For Mark Steven Phillips, three decades on the lam meant shuttling between Chile, Europe and New York City, with stays in luxury apartments, psychiatric hospitals and even on the streets.
On Wednesday, his roller-coaster life landed where he knew it would all along: in federal prison for marijuana smuggling.
Miami U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King sentenced Phillips, 62, to five years in prison for being an associate of the notorious Black Tuna smuggling gang of the mid-‘70s. Phillips had been a fugitive since he fled during trial in 1979.
Federal investigators finally captured him in January living in Century Village in West Palm Beach.
The judge followed the suggestion of defense attorney Edward Shohat, who argued that Phillips deserved leniency because of his long battle with bipolar disorder and his minimal involvement in the gang’s dealings. Phillips had faced up to life under sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors sought 15 years.
“Obviously, we’re very gratified. We think it was the right thing to do,” Shohat said of King’s decision. “Assuming his health holds up, he will have a life again.”
King was the same judge who presided over the Black Tuna gang’s original trial, billed then as the government’s largest-ever marijuana smuggling prosecution.
Authorities arrested Phillips and 13 others in 1979. The case pre-dated the cocaine boom of the early ‘80s that turned Miami into the bloodiest city in the country.
The Black Tuna moniker derived from the gang’s radio signal used for its drug supplier, a Colombian sugar and coffee grower named Raul Davila-Jimeno. The ring retrofitted yachts to deliver 500 tons of marijuana to U.S. shores, according to federal authorities.
But Phillips was a bit player in the gang, the son of a businessman who sold yachts to the ring’s key players, Shohat said.
“He was more a fishing buddy than anything else,” Shohat told the judge. “Basically what he did was socialize with them.”
Phillips was behind the bungled trip of a boat called the Naughty Girl-Presidential, which carried 40,000 pounds of marijuana but ran aground off the Bahamas. Judge King — who veered down memory lane several times — recalled that boat the shot off course when drunken crew members began cooking steaks and started a fire in the galley.
Phillips also organized a December 1977 failed marijuana run aboard a North Carolina-bound boat called the Osprey. He was convicted in North Carolina and sentenced to five years. He never served the term because he was indicted in Miami.
During trial here, Phillips fled to Chile, where he assumed a new identity, got married and started a successful seafood import-export business. Back in Miami, Phillips was convicted in absentia in February 1980 of racketeering, as well as possession and distribution of marijuana.
Overseas, Phillips bounced between Chile and Germany, and then New York, before finally entering the United States under his real name in 2010. When U.S. marshals caught up with him in January, he was living off Social Security checks in a rented apartment at the Century Village seniors’ community. He battled mental health issues in recent years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia R. Wood argued that Phillips was more heavily involved with the Black Tuna gang than his attorneys portrayed, saying there was evidence he helped smuggle an additional 20 tons of marijuana beyond the two trips that failed in the Bahamas and North Carolina.
“I don’t think that because the defendant has been a successful fugitive for so long that his conduct should be rewarded,” she told the judge.
Phillips’ Miami sentence will run at the same time as the five-year sentence imposed in North Carolina.
– Article originally from Miami Herald.