At the hotel, he thumbed through his address book and made a call to his friend.

“I believe a friend of mine is in jail,” Atkinson explained. “I need you to find him and bail him out.”

“No problem,” said the friend. “What is his name and the charge?” “I’m not sure, but it could be possession of heroin.” It was the wee hours of the morning, but Ike could not sleep. He was exhausted and worried about Sonny. About noon, Ike heard a knock at the door. It was the drug-dealing friend who had gone looking for Sonny. With him was a man the friend identified as a bail bondsman. “We located Southerland,” Atkinson’s friend said. “He is in jail charged with using false military documents and impersonating a military non-commissioned officer. The bail hearing is tomorrow.

“What about his AWOL bag?” Ike asked anxiously. “His bags are at a local police station, stored in the property room. You can go down to the station and try to get them released to you.” Ike was relieved about the heroin but concerned about Sonny. He would not talk, no matter what charges he faced, but Ike was certain the charges would be serious. How serious, Atkinson learned later at the bond hearing. Southerland was being held on a $50,000 bond in a Baltimore jail, and magistrate Clarence E. Goetz had denied a bail reduction after military and Customs agents told him at the hearing that Southerland was involved in a “large international conspiratorial organization.” Furthermore, he had flown aboard a plane headed for Dover Air Force Base in Delaware that carried the corpses of two dead GIs, which, an informant had told authorities, might be packed with heroin.

Having to explain why the authorities did not find any heroin, Marr told the court—and later the press—that during the stopover in Honolulu, the bodies had been left in a hangar, unguarded for 16 hours. Marr further told the court that one of the bodies exhibited a recent incision and stitching.

The press jumped on the sensational “Cadaver Connection” and the headlines screamed: “Top people part of ghoulish heroin ring,” “Body heroin smuggling a puzzler” and “Feds trace route of GI bodies.” The press speculated in numerous articles, based largely on anonymous sources, theorizing that Southerland was accompanying bodies as a dry run to test the efficiency of Federal law enforcement. After all, the press speculated erroneously, he could have taken a commercial plane and not have to take the risk of wearing a military uniform and carrying bogus documents.

Leslie “Ike” Atkinson

Since that flight, the story of the “Cadaver Connection” has persisted. More than three-and-half decades later, the speculation was rekindled with the release of the blockbuster movie, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. The movie depicted the life of former Harlem gangster Frank Lucas, an Atkinson associate. In interviews hyping the movie, Lucas embraced the “Cadaver Connection.” In its open and shut conclusion about things cadaver, the Associated Press, which did absolutely no investigative reporting on the subject, reported in November 2007 that Lucas “bought his dope in the jungles of Vietnam, and to get his drugs back into the U.S., Lucas established the infamous “Cadaver Connection.”

Meanwhile, the press reports made Ike Atkinson guilty by association. In response, Atkinson described the cadaver connection as “the big lie…the biggest hoax ever perpetuated,” and he asked, “Will we never know who is responsible for the hoax?” It is a question that Ike Atkinson has asked himself often since that fateful trans-Pacific flight in December 1972.

            Ron Chepesiuk  (www.ronchepesiuk.com) is an award winning freelance journalist and Fulbright Scholar to Bangladesh and consultant to the History Channel’s “Gangland” television series. He is the author of several true crime books, including Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel and Gangsters of Harlem.  His next book, Sergeant Smack: The Legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers, appeared as an e-book in late April and will be published as a print book in late June. Go to www.ikeatkinsonkingpin.com/

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