Miami-Dade County

Old teammates face off in Miami drug wars: ESPN retells a Herald story

Wrestlers Kevin Pederson, at 108 pounds, and Alex DeCubas, at 188 pounds, in 1976.
Wrestlers Kevin Pederson, at 108 pounds, and Alex DeCubas, at 188 pounds, in 1976. Courtesy of

When the cocaine cowboys turned Miami into America’s drug smuggling capital in the mid-1970s, it also transformed the lives of two high school wrestling stars at Palmetto High School.

Alex DeCubas and Kevin Pedersen shared steely toughness, a fierce will to win and near flawless wrestling records. Together, they were senior co-captains who led the Pinecrest school's powerhouse squad to the state championship.

But they were polar opposites in almost every other way. Pedersen, one of the team’s smallest wrestlers, was a studious introvert who won with relentless training. DeCubas, a heavyweight, was a larger-than-life presence whose uncanny strength and balance were a natural gift. And, in a turn that reflected the powerful forces fast changing Miami’s image, they wound up on opposite sides of the drug war.

DeCubas grew into a cocaine kingpin, pioneering the use of mother ships to smuggle in 77,000 pounds of cocaine worth more than a half-billion-dollars before fleeing the country with a law enforcement task force on his heels. Pedersen became a drug agent in the same federal agency that was trying to track down his old team mate.

At 8 p.m. Monday, ESPN will air an hour-long documentary on the wrestlers called “Pin-Kings” on the ESPN 2 channel. It follows a 16-part podcast the network began rolling out earlier this month. A takeout is also planned for ESPN The Magazine.

The story was first detailed more than 19 years ago in The Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, Tropic. The sport network’s podcast largely covers the same ground — though with considerable additional background, new details and updates that emerged after DeCubas was extradited from Colombia to Miami in 2003, ending 13 years on the lam.

It includes commentary from family, friends and fellow smugglers who refused to speak while DeCubas was on the run. Pin-King’s biggest surprise, according to gossip.extra.com columnist Jose Lambiet, is that after his release from prison, DeCubas has renewed an unlikely friendship with Pedersen.

Below is a republication of the The Herald's original March 1997 story by staff writer Curtis Morgan, a classmate of Pedersen and DeCubas:

 

Wrestling Alex

They picked a bad time to try to cheat Alex DeCubas. He'd lost a huge haul — at least three tons of coke worth $45 million — in the bust of his mother ship. He'd been forced to flee his home town. And now he'd discovered that in the confusion two trusted pals had ripped off two tons of blow, the only stuff that got through.

He used his girlfriend as the lure — a striking ex-stripper and Jell-O-wrestler who investigators nicknamed "Nicki the Knife" for the time she supposedly gutted a guy in Chicago. Nicki asked the men to a Miami warehouse on the pretense of needing help with a waterbike. They found a little surprise behind the door -- two Colombians aiming machine guns.

There was a loud burst . . . but no blood, not this time. The terrified men fled and would soon return the dope.

It wasn't a hit but a message: You don't mess with Alex.

Pair of Aces

As high-school heroes, they made an unlikely pair.

Kevin Pedersen, small and almost scrawny, quiet, straighter than the proverbial arrow. Alex DeCubas, big and burly, boisterous, a renowned roughneck.

One thing united them: Wrestling. They pursued it with uncanny dual success. They started at Palmetto Junior High, where they were co-captains and never lost. They finished in 1976 at Palmetto Senior as co-captains and undefeated state champions — Kevin at 108 pounds, Alex at 188.

Each suffered a single defeat in their careers, as juniors in the same state semi-finals. Their names and pictures appeared together in dozens of local newspaper articles, even Sports Illustrated. They were elected to Palmetto's Hall of Fame.

Twenty-some years later, they remain linked by a different, dangerous sport — narcotics smuggling. This time, they are on opposing teams.

Pedersen would go to West Point, then become a special agent for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami.

