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The Rise and Fall of a Cocaine Smuggler

Snowbird by William Norris
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Andrew Richard Barnes was the man who flew the very first shipment of cocaine for the Medellin Cartel into the United States, and continued the dangerous trade for almost a full decade. He survived crashes and gunfire, treachery and betrayal. He also became the target of a determined assassination attempt by the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega - and lived to tell the tale...
SynergEbooks; November 2005
233 pages; ISBN 9780744302882
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Title: Snowbird
Author: William Norris
Odyssey of an Idiot

Andrew Richard Barnes was a man who had everything: a good education at an English public school, a fine physique, a beautiful wife and a seemingly-assured future. He was a skilled professional pilot who ran his own airline at the age of 21.

Barnes was ultimately sentenced to seven years in the federal prison at Lompoc, California. He counted himself lucky to be there. As the man who flew the very first shipment of cocaine for the Medellin Cartel into the United States, and continued the dangerous trade for almost a full decade, he survived crashes and gunfire, treachery and betrayal. He also became the target of a determined assassination attempt by the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega - and lived to tell the tale. This is the story of Andrew Barnes' descent into hell; how it happened, and what it was like to serve the cocaine barons whom he ultimately betrayed.

What follows is the odyssey of an idiot; albeit an idiot with an I.Q. of 161. It is a cautionary tale.


Andrew and the flying pig Even before the pig flew over the windshield, Andrew Barnes knew he had made a mistake. This was not the runway he was looking for. It wasn't a runway at all. The brown strip rushing towards him in the landing lights of the twin-engined Rockwell Turbo-Commander was nothing more than a rutted country lane. The flickering lights that he had taken as threshold markers were actually the headlamps of an ancient truck, jolting along and minding its own business.

"Oh, shit," said Andrew Barnes.

There was no going back. Flaps extended, nose high, the Turbo-Commander was committed to landing. The engines screamed in fine pitch as they swallowed the last few gallons of fuel in the tanks. The stall-warning horn blared in protest. On the ground, an astonished Colombian farmer stood on his brakes and lurched into a ditch as the monstrous shape skimmed the roof of his truck and struck the road only yards ahead.

"Hang on tight," shouted Barnes. Paralyzed with fear, his two passengers hardly needed to be told. With a spine- jarring jolt the main wheels touched and stayed down as the fully-stalled aircraft fell out of the sky. The nose dropped, and they watched with horrified fascination through the windshield as the Turbo-Commander began a wild charge down the track. Barnes fought for control, stabbing at brakes and rudder pedals, miraculously dodging the trees and bushes that flashed past the wingtips. And then the road turned. There was nowhere to go.

The aircraft left the path, crossed a ditch, smashed through a hedge, and hurled itself into a farm yard. Startled chicken scattered in all directions.

And a pig flew over the windshield.

With a final expensive crunch, the Turbo-Commander plunged its nose into a wooden fence. And stopped.

* * * *

Andrew Barnes told me that story on the first day we met. It was not a chance encounter. Some three weeks before I had had a telephone call from Michael Knipe, then Foreign News Editor of The Times. Michael, an old friend from my own days with that once-distinguished newspaper, was calling to do me a favor. At least, he hoped it was going to be a favor. He sounded a trifle nervous.

The Times man in New York, said Michael, had just been interviewing an odd character who was one of the witnesses in the cocaine-smuggling trial of Carlos Lehder, down in Miami. The witness was an Englishman, now living in Pennsylvania, who had an extraordinary tale to tell about the cocaine-smuggling business. Furthermore, he seemed to want it converted into a book, and had asked the New York correspondent if he knew any good authors who might be interested. The message had been passed on to the Foreign Desk, and Michael had thought of me. Nice of him.

"What do you know about this guy?" I asked. Not a lot, it turned out. Just that his name was Barnes, that he had smuggled large quantities of cocaine for the Medellin Cartel, and he was probably heading for a lengthy spell in prison. From the sound of it, he deserved no less.

At this point, I knew no more about the Medellin Cartel than the next man; merely what I had read in the press and seen on television. But it was enough to induce revulsion. By all accounts, these were unscrupulous crooks who had poisoned a continent and amassed a king's ransom in the process. On the way, they had murdered scores of men who attempted to expose their conspiracy. And some of those men, I now remembered with an odd churning in the pit of my stomach, had been journalists. From the tone of Michael's voice, clear across four thousand miles, I could tell he was thinking the same thing.

"Just thought you might be interested," he said rather lamely. "I've got his telephone number if you want it."

Why not? There was no harm in having the option. I scribbled down the number and sat looking at it pensively long after our conversation ended. Iwondered about the personality of the man who lay behind that number, and I wondered even more about his associates. I had never met a drug smuggler; at least, not knowingly. Curiosity did battle with prudence, and for the moment, prudence won. I pushed the slip of paper to one side and got on with the rest of my life.

It was not a good time for authoring in the Norris household. In spite of splendid reviews for my last book and the sale of the film rights to Hollywood, there was no prospect of a commission for the next one. I was caught in the usual dilemma of the non-fiction writer: no publisher will sign a contract and pay an advance without a fully-researched outline of the project. But research involves time and travel, and time and travel cost money. That money ought to come from the publisher's advance - it is what advances are supposed to be for - but in practice you cannot get one without laying out large amounts of your own cash long before you see the check. Which is fine if you have it.

It was not the first time I had been in this Catch-22 situation, but try as I might I could find no way out of it. I ought, I thought, to give up the non-fiction trade and write novels instead. The trouble was, I was not very good at fiction. My passion of the moment was the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Others, notably Ludovic Kennedy in his excellent book The Airman and the Carpenter, had proved conclusively that Bruno Richard Hauptmann was innocent of the crime, but no one had yet been able to identify the true guilty party. I believed I had a clue to his identity through newly-discovered evidence, but believing it and proving it were two very different things.

For months I had been chasing phantoms and spending money I could ill afford in pursuit of the final truth. I had even flown to Scotland to interview Betty Gow, the Lindbergh baby's still-surviving nursemaid, only to have the door literally slammed in my face. In the United States, too, hostility and evasion were greeting every enquiry. I knew I was on the right trail, and that given sufficient time and money, persistence would pay off in the end. Time, I had. Money was a different matter.

As the days passed and the crock of gold at the end of my investigatory rainbow grew no closer, I found my eyes drawn more and more to the scrap of paper lying on my desk, and the telephone number of Andrew Richard Barnes. Perhaps, after all, it was time to face reality; to put the Lindbergh project on the back-burner and to tackle something which, on the face of it, looked pretty straightforward. Something, moreover, that ought not to cost an arm and a leg to research.

My long-suffering agent in New York was mildly encouraging. My wife, faced with the prospect of her middle-aged husband associating with ruthless criminals, was appalled. Four years of exposure to American television violence did not help. "These people are worse than the Mafia," she said. "You could get yourself killed."

With some asperity, I pointed out that I had survived more dangerous assignments in the past. I had been under fire in Biafra, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique. I had been in the thick of the Paris riots in May 1968. By comparison, the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a drug smuggler was pretty small beer.

"You were younger and sillier then," she said.

That did it. I rooted out the scrap of paper and made the call.