The black Cadillac pulls into the diner’s parking lot in Queens. Built in the 1950s, the building looks like it only exists on a rainy day, the rock-lined exterior out of another time. I step out of the Uber and look up at the restaurant where, in 1983, my father was arrested after escaping federal prison. He had spent two years on the lam, and was brought down by the U.S. Marshals after eating breakfast with his longtime mistress. He had just come from organizing a new shipment from Colombia. I imagine the day was also rainy. Almost 40 years later, I am there to meet with the Drug Enforcement Agency officer who tracked him
for nearly a decade, trying to bring down one of the biggest marijuana kingpins of the 1970s, the man I once called “Daddy,” and one of the architects of the modern drug trade: Dan McGuiness.
When the Cadillac arrived at my hotel, I had to laugh. The last time I saw my father, he, too, was driving a black Cadillac. He had just arrived in Los Angeles from Phoenix, less than a year out of prison after serving a nearly 25-year sentence from that arrest in Queens. He patted the back of the car and smiled. “Love a Caddy,” he told me, “you can hide so much in their bodies.” Though he had just turned 63, nearly half of which he had spent in prison, he was back in the game he helped to create, trafficking marijuana out of Mexico, up through the Smuggler’s Highway, which runs from Nogales to Phoenix, a route my father told me he developed in 1967. As I wait at the diner, I look up to see the former agent approach. David Hoyt is himself now an old man, and though he spent the better part of the 1970s in a Catch Me If You Can game of chase with my father, he only remembers him with fondness. He smiles after we sit down and says, “I felt like I knew him better than anyone.”
In many ways, he’s right. Even as I began interviewing the men who worked with him, the women who loved him, and the agents who brought him down, one thing became clear: Dan McGuiness was only known in pieces; no one knew the whole story, certainly not me.
By the time my father was caught in 1981, he had developed some of the most important drug routes from Central and South America and across the Eastern Seaboard. Even as I research him for this article, I find a much older Rolling Stone piece about Operation Grouper, the DEA plot to take out the marijuana industry, which features him. As the 1982 article described my father, “a 36-year-old drug-smuggling kingpin named Dan McGuiness . . . had a penchant for ordering up Learjets on short notice.”
Dan McGuiness was a slight but handsome Irish Italian American with tight black curls and a style that made people think that he came from the wealthy part of Connecticut, not the working-class neighborhood in Bridgeport where he grew up. His father worked as a country-club bartender in one of the wealthier towns of Fairfield County, which America’s blue bloods have long called home. By the time I was born in 1977, he had amassed a fortune fit for a kingpin, with houses in Jamaica, Florida, Connecticut, and the Hamptons, where we shared a property with the founder of Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner.
He had a beautiful wife and a young daughter, and though my mother lived in fear of what could happen if things broke bad, my father promised her that they never would.
And Daddy was right, until he wasn’t. As former agent Hoyt explains the FBI’s drug-enforcement strategy in the late Sixties and early Seventies: “Thing was, nobody cared about marijuana in the 1970s,” Hoyt tells me. “There were no DEA funds to really investigate it. I wasn’t being put on planes to find your dad; I just had to call around, letting other agents know, ‘I think he’s in your town.’ ”
But then Ronald Reagan won the White House in 1980, and everything changed. According to the Rolling Stone article, Operation Grouper was, at the time, “the most elaborate and effective infiltration job ever brought off by a federal enforcement agency.” By the end of it, more than 155 smugglers would be arrested. My father would be just one of them, but what many didn’t know was that for nearly 20 years he had been helping to build the drug trade that finally brought him down. As Hoyt tells me, “He was by far one of the biggest marijuana smugglers in the 1970s . . . the crazy part was that more people didn’t know about him.”
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Learjets, Mistresses, and Bales of Weed: My Dad’s Life as a Drug Kingpin