DeCubas would rise from an ambitious thug who specialized in thieving drugs from other dealers to become one of the state's biggest traffickers.

It is a confounding irony that two kids so closely linked by heroism on the wrestling mat could have gone in such dramatically opposite directions. But Alex and Kevin were the product of a unique place and time — South Florida in the cocaine cowboy era, when easy money, ravenous greed and moral ambivalence blurred the lines between good and evil, friend and foe.

Primetime Player

In late 1990, when prosecutors began unveiling a string of federal indictments that would crumble DeCubas' cocaine kingdom, he'd already fled Miami.

There was no arrest. No showy trial. DeCubas escaped with only brief mention — fugitive Palmetto grad — in a few news stories. The intriguing details went unreported: Powerboats with powder-packed secret compartments, $6 million cold cash in cardboard boxes, daring double-crosses, an odd flight to freedom aboard a motorhome.

James Burke, a Boca Raton police detective assigned to a United States Customs Service team that helped crack his ring, figures DeCubas was responsible for smuggling 77,000 pounds of cocaine worth upwards of a half-billion dollars into the U.S. over a decade. And that's the conservative estimate.

DeCubas' boss, a Colombian named Julio Cesar Nasser David based in the northern coastal city of Barranquilla, was one of the world's biggest traffickers, an originator of "mother ships, " pot-packed freighters that dumped bales into speedboats off Florida in the 1970s. In the early '80s, he switched to the more profitable product of cocaine.

And DeCubas became Nasser David's "right-hand man, " a top stateside lieutenant, says Paul Pelletier, an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami who prosecuted many of the 78 people who have been convicted in the operation. DeCubas organized transportation for the incoming cocaine, directed a money-laundering operation and headed a distribution network that spanned South Florida, Ocala, Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte, N.C., Columbia, S.C., Louisiana and Canada and Europe. He was a regular cocaine CEO.

Though DeCubas hasn't been tried, there seems scant doubt about his dealings. Every investigator and prosecutor interviewed about the case considers DeCubas a cocaine kingpin. In voluminous federal court documents in Miami and West Palm Beach, associate after associate fingers him as a primetime player.

 
Kevin Pederson stands in front of DeCubas, far right, among other inductees to Palmetto High’s Hall of Fame in 1976.

But Alex DeCubas had been a legend long before he'd run his first load of dope — the biggest, baddest boy on campus as far back as Coral Reef Elementary.

He owed much of his mystique to physical prowess and a fiercely competitive demeanor. In grade school, when everybody else's arms and legs resembled smooth sticks, his fairly rippled. As a star pitcher in Suniland's little leagues, he wasn't shy about whizzing that big-kid fastball at your ear.

It sounds like common stuff and probably is — there's an Alex DeCubas or two at every school — but it carved an impression. He shaped himself into someone few wanted to challenge.

"The guy hated losing, oh man, he hated losing, " says Andrew DeWitt, a wrestling teammate who was close with DeCubas in high school and college.

As early as ninth grade, he awed the press. Vin Mannix, a sports writer for the now defunct South Dade News Leader, wrote, "The staggering fact about this youngster is this: Except for last season's championship match, DeCubas has NEVER wrestled beyond the first period the last two years. He has pinned everyone he faced."

In his first year of high school, he gave Barry Zimbler, who coached him as a wrestler and football player, "perhaps one of the great moments of my life."

Though Zimbler had produced some of Dade's best wrestling teams, the school had never won the state title. Going into the final match, Palmetto needed not just a win but a pin to finish No. 1. It all rode on DeCubas, a 188-pound sophomore, facing a favored senior.

 
Barry Zimbler, the former wrestling coach at Palmetto Hich School of DEA agent Kevin Pederson and drug trafficker Alex DeCubas when they were state wrestling champions in 1976. Patrick Farrell – Miami Herald file

Time dwindling in the last period, Alex flipped his foe on his back. Zimbler, now an assistant principal at Robert Morgan Vocational Technical Institute, still gets emotional about it.

