A notorious drug smuggler who was tried and convicted in the Southern District of Alabama in 1989 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison was granted freedom Monday, when U.S. District Court Judge William Steele unexpectedly granted his motion for compassionate release.
Richard “Dickie” Lynn, 65, was identified as the head of an organization responsible for smuggling at least 16,000 kilograms of cocaine — more than 17 tons — into the United States from Columbia via Belize in the 1980s. Initially, he entered the international drug trade by helping offload bales of marijuana from fishing boats in his native Florida Keys, but later Lynn took to flying single-engine aircraft full of cocaine to the swamps of Louisiana and eventually to a remote hunting camp west of Demopolis.There, Lynn and his co-defendants operated a complex smuggling operation for several years, involving state-of-the-art communications, logistics and even counterintelligence. But one day, a landing mishap left two pilots dead and dozens of bundles of cocaine smoldering and strewn across rural Sumter County. The Alabama Bureau of Investigation got involved and the scheme began to unravel.
Mobile attorney Dom Soto, who served on the defense team and published a book about Lynn in 2013, recalls the defendants as “Jimmy Buffet types, living in the Keys when it was the frontier and drug smuggling was rampant.” But as cocaine became an epidemic in the late ’70s and the Drug Enforcement Administration honed in on South Florida, smugglers looked elsewhere for transportation corridors.
“Mobile was at one point a big deal in dope prosecutions,” he said. “When Miami became too hot for drug dealers, [Lynn] started using other ways to get here. They got a couple pieces of land up there and orchestrated all these moving parts. They would schedule the flights, set up landing lights, offload the planes and make it all disappear in minutes.”
The prosecution, led by former U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gloria Bedwell, even found ties between Lynn and organized crime in New Orleans and Cuban freedom fighters. Sessions offered a plea deal — for life imprisonment — but Lynn took his chances and went to trial. He was found guilty on seven of 17 counts and sentenced to life anyway.
But then he escaped from a federal prison in Talladega. While he was a fugitive, the case went to appeals. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, and ordered his co-defendants to be resentenced. They all were released from custody long ago, but because Lynn escaped, his appeal was dismissed.
He was recaptured and has spent nearly 30 years since in maximum security prisons — including ADX Florence — being awakened every two to three hours for security checks, Soto said.
“In the months to follow my sentencing to life imprisonment, and thus being separated from my family for the rest of my life, I planned an escape from a medium-security prison in Alabama,” Lynn wrote in a request for commutation to President Donald Trump last year. Admitting his role in the drug smuggling operation, Lynn said: “It was an escape accomplished with a produce truck, in which no one was threatened or endangered. This nonviolent escape, Sir, was my second very foolish decision … and but for it, I would today be a free man and home with my family.”
Although Lynn’s requests for clemency over the past decade have been supported by investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys and even in an official proclamation by the Islamorada, Florida Village Council in 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Mobile and the Bureau of Prisons have remained steadily opposed. Facing mounting health problems, Lynn filed a motion for compassionate release last year that was initially rejected. But when the COVID-19 pandemic further threatened at-risk prisoners, Soto said he called Lynn and urged him to file again.
In granting Lynn’s release, Steele wrote that COVID-19 was not a factor, but acknowledged Lynn’s “plethora of ongoing medical issues,” not limited to high blood pressure, degenerative arthritis, blocked arteries and chronic kidney disease. He also excoriated government officials who sought to deny the compassionate release request based on criteria “found nowhere in the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement.” Steele also determined Lynn poses “no threat to the safety of any other person or the community.”
The order takes effect June 29. Soto said Lynn’s family and supporters are planning a reunion and he plans to attend.
“I didn’t think Dickey’s sentence was all that fair, but over the years there’s been a pestilent resistance to any plea bargain,” he said. “He’s constantly running into sins of his past and that’s why I wrote the book. It ends on a sour note because he’s still in prison and it’s unfortunate it took a pandemic to get this man out, but it finally brings closure to what I consider is an abuse of government power.
“I got involved in 1989 — a brand new lawyer on a huge case — but my job was to stay out of the way and watch the big dogs fight,” Soto recalled. “He was first incarcerated in December 1989 and the first thing that happened to him was his mother died, his sister died while he’s in prison, and his kids have grown up and had children of their own. He deserved to be out a long time ago, but I’m happy for him and I hope he can move on. I’ve gone and visited him over the years and for someone who should be bitter he’s an amazing, upbeat and very good guy. As an attorney I get to see people for what they are and they’re people and people make mistakes.”
A spokesperson for Lynn preferred to wait until after his release to comment, but his letter to Trump noted: “I have many dear friends, and even a couple of retired DEA agents who support me … These friends and federal agents have been loyal supporters and all believe, after nearly 30 years, that I should be reunited with my kids and their beautiful families. Mr. President, I will close here by saying that if you give me this second chance, the freedom to spend the remaining years of my life with my beloved children and grandchildren, I promise you, Sir, that you will never regret it.”
Soto’s book, “Apprehended: The Trials of Dickie Lynn,” is available on Amazon.
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