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WHEN A DRUG INFORMANT IS ASSASSINATED, AND IT’S NOT THE LEAD STORY

If you work on an investigative news team, you’re almost always face-to-face with the underbelly of society. This was certainly the case the year I spent in Baton Rouge where I met sinners, a soon-to-be saint, and drug smugglers. There was the Catholic Church source who called every week to share information about pedophile priests, and in sharp contrast to that, the time I interviewed Mother Teresa about her work to help unwed mothers in Louisiana. The legislature started conversations that would eventually lead to legalized gambling in Louisiana. And oh, yea, our sitting governor was on trial for corruption. That’s right. He split his time between a federal courtroom in New Orleans and the statehouse in Baton Rouge. (It is shaped like a phallic symbol, which by the way, many believed to have been exactly what Huey Long, another corrupt governor from another era, intended.)



At that time, law enforcement was also engaged in a crackdown on the drug cartels. The agencies involved were more competitive than professional sports teams. Because of that, they fumbled in the mission -- and the consequences were deadly.


I remember the evening of February 19, 1986, vividly. I’d left work early for an appointment with a new hairdresser I wanted to try as he was highly recommended by many of the newswomen working in the market. There were pictures of a very stunning young woman surrounding his workspace.


“She’s really beautiful,” I said. “Is that your girlfriend? Is she a model?”


She was and she was, he told me, explaining that she’d died of a drug overdose a year earlier. We talked about his disdain for the drug trade, how prevalent it was in Louisiana, and how many lives it had ruined. Because he knew I was a reporter, our discussion invariably turned toward a nationally famous drug runner turned informant who lived in Baton Rouge. His name was Barry Seal. At that time, Seal was serving out the terms of a controversial sentence, one that allowed him to live freely about town, but required that he spend each night in a Salvation Army halfway house.


Seal was, depending on whom you believed, either the greatest informant ever to finger the Medellin Cartel, or a double-dipping witness who was still smuggling and keeping the profits, even as he testified against the bad guys. In one corner, you had the federal law enforcement agencies who engaged Seal, a fearless and highly skilled pilot, to work undercover flying planeloads of drugs from Columbia into the USA and capturing evidence against his powerful suppliers. In the other corner, you had state law enforcement agencies who thought that not all the drugs or cash that left Columbia on Seal’s planes made its way into the government’s hands.


Indeed, in his heyday, Seal fronted an elaborate operation. He had moved his operations from Baton Rouge around 1980 to a small town called Mena in Arkansas. He had a hangar there where he kept his fleet, including a huge C-123K cargo plane. As he returned from smuggling flights and approached the Mena airport, packages of drugs and money were dropped from the air onto properties below where they were picked up by operatives. After Seal became an informant in 1984, the C-123 was equipped with hidden cameras, to capture evidence the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime was a major supplier of the drugs coming into the USA from Columbia. (President Ronald would hold up one of those photos in an address to the nation in late 1986, during which he assured the American people that a significant dent was being made in the war on drugs.)Local law enforcement agencies complained bitterly that their efforts to investigate the drug trafficking at Mena airport, were blocked by federal agencies.


The conflicting beliefs about Seal played out between two of the top rival TV newsrooms in Baton Rouge, too. Our station had solid state government sources and questioned how Seal could lead a double life so obviously. The other big station in town had spent a great deal of time with Seal himself and reported on his effectiveness as a federal informant. I was conflicted as I’d moved to Baton Rouge from the Las Vegas market the summer before. My federal beat sources there had told me Seal was gold. They said they had a trial coming up in the fall of 85 , where he would testify, and they believed he’d bear fruit in the war on drugs. (They were right). In the hours he’d spent with Seal preparing for trial, one of my sources in particular got to know him well and proffered that Barry was trying to make up for his past and do the right thing for his country. And, they added, he was a proud dad and a regular guy.


He certainly seemed regular guy-ish to me when a colleague and I dropped by his home one day to get a comment on a new development in his case. If memory serves me, our knock on his door was unscheduled, but that didn’t faze the family. Seal’s wife Debbie warmly greeted us. “Honey,” she called. “Lynn Mathis is here from Channel 9.” While we waited for Seal, I took stock of their home. Expensive, but lived in. “Kid stuff” was all around and it looked like the couple that lived there doted on their little ones. Seal gave each of us a hearty handshake and answered a few of our questions but deflected most to his very capable attorney. My time as a reporter taught me to watch people’s eyes when they were being interviewed. His were down to earth and not shifty, nothing like the cold eyes of murdering mobsters I’d met in Vegas.


“He's just asking for it.”


But there were at least two sides to Barry Seal’s complicated life story. My hairdresser had grown up in Baton Rouge and, like many locals, didn’t see Seal as any hero. He told me that his parents owned property in a rural community and that when he was younger, he’d seen Seal’s planes coming and going. “Everyone” knew how he was using his talents as a pilot before he was arrested, and facing significant prison time, cut a deal with the office of Vice President George W. Bush to become an informant. The hairstylist believed that either the feds enabled Seal to continue to keep some of the profits of his smuggling trips, or that Seal was duping them.