"I thought I was going to have a heart attack for God's sake. 'You've got to pin him, Alex!' And when that kid did it . . . I'm getting tears in my eyes now thinking about this . . . to be a clutch player and get that pin when the entire team championship was on the line was incredible as a sophomore."

Of such stuff are legends made.

"Everything athletic came easy to him, " says Amy Doddridge, his high-school sweetheart, who now lives upstate but remains close to DeCubas' family. "That body of his — he wasn't in the gym 24 hours a day. That was natural."

I’m getting tears in my eyes now thinking about Alex to be a clutch player and then get that pin when the entire team championship was on the line was incredible.

Coach Barry Zimbler

In 1974, The Herald labeled DeCubas "super soph." His senior year, he was Dade wrestler of the year and all-county defensive lineman. He still holds the school mark for tournament victories.

DeCubas wasn't towering, just 5-foot-10, but thick — "legs like sequoias, " says Zimbler. He was also tremendously strong, quick and gifted with such superb balance that, even doubled-teamed on the football field, he was rarely knocked down. And there was that almost inexplicable power to intimidate.

"He just built this persona about himself where people feared him. Kids that wrestled him, even though he didn't look a giant of a man, had this fear of Alex and Alex always came through."

Opposites Attack

For little Kevin Pedersen, success came harder. It probably meant more, too.

The family hailed from Iowa, seat of the sport — his father, brother, uncle, all Pedersen men wrestled. "I felt then that I was put on this Earth to wrestle."

Other than a relentless will to win, Pedersen and DeCubas were poles apart — in style as well as size.

Alex didn't need a lot of moves. Kevin learned them all. Alex psyched out opponents. Kevin outsmarted them. When Alex did the school social scene, a bar or party, on a Friday night, Kevin would be jogging or working out alone.

"Everything I gained in wrestling, I gained through sweat, " Pedersen says. "I spent every day at the gym, every day at the track. Alex would come from football practice, step on the mat and win. That's just the way it was."

Kevin's record nearly mirrored Alex's and while they often shared the spotlight, Kevin, naturally introverted, didn't capture attention like Alex. But who did?

As opposite as they were, they grew close, at least as teammates. In junior high, Alex quickly assumed the role of unspoken protector for a kid little more than half his weight.

"Everybody pretty much knew that you just don't say anything or do anything to Pedersen because DeCubas was always there, " Pedersen says. "It was a confidence thing for me. We were becoming friends in a sense but we never hung out because he ran with a little different crowd and I didn't run with any crowd."

That was the engaging side of Alex; he'd stick up for the little guy. He could also be a great friend, says DeWitt, who says Alex was there for him when Dewitt's father was killed during wrestling season one year. "I can remember Alex really going out of his way for me."

The guy Doddridge loved was funny, warm, sweet — somebody who hugged and kissed his parents daily. "There was nobody I could count on more than him."

His coaches knew about his tough-guy reputation, but on the football field or the wrestling mat, DeCubas was golden: Yes, sir. No, sir. No back talk. No attitude.

"Whatever I asked of him, he'd do, " says Don Dorshimer, his junior high wrestling coach. "Whatever was expected of him between the two of us, I always received over a 100 percent." Zimbler echoes that: "A coach's dream."

 
While wrestling champions, Pederson and DeCubas’ names and pictured appeared often in dozens of local newspaper articles, even in Sports Illustrated.

But if he could be the good son, student, buddy and boyfriend, Alex also played the bad boy role well.

While he wasn't known as a bully, he did relish his role as intimidator. There was always a nagging concern Alex might kick your butt for some reason, a fear fired by regular stories of him whipping up on some unnamed, possibly mythical unfortunate, at a Crandon Park beer-bash or somebody's keg party.

But friends recall few verified fights.

