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Marijuana smuggler dies after 40 years on the run

Crime does not pay, unless you are good at it.

Looking at today's jail population, it's hard to believe that in the 1970s the maximum sentence for possessing tractor-trailer loads of marijuana was five years in prison.

Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. in a 1970s booking photo and more recently in Australia. (Images from Tampa Bay Times article)

Now, it's possible to get life for selling $20 worth of weed .

It wasn't always this way.

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In 1974, marijuana smuggler and alleged fisherman Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. was indicted in Florida after being caught with 9 tons of leafy green on the Steinhatchee River in Dixie County. Nine tons of marijuana sounds like a lot, but that was only half of what Stansel, then 37, was helping drug dealers move to big cities in the U.S. when he was arrested.

The man described as a "pirate" and a "soldier of fortune" could also have been described as "very wealthy." He has $25,000 in cash on him when arrested, receipts for Rolex watches and checks for a Swiss bank account.

He was granted a $500,000 bond and paid it with a cashier's check.

Then, he went scuba diving in Honduras.

On New Year's Eve, Stansel was reported missing. His girlfriend and other witnesses said he fell off a boat and was never seen again. Investigators didn't believe the story and actively looked for him for years.

They didn't find him until 40 years later when a Tampa Bay Times reporter called and told them the fugitive had died in a pickup truck accident in Australia.

The story is amazing for a number of reasons -- and makes me think New York prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat may be a long way away from the cabin where police say they found DNA.

Stansel  -- who was living in Australia as tour boat operator Dennis "Lee" Lafferty -- seems to have not had much trouble starting his new life. He initially tried to sail from Honduras to Australia, but his girlfriend got sick, so he landed in Venezuela, then flew to Peru, Tahiti and eventually north Queensland, which has a climate very similar to Florida.

In northern Australia, he designed and built a 53-foot sailboat, then a nice home along a river. In 1987, he started the Daintree River Cruise Centre and began offering boat trips on the crocodile-filled river surrounded by a dense rain forest, the Times reports.

In the 1980s, police said looking for Stansel was like "chasing a phantom."

Police should have tried chasing his girlfriend, who married Stansel in 1975.

"I came in under my own name,'' said the girlfriend, Janet Wood, recently. "I was not being investigated.'

I'm not an investigator, but I think I would have expanded my search to include the fugitive's girlfriend.

By all accounts, Lafferty -- I mean Stansel -- was a good citizen of Australia. There was "an outpouring of grief in the town" after the news broke of his death, according to local journalists.

Equally bad at finding Stansel was the family he left behind in Florida, who I assume got an insurance check after his "death."

His ex-wife Mildred died in 2009, his mother in 2004. Both obits mentioned Stansel and said he was dead.

His two sons are in federal prison for importing cocaine. One of the sons, Raymond G. Stansel III, was on the run for 20 years and lived in Alaska while being married to a police officer.

A police officer tasked with smoking out the 1970s marijuana smuggler said he could still recall details of Stansel's case.

"It is forever emblazoned in my mind,'' the former investigator said. "When we locked on to them, they were like pirates. They started in Tarpon Springs poor and made a hell of a lot of money.''

It's just like the American dream, I guess. Only living in Australia under another name.

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