I told him about a long weekend I’d spent in the Bahamas a few weeks before. On the beach, I met an American named Jerry. He said he owned a business that took tourists on fishing trips. But, he bragged, he also used his boats to move cocaine around for some local drug lords. I asked him whether he knew Barry Seal. Not personally, he told me, but had heard a lot about him.


“A lot of people want to kill Barry Seal,” Jerry said. “You know there’s a contract out on him.”


“Yea,” my hairdresser said as we settled up on my bill. “He should be in the Witness Protection Program. He’s not safe. He’s just asking for it.”


Driving home with the music blasting, I didn’t give another thought to the conversation I’d just had in the salon. Conversations like that were pretty common in those parts -- just another afternoon in the life of a reporter in Baton Rouge.


Little did I know then, though, that it was downright eerie – more foretelling than today’s predictive behavior technology.


I’d know why soon enough.


As I unlocked my back door, the pager hanging from my purse straps was vibrating. The landline in my kitchen was ringing.


“Lynn, it’s Connie.” She was our late news producer. “Barry Seal has been shot. He’s dead. They got him in front of the Salvation Army when he was about to go in for the night. I need you to come in and do the story for the 10.”


Did she need me to go to the scene? No, she told me. Our live truck was on another big story. We had plenty of video from the scene. Our videographers interviewed witnesses to the shooting, as well as law enforcement. They were on their way back in, and an editor was pulling some of the file video from previous stories we’d done about Barry Seal. “On my way,” I said.


Even in Seal’s death, the rivalry between my station and the other news leader in town played out in our coverage. When I came off the anchor desk, a colleague who’d watched both newscasts on side-by-side TVs in the newsroom told me that the competition had dubbed Seal “a swashbuckling soldier of fortune.” I’d called him “a smuggler turned snitch.”


Law enforcement agencies continued their bitter rivalry too, pointing the finger at each other for putting Seal in a position where he would become a target.


Some months after Seal was killed, I covered a hearing about him in New Orleans. A Louisiana state trooper testified emphatically that even while he worked with the DEA, Seal was still smuggling drugs and profiting handsomely.


On the way back to our studios, my videographer and I got bagged. Seeing the flashing blue lights behind our news car was an “Oh, shit!” moment, because at that station if you got a ticket, you paid for it. But when we turned around to look, the trooper getting out from behind the wheel was not in uniform. It was the same law enforcement officer, wearing a suit and tie, who’d testified not an hour earlier.


“Good afternoon,” he said, leaning in through our open window. “I just want to make sure you understood the significance of my testimony. Did you get what I said?”


“Yes, I said. You testified that Seal was still smuggling while he worked as a federal informant.”


“Right,” he said. “Report that.”


When I tell people to this day about being pulled over by a law enforcement officer who wanted to make sure I understood his testimony, they can’t believe it. But that, too, was just another afternoon in the life of a reporter in Baton Rouge.


Seal’s life story has been embellished in a couple of Hollywood movies. Watch American Made starring Tom Cruise if you love entertaining thrillers. If you want to learn more about Seal’s work with federal drug agencies, watch my competition’s 1986 documentary, Murder of a Witness, linked here. Back in the day, some of my colleagues took potshots at reporter John Camp for being “too close to Barry,” but I found this body of work to be well-researched and objective.


I was merely a voyeur in the coverage of Barry Seal, a reporter who lived in his hometown for a minute and happened to be there the night he was killed. His story is much more complex than the paragraphs I’ve posted to my blog.


While two cartel hitmen were arrested for the assassination and sent to prison, there are still, all these years later, many unanswered questions. And some not-so-far-fetched claims about cover-ups by powerful government leaders. Months after Seal was killed, his C-123 was shot down in Nicaragua. It was on duty for the CIA, carrying a load of ammunition for the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels. That revelation put Seal at the center of allegations that the operation was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House. Flying ammo down, getting paid, and bringing drugs back to America. That’s how legend has it that it worked in the 80s. And at the time Seal was smuggling drugs into Mena and local law enforcement was so frustrated its investigation was getting nowhere, Bill Clinton was the governor. He didn’t put any horses behind the request for an investigation calling it “primarily a federal matter.” (But later that year, Clinton’s friend Dan Lasater was indicted on cocaine trafficking charges, and his brother Roger was charged with cocaine possession in 1985.)


Famed Washington Post reporters Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta detailed some of Seal’s double-duty government informant work in a 1989 story, linked here. As recently as 2020, the FBI released a vault of new documents about the case, as reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, here.


Believe me, you can go down an online rabbit hole looking into this story. Your call. I’m not researching the whole story. I’m just telling you how it ended.


Postscript: Well, my headline said the assassination of Barry Seal was not the lead story on our top-rated 10 o’clock news that night. I’ve saved the reason for the postscript, otherwise known as burying the lede. Either a major accident or a severe weather incident – I don’t remember which – had taken out a transformer that afternoon. A substantial power outage resulted, impacting thousands and thousands of people and many businesses for hours. Over the course of the next couple of years, I had many spirited discussions with fellow news junkies about whether our producer picked the right lead. I was a little befuddled by the decision that night. But later when I went into news management, I learned to think big picture. And I can tell you absolutely, Connie made the right call.



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