Grant Miller, who grew up as neighbor to DeCubas and Pedersen and now publishes community newspapers in South Florida, remembers getting hassled in a club once, by a guy who happened to be a drunken friend. "Alex had no clue what was happening and he came over and — Bam! — just cleaned that guy's clock."

In 10th grade — even as he became a wrestling phenom — DeCubas and three friends tossed a tear gas bomb into their old school, Palmetto Junior. Fifty people went to the hospital. The boys confessed to swiping the bomb from a friend whose father was a cop. They said they thought it was a simple smoke bomb. They got off with a short stint at a school for delinquents.

DeWitt speculates that Alex's motivation was the pure thrill of an adrenaline rush — the same reason he loved competition. He drove his Jeep like a madman, says DeWitt, and notably enjoyed running over mailboxes.

"Alex thought he was invincible. Alex went out there on the mat, anywhere, and really thought he was invincible. He probably took that into his professional life."

Birth of a Cold Heart

When DeWitt joined DeCubas in 1977 for his second year on the University of Georgia wrestling team, Alex looked tougher than ever. "In the wrestling room, he just killed everybody."

He'd come off a solid season his first year on scholarship and seemed focused on becoming a collegiate champion. He was still wild, partying nonstop, but that was no different than half the Athens student body. In September, DeWitt got a call from back home — Alex's father had killed himself. Alex was drunk when DeWitt gave him the bad news.

Luis DeCubas was a familiar figure at Palmetto. The owner of a men's clothing store in Coral Gables, Don Luis, he advertised in football programs and always cut a flamboyant figure at games and matches. It wasn't just his clothes that drew attention. He cheered his son madly, stalking about, always shouting.

His suicide was well planned. He sent his lone salesman off to deliver a letter. He retreated to his office, sat at his desk, took out a blue steel Walther .32-caliber automatic, put the gun to his chest and fired. The medical examiner's report began, "This is the body of a well-dressed white male . . ."

He wrote 17 separate letters to family and friends — blaming failing business and rising debts. Alex's began this way: "To Alex, my beloved son the Tiger, "

"Do not let anybody make you think I was a coward because I took my own life, because believe me, my beloved son, it takes more courage to pull a trigger against yourself than face people not respecting you because you owe them money. I will be watching you from Heaven, protecting you not to be hurt."

Alex once showed the letter to DeWitt. It went on for pages. He recalls one theme: Luis DeCubas wanted his son to become rich and successful.

It was like the air got sucked out of Alex when his fathers suicide happened. If Alex’s dad were still alive, I don’t think he’d have gotten into any of this.

Amy Doddridge, high-school sweetheart

Doddridge, DeWitt and others believe the suicide radically changed DeCubas. He went from a crazy but warmhearted kid to a man chilly at the center.

"It was like the air got sucked out of him when it happened, " says Doddridge, who after the suicide moved to Athens to be with him. "If Alex's dad were still alive, I don't think he'd have gotten into any of this. He wouldn't have disappointed his father."

For a time, DeCubas rebounded. He wanted to be an architect, DeWitt says, and spent days drawing his own dream house. He raised homing pigeons that, to his remorse, never returned from the test flight. But fighting a knee injury, he stopped wrestling. He lost drive, then his scholarship. He quit school.

DeWitt, trying to help, got him a job working the warehouse and sales counter of his family's tool supply company. Alex returned to Miami in the summer of 1979. In July, a squad of Colombians with machine guns splattered four people across a liquor store in the Dadeland Mall, killing two of them — perhaps the most infamous drug slayings in Dade history.

It’s a South Florida story. We came through high school at the period of time when drugs hit this area so hard and the ability for guys to make fast money was incredible.

Kevin Pedersen

The cocaine cowboys were riding high.

But they badly needed help — people who knew the turf, who had circulated with the young, rich types who snorted their product at parties and in the toilet stalls of trendy clubs. DeCubas arrived back home the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"It's a South Florida story, " Pedersen says. "We came through high school at the period of time when drugs hit this area so hard and the ability for guys to make fast money was incredible.

