Ed Colby: Busted in Belize
November 12, 2002
A quarter-century ago, on what was supposed to be their last night in the then-British colony of Belize, Dick and Aleda whooped it up at the bar.
They drank “fraps,” a mixture of Guinness Stout and 7UP, with British Navy sailors. Much later, when empty bottles covered their table, Dick and Aleda met Inspector Gillette, of the Belizean national police. He promptly arrested them.
While Dick and Aleda guzzled their fraps in town, Belizean agents searched the couple’s sailboat. They found a shotgun. The two ? but mainly Dick ? now stood charged with possession of an illegal firearm.
Dick and Aleda had been wending their leisurely way from Long Beach to Florida. After nearly a year on the 36-foot Whisper, they pined for loved ones back home, and called at Belize City for mail.
Do you know Belize? This desperately poor nation nestles between Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula. Virgin rainforests teeming with jaguars and Mayan ruins meet stunning white beaches at the edge of a translucent blue Caribbean Sea.
Today tourists go there to dive and fish. In 1976 nobody went there. Belize was the end of the world.
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In separate stark empty rooms, under single, dangling, naked light bulbs, Dick and Aleda endured interrogation through the night.
Meanwhile, the Brits alerted the American consulate. In the morning, the consul stopped by. He said, “You got yourself into this mess. Now get yourself out.”
Inexplicably convinced that Dick and Aleda ran guns to Guatemala, the police took Dick back out to the boat, where they ripped it apart with hammers and screwdrivers. They found no more guns, but under the sink they discovered a bag of “white crystalline powder.” Dick explained that it was called TSP and that it was a deck cleaner.
After a couple of days in jail, in a British courtroom Dick faced black judges with white wigs. On the gun charge they fined him $100 and time served. But when Dick walked out of court, his nemesis, Inspector Gillette, lay in wait. “Your powder was cocaine,” the policeman said.
They threw Dick into a 16th-century prison. His 8-by-10-by-12-foot stone-walled cell contained no furniture, no electric light, no toilet. A small window near the ceiling let in some daytime light. Dick answered nature’s calls under the watchful eyes of gun-toting guards.
While it rained buckets outside, he slept on the floor in four inches of seepage. Once a day they passed him a cup of rice and a chicken wing through the slot hole in the door. Insects chewed him raw.
While Dick languished in solitary, Aleda remained confined at the police station. They became headline news and the number-one story on Belizean TV and radio.
His Oxford-educated attorney outlined Dick’s predicament: Despite the fact that he had been charged with possession of cocaine, no one in Belize had the necessary qualifications to test the white powder.
After a week they arraigned him. Not-so-fresh from his jail cell, in the formal British courtroom he looked like an American Frankenstein. Too broke to pay his own bail, his lawyer bailed him out herself.
The next day, the U.S. government flew down a chemist. The test returned negative. “He laughed in their faces,” Dick said.
The Belizean government dropped all charges but now had a news management problem. At first, the authorities refused to let Dick and Aleda leave the country. A week later, the government relented. When they finally got their passports back, the couple weighed anchor and sailed away forever.
Dick first told me this story 26 years ago. He refreshed my memory last week. He summed up: “To this day I have no idea why the U.S. government did this for me, but they kept me out of a 16th-century prison for the rest of my life. By the way, there was no mail.”
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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