Surfers and Smugglers—and the Truth Behind Two Americans’ Deaths in Tuol Sleng

At the end of 1978, two Americans were captured by the Khmer Rouge while sailing in waters off the coast of Sihanoukville.

Michael Deeds and Chris Delance were captured, imprisoned, interrogated and tortured at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison camp in Phnom Penh—where an estimated 15,000 men, women and children were sent to their deaths during Pol Pot’s regime.

Before they were executed, they had confessed in written testimonies that they were spies working for the CIA.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

More than 30 years later, a new book by Peter Maguire—a former law professor at Columbia University and author of “Law and War” and “Facing Death in Cambodia” —sheds light on what really happened to Deeds and Delance, and the reason they were sailing so near to Cambodia.

In “Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade,” which will be released by Columbia University Press on Tuesday, Mr. Maguire and his co-author, Mike Ritter, a former marijuana smuggler, follow the underground marijuana trade that traversed Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s.
The trade that brought Deeds and Delance to Cambodia, and their untimely death in late December 1978, just days before Vietnamese forces liberated Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge regime.

Beginning in Thailand, where seedless buds of marijuana were rolled into thick, potent sticks— hence the name ‘Thai stick’—these precious stocks of high-grade pot were transported to the U.S. via a complex network of smugglers and boats, many of whom were young American surfers looking to bankroll their next surfing destination with a successful “scam” in Southeast Asia.

Drawing on more than 1,000 hours of interviews with smugglers and former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers and 13 years of research, Mr. Maguire and Mr. Ritter paint a clear picture of the motivations and fears of those traversing the smuggling routes from Southeast Asia to Hawaii and California.

While a couple of successful scams could net these young surfers enough money to live off for the rest of their lives, the individuals who took part were not your stereotypical “drug lords.”

Chris Delance and Michael Deeds were two examples of this. Growing up in Long Beach, California, the two had been friends since seventh grade. Before they embarked on their ill-fated scam with a mutual friend, both seemed to be going through a stopgap in their lives, feeling disappointed by their expectations of adulthood.

In 1994, when Mr. Maguire was working in Cambodia to investigate and document war crimes in light of the U.N.’s failure to prosecute anyone from the Khmer Rouge regime, he came across the confessions Deeds and Delance made to the Khmer Rouge shortly before their execution.

As a former surfer and someone who has dabbled in marijuana as a youth, Mr. Maguire said he “knew right away” what they were really up to when they sailed near to the Cambodian coast in 1978.

“The book really began after my first trip to Cambodia in 1994,” Mr. Maguire said in an interview. “One of them was from my hometown, another was from my co-author’s hometown, and I just put the word out in the surfing world, known as the coconut wireless.”

It turns out that the two Americans were working with another friend, Ron Jackson (a pseudonym), to buy marijuana in Singapore through a contact. But, after a missed connection, weeks turned to months of waiting to score, and Jackson, feeling frustrated, went to Thailand while Deeds and Delance waited in Singapore.

After Jackson finally located a cargo in Pattaya, he told Delance and Deeds to sail to Thailand to rendezvous with him so that the three could sail back with their load of Thai Stick to the U.S.

After days and nights of waiting in a boat off the southern tip of Thailand, Jackson was frantic with worry for his friends, who had failed to appear at the rendezvous point.

“That was November 23, 1978,” said Jackson in the book. “I spent the last four days of November, all December and the first week of January going up and down the Malaysian coast in case they’d been blown off or shipwrecked,” he said.
“The only thing we couldn’t do was get into Cambodia. They just disappeared into the void.”

Mr. Maguire and Mr. Ritter couldn’t have imagined a more horrible fate for the two young surfers. Both Deeds and Delance were 29-years-old when they were killed.

“It really grabbed me and my co-author in the same way, because my co-author was navigating those waters regularly and could have easily been caught as well,” Mr. Maguire said.

“Looking at the Tuol Sleng photos, to see guys from my own background who, if I were 10 or 15 years older, could have been me—that really brought the whole thing home.”

“Thai Stick” also functions as an autobiography for co-author Mike Ritter, who worked for 18 years smuggling marijuana out of Asia by outfitting boats and suitcases with hidden caches. Throughout his career, getting caught by the Khmer Rouge was his greatest fear, as it would mean certain death, Mr. Ritter says in the book.

“I’d look over there [at Cambodia] and I would just get cold shivers looking at it. My image of the country at that time was comparable to Tolkien’s Mordor, a black hole where all regard for life and civilized behavior broke down,” Mr. Ritter said in the book.

“I choked at the thought of dying slowly in a Cambodian prison.”

The history of the Thai-California marijuana trade will continue in a second book, charting the scams from 1984 to 1997, Mr. Maguire said.

Cambodia also served as the last stage for the “Thai Stick” trade in the late ’90s, he said.

“The final blow to the Southeast Asia marijuana trade occurs in Cambodia, when a man named Arthur Torsone is set up by the DEA and some kind of rogue U.S. intelligence guys and was put in T3 prison and almost died there,” Mr. Maguire said, adding that he’s halfway through writing that book but must conduct further research.

Today, the drug trade in Southeast Asia is dominated by methamphetamine and heroin. It is a far more sinister trade than the roving hippies in search of marijuana that used to pepper the Hippie Trail from Nepal to Thailand, Mr. Maguire said.

“They were more like the gold prospectors in the Old West where you had some remarkably brave guys going out on a wing and a prayers and totally relying on themselves,” Mr. Maguire said of the early smugglers.

While Mr. Maguire and his co-author may romanticize the lives of surfers and smugglers, “Thai Stick” is a compelling look at an alternate universe within the region during a very different time.

It is full of rich memories from the former scammers and DEA agents involved. It is also about a trade and surfing culture that no longer exists (marijuana is now legal in some states and the majority of what is sold in the U.S. is grown domestically these days).

“It’s true crime, it’s a very strange genre. It can be either heroic tales of former criminals or heroic tales of law enforcement,” Mr. Maguire said.

“There’s really no archive [on the subject]—the only record of successful marijuana smuggled are in the memories of the participants.”

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