"And if you're talking about Alex DeCubas, who was Spanish-speaking, who came out of the rich, uppity-uppity section where we grew up, it was all sitting there waiting for him if he wanted to be involved in it."

Paper Bullets

Sam Frontera had dabbled as a small-time pot peddler in Detroit. He'd come to South Florida looking for bigger scores, hooking up with a dope dealer who ran a jewelry shop.

Frontera bought some equipment at a tool company and hit it off with the counter clerk, a guy named Alex. Soon they would develop a mutual interest, Frontera testified in a 1993 trial: Drug trafficking.

Within months, they'd stolen 200,000 Quaaludes from somebody DeCubas knew — a deal that netted each $100,000.

Small stuff — but enough to offer an intoxicating glimpse of living large. Doddridge, the high-school sweetheart, gave way to a flashy new flame with expensive tastes. DeCubas began hitting the clubs almost nightly. DeWitt knew something was up but didn't get a good picture until Alex asked him to pick him up at the airport one day.

"Alex said, 'We drove to Michigan and we ripped this guy off.' I'm thinking, 'You're nuts.' I said, 'I don't want anything to do with this. You could go to jail for this.' "

DeCubas wasn't purely driven by greed — at least not yet, DeWitt believes. "With Alex, it was the adventure, the excitement of it."

But the joyride ended fast. In 1981, DeCubas and another younger Palmetto graduate were indicted in Fort Lauderdale for selling 26,000 Quaaludes to undercover agents for $26,000. He got six years, serving two in federal prisons in Pensacola and West Virginia, and returned a hard-core con.

Prison provided DeCubas a network of narcotics connections, says Louis Feher, a cousin of Frontera's.

It’s like you could shoot at Alex and it would be paper bullets to him. He had the total concept that he was invincible.

Louis Feher

"Alex knew more people than probably were in the Miami phone directory, " says Feher, who spoke from federal prison camp in Pensacola, where he has a year to go on a sentence for his part in DeCubas' ring. "He knew everybody, where to go see people that knew other top people that were down in South America."

DeCubas and Frontera jumped back into ripping off other drug dealers, the building blocks for a fast-growing partnership. The high-risk occupation could turn huge profits. Their last rip-off in 1988 — from a 56-foot yacht called the Dirty Dancing at the marina of the old Castaways resort near Sunny Isles — netted nearly 1,000 pounds of cocaine worth at least $6 million.

"They decided that it would be easier to do something if you cut out the middle man, " says detective Burke, part of the U.S. Customs Service team that cracked his drug ring. "What are these guys going to do, call the cops?"

If his victims — dangerous people — ever figured out DeCubas was responsible, and some of them likely did, that didn't seem to worry him. He approached business much the way he'd once faced wrestling foes, Feher says — absolutely no fear.

"It's like you could shoot at Alex and it would be paper bullets to him. He had the total concept that he was invincible."

Orgies and Violence

DeCubas' drug dealings didn't escape notice among his old high-school buddies.

The most obvious signs was the mounting toy count: several homes in tony North Miami Beach and Miami Beach waterfront neighborhoods, snazzy rides — the red Corvette with the special high-powered ZR-1 engine, the Mercedes 6.9, the mint vintage '56 Thunderbird — boats, Jet Skis, cash.

"You didn't have to be in the DEA to know Alex was a major guy with cocaine in South Florida, " Pedersen says. "Everybody who graduated from our high school that knew anything about any friends that were associated with Alex, knew this stuff was going on."

Some friends, including DeWitt, stopped seeing him. Others just didn't ask where all the stuff came from. And others went along for the ride and the glamour — the idea of smuggling viewed almost as a romantic fantasy, like playing modern-day buccaneer.

Dorshimer, DeCubas' junior high coach, tried to get answers about DeCubas' fancy new clothes and cars. Alex was friends with his son, Don Jr., and had been a frequent houseguest.

"I pointedly asked friends of his about it and they said, 'You don't want to know, just leave it be.' "

Dorshimer, who retains a deep affection for DeCubas, pressed, asking his son to set up a talk. "Alex wouldn't see me. I said to my son, 'What the hell is the matter with the guy?' He said, 'Dad, he's a little embarrassed. He doesn't know what to say to you now.' "

Doddridge says she didn't detect any big change the times she saw DeCubas. He'd married, had a son. She can't recall any big show of wealth. But she admits that DeCubas was the kind of guy who would have taken care to keep her and his family, particularly his 71-year-old mother who still lives in North Miami Beach, insulated and unaware of his business. "His mom can only go by things that she hears now, " Doddridge says. "She can't believe this is her son."

If DeCubas showed one face to some friends, he had others — some ugly. Feher, his former associate, who lived with DeCubas and his family for six months early in Alex's drug career, says he increasingly took a brutish bend.

"He was very rude and crude, very primitive with women, " Feher says. "He used to beat women, sexually, all kinds of things. He'd like go crazy. He had no respect for nothing or nobody."

DeCubas and others pursued the high life with fervor, Feher says, and it showed: He packed on pounds — part muscle, part bulk — taking on a shape that had some of his pals calling him "Buddha Man, " at least behind his back.

"Alex was into drinking. Alex was into coke. Alex was into anything — wild parties, orgies, you name it."

 
Alex DeCuba’s 1985 Florida driver’s license photo. DeCubas pursued the high life with fervor and it showed: He packed on pounds taking on a shape that had some of his pals calling him “Buddha Man,” at least behind his back.

By early 1986, DeCubas had hooked up with Julio Nasser David and begun moving away from pot, pills and rip-offs. He assembled a small fleet of boats and captains, bringing in regular loads of Colombian cocaine — 900 to 1,200 pounds each — that been smuggled into the Bahamas, usually by plane. DeCubas, as the organizer, cleared $800,000 from each load, he once told a federal informant.

Business was booming. Frontera acquired a 50-acre farm in isolated horse country near Ocala that became a distribution hub. They renovated a huge nightclub on Chicago's tough North Side, The Riviera, and later, an amphitheater — good for rock music, great for laundering money.

Within two years, DeCubas had risen so high among Nasser David's lieutenants he found himself handling the single biggest source of cocaine into South Florida at the time — the mother ship Nerma. The 236-foot Danish freighter made its first run from Colombia to the Bahamas in June 1988, hauling a typical load of about 10,000 pounds of cocaine. Once the ship arrived, DeCubas' job was to unload the stuff, bring it into South Florida and pump it through the distribution network. And he did it with great skill.

"When Alex was doing business, he wasn't partying, he wasn't drinking, he was solid, " says Pelletier. "That's what made him so good."

The Other Guy

As Alex DeCubas was reaching his peak of success, Kevin Pedersen was in a lull, pondering his future.

He'd performed well at West Point, although academic demands had quickly ended his wrestling career. After graduation, he'd done his duty, serving as a platoon leader in Georgia. But by 1983, still in the reserves, he'd returned to South Florida and found himself managing a chain of tire stores owned by his wife's family .

He was, he says, "making a ton of money" but peddling radials wasn't close to the sort of calling he'd envisioned. His marriage also was coming to an end. (He has since happily remarried.)

In 1989, he applied to the DEA, becoming a special agent two years later.

Pedersen, a deeply religious man, says he wanted to repay a country that had paid for his education but also to try to make the world a better place.

"I believe my children would be proud of what their father does and that's important. I really sought what God wanted me to do and I believe this is where he wanted me to be. If I thought God wanted Kevin Pedersen to be a schoolteacher, I'd be a schoolteacher."

As an agent, he has done street work and helped lead a number of investigations in South Florida. He expects to soon enter undercover work but not in any bad guy roles — he's so clean cut, nobody would believe it.

Pedersen knew all about DeCubas when he joined the DEA, but he did not become an agent to track him. In fact, he has made a choice to stay out of the investigation of his old teammate.

But, practically speaking, he couldn't escape the DeCubas case if he wanted. Pedersen lives near Palmetto. He has grown used to the inevitable question: "So, you seen Alex?"

If Alex called me and said he needed me, I’d help him. I’d just be sure I was wearing a chest protector.

Grant Miller, childhood neighbor

Pedersen understands the fascination. He's a do-gooder — two decades later, an even more extreme opposite of DeCubas — and as any actor knows, the villain's role is often the most complex and compelling.

Like many of his old friends, Dorshimer, the junior high coach, still holds deep affection for DeCubas. "If he was in the islands, I'd fly there to see him, " Dorshimer says. He believes Alex simply got consumed by the tough-guy persona he'd formed as a kid. "He was in sports that were aggressive and he was taught his whole life to be aggressive but nobody told him how to stop."

For others, there's even a twisted sort of pride: At an elite school that produced plenty of lawyers, doctors and rich execs, Alex DeCubas probably rose as high as anyone — notable even if his profession was not an admirable one.

Grant Miller believes he's almost a folk hero to some, "like Al Capone. Everybody looked up to Al Capone."

"If Alex called me and said he needed me, I'd help him, " Miller says. "I'd just be sure I was wearing a chest protector."

The half-joke wouldn't seem so funny to Kevin Pedersen. He knows too much to think of his old friend's violent, reckless life as romantic or admirable. In his drug investigations, he has run across too many familiar names from Palmetto — beyond the many who worked with DeCubas. And he knows there are others who even today aspire to become the next Alex.

"I can run into some classmates, who knows where, and I'll have people come up to me and say, 'Are you wearing a wire?' These are people that I have a very good suspicion are involved in something they shouldn't be involved in."

But that's the way it was — South Florida, circa 1976. "It's a sad, sad indictment on our high-school days."

Pinned

In June 1988, DeCubas' operation sprung the first serious leaks.

Bahamian police, acting on tips from the DEA, stopped a boat called the Lucy J off Freeport with 1,307 pounds of cocaine secreted in the ceiling. A few days later, Boca Raton police seized a 32-footer named Lassie behind a home in the posh Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club with 1,421 pounds of cocaine hidden, again, in the ceiling.

Both were loads from the mother ship Nerma's first voyage. The arrests would provide leads that would finally sink both the Nerma and DeCubas.

Fifteen months later, on the ship's seventh cocaine run, the Nerma, four boats and some 2,700 pounds of cocaine were seized along with their crews. Soon, nearly everybody was naming names.

Things crumbled fast. Seven months later, April 1990, federal agents tracked two of DeCubas' men from a Northwest Dade mall to a nearby home owned by one of DeCubas' chief money handlers. Police found nearly $6 million in 15 boxes in the master bedroom, money bound for Nasser David. In July 1991, his partner Frontera was arrested after agents unearthed a cache of buried cocaine at the Ocala ranch.

But before anybody could close in on DeCubas, he disappeared. In mid-1990, DeCubas and a few of his closest pals fled Miami using the most unlikely of getaway vehicles — a luxury motorhome, a diesel-powered brown- and cream-colored Wanderlodge.

They embarked on what detective Burke calls "The Great Western Tour, " sort of a farewell jaunt across America. The crew included David Lemieux, DeCubas' No. 2 man; Tom O'Donnell, a cocaine loader; and Nicki, DeCubas' Jell-O-wrestling, bodybuilding girlfriend.

On the way out of Florida, they may have hit Daytona Beach for bike week. Then it was off through the Badlands, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and San Diego. U.S. marshals, Pelletier says, were often "a warm cup of coffee behind."

By fall, they'd wound their way to Tijuana, where Lemieux and O'Donnell split off. DeCubas left the following day. The stripper and the Wanderlodge eventually wandered back to Miami.

Two tears later, Lemieux and O'Donnell would be arrested in England after sailing a yacht with more than 175 pounds of cocaine across the Atlantic. And FBI agents would stop Nicki at the 163rd Street Mall. They found $99,800 stuffed into an orange bag behind the driver seat of her white Jeep Cherokee, a vehicle DeCubas bought for $20,000 cash. Court files show she, too, soon was cooperating.

But investigators have never been able to land DeCubas himself. In Colombia, the American fugitive has friends in high places, and an enormous amount of money. After DeCubas' decades in dope, federal prosecutor Pelletier says, "to say he has in the hundreds of millions, would not be an exaggeration."

Life on the lam apparently hasn't slowed him. Investigators say he has settled into Colombia and into the drug hierarchy. At one point, he was reportedly working for the notorious (and now dead) Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar.

"The word in Colombia is that he's absolutely ruthless, " says Pelletier.

Near Misses

For the people pursuing him, DeCubas is gone but most assuredly not forgotten.

In Pelletier's office, there's a small but telling display. Last June, Pelletier received the U.S. Attorney General's Award for Distinguished Service — one of the highest honors for a federal prosecutor. He won it for his work in breaking up the DeCubas ring and helping seize some $200 million of Nasser David's proceeds from 17 secret Swiss bank accounts in 1994 — the largest cash seizure in U.S. history.

The award, fashioned of a clear acrylic, sits amid pictures, memorabilia and other honors on a cluttered bookshelf. Staring from behind it are the pale hazel eyes of Alex DeCubas — a picture pasted there by Pelletier.

"The award feels sort of a hollow until he's brought to justice, " he says.

Despite DeCubas' considerable skill at eluding them, investigators believe he will eventually run out of luck.

In 1993, Colombian authorities detained him in Cartagena, but he apparently bought his freedom. A year later, he'd been traced to Bogota but fled the night before authorities planned to seize him.

One of the best hopes for capturing him may be homesickness. DeCubas has friends and family, including his son, in South Florida. He has nearly been caught several times trying to slip back into this country. Once, a Palm Beach County sheriff's agent sat across from him in a bar — but hadn't yet learned he'd been indicted. Police in Tennessee once pulled him over for a traffic stop, but sent him on his way after he gave them a phony ID.

Pedersen holds out the slim hope — maybe with Alex it might not be that crazy — that he'll pick up the phone one day and Alex will be on the other end. "If Alex was going to call anybody in the DEA to do maybe the right thing, I think it would be me. He'd at least know he was talking to someone he could trust."

Doing Everything Right

When Alex DeCubas rushed toward him that night at a University of Miami football game, Barry Zimbler wasn't sure how to react. A decade had passed since they'd talked and Zimbler had heard the dark drug tales.

It was six or seven years ago, Zimbler can't recall exactly, when the heat on DeCubas must have been so intense he could feel it through the soles of his cowboy boots.

"He saw me and came running up to me. If I didn't know Alex, I think I would have been scared."

DeCubas looked menacing — shaved head, burlier than ever, "almost like an assassin." But he wrapped his powerful arms around his old coach and kissed him right there in the Orange Bowl stands. They talked about the glory days. Both men, two tough guys, were soon teary-eyed.

Then DeCubas offered up a confession of sorts.

"He said, 'Coach, I'm so sorry.' He told me he was sorry for everything bad he'd done in his lifetime. He told me -- he had his young son with him — 'I'm going to do everything right, I've got a kid now.' Of course, when you believe in somebody, you want to believe in somebody. I said, 'Alex, I'm glad to hear that you're going to try to straighten out your life. You know I've always loved you.' "

Zimbler didn't probe — it wasn't the time. "I said, 'Well, let's get together and we'll sit and talk. He said, 'OK, coach, you know I will. I want to see you.' He was so gracious and warm. He was like the Alex I remembered."

He never saw or heard from Alex DeCubas again.

CURTIS MORGAN is a Herald staff writer and 1976 graduate of Palmetto High

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