Sunday, January 12, 1997


A `hello' could be fatal in drug agent's secret life

By MICHAEL WILSON
Staff Reporter

The Mobile television reporter pressed the record button on the camera on his shoulder, filming Chinese refugees stepping off a small airplane. U.S. Customs Service agents had just arrested the Panamanian smuggler trying to sneak them into Baldwin County.

A tall, broad man in dress shirt and tie watched as the aliens shuffled past. He noticed the cameraman, saw the lens facing him.

Instinctively, Ernst ``Jake'' Jacobsen's hand rose to shoo an imaginary fly beside his nose and hide half his face.

For an undercover lawman, a news camera is like a loaded gun. You don't want one pointing at you.

He is 6 feet tall, with thick hands and blue eyes beneath graying hair. He stands out in crowds and in the memories of those who've met him, even briefly.

Take the Baptist minister from Jacobsen's church who scared him into a pulse-racing sweat with a casual ``hello'' in a Chinese restaurant while the agent, under a fake name, was entertaining a drug smuggler.

``I was so scared he was going to come over and say, `Hi Jake,''' Jacobsen, 51, recalled. ``I've had to go over to people and say, `You don't know me.' ''

Ten years ago, Jacobsen moved from the Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami to Mobile customs to start an undercover operation targeting drug traffickers. Operation Skymaster continues today without him. He retired on his 50th birthday in fall 1995.

Jacobsen's career is the stuff of paperback thrillers, a 20-year game part chess, part chicken against many different opponents that he, like many law officers, has collectively named ``bad guys.''

He grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., and went to work busting moonshine stills for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He hated it, and moved to the customs office in New Orleans until President Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. Jacobsen worked first for the DEA in Mississippi, then Miami.

In the early 1980s he worked on Operation Screamer in south Florida, a sting to trap the drug pilots so vital to the cocaine flow into the United States. It was there, in 1983, that he met Barry Seal.

Seal, a master pilot who left TWA for the excitement of smuggling, had frustrated Baton Rouge, La., authorities for years.

``He didn't fly an airplane, he wore it like a suit of clothes,'' wrote Miami Herald reporters Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen in their 1989 book, ``Kings of Cocaine.''

The analogy correctly suggests Seal's size; he was nicknamed ``El Gordo,'' the Fat Guy, in Colombia, where he used the alias Ellis MacKenzie.

Seal was indicted in March 1983 for flying Quaaludes, a powerful sedative, into south Florida. He immediately ``flipped,'' agreeing to work undercover as a government informant.

Jacobsen, who had followed Seal while working in Louisiana and Mississippi, was named his controlling agent, the man to whom Seal would report.

Seal is widely regarded today as the best drug informant that ever was, penetrating the inner circle of the Medellin drug cartel, Pablo Escobar and the Ochoa family of Colombia. In one of Jacobsen's many scrapbooks is a family snapshot of the Ochoas that Seal took.

Seal and Jacobsen talked twice a day or more, seven days a week. ``He was always real jolly. Wonderful personality. If he'd have been a legitimate businessman, he would have made a million,'' Jacobsen said.

Their case abruptly ended in 1984 when Seal, at Escobar's direction, began using Nicaragua as a loading site for his huge, military C-123K airplane he called ``Fat Lady.''

The plane was fitted with hidden cameras in the cargo door, and with a switch in his pocket, Seal clicked photos of Sandinistas loading large duffel bags of cocaine on board, according to published accounts.

Those photos ended up on the desk of Lt. Col. Oliver North, President Reagan's National Security Council adviser, who was running the secret aid to the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinistas. Photos of Sandinistas sending cocaine to the United States could go a long way in rallying both public support and congressional funding for the Contra's cause.

Soon, the photos appeared in the Washington Times newspaper, blowing Seal's cover and the DEA's operation. Escobar had planned to show Seal secret drug airstrips from Mexico to Georgia, Jacobsen said.

``The premature leak to the press ruined all that. We could have seized all their assets and arrested numerous more people,'' he said. He blames North: ``It was all a political thing, done for political reasons.''

Seal went on to make other cases with Jacobsen and the DEA until he was indicted in Louisiana for his past sins, despite the Miami office's pleas for delay or absolution.

By now, there were $500,000 contracts on both Seal's and Jacobsen's heads.

In an order that stunned Jacobsen and his DEA superiors, a Baton Rouge judge sentenced Seal in open court, for anyone to hear to a halfway house, ignoring DEA requests that he be sent to a military base.

On Feb. 19, 1986, Colombian assassins pumped 12 bullets through Seal as he drove into the Salvation Army halfway house parking lot.

``It was devastating,'' Jacobsen said. The informant had testified in three trials that led to 17 convictions, and had laid the groundwork for cases from the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the DEA convicted the prime minister, to the streets of Las Vegas. Seal's life was later the subject of a movie, ``Double Cross,'' starring Dennis Hopper.

Jacobsen wasn't allowed to attend the funeral.

Shortly after Seal's death, Jacobsen moved to Mobile. In Operation Skymaster, he posed as the boss of a Tillman's Corner import-export company that transported drugs into the country on the side. He wore ``lots of gold. Gotta flash. I went out and had me made a $5,000 gold chain to wear,'' he said. He drove a Rolls-Royce.

He and his fellow undercover agents were convincing enough to attract police scrutiny on more than one occasion.

Once, driving home, Jacobsen discussed an upcoming drug shipment with fellow special agent Ernie Winberg. Both spoke on cellular phones from their cars, and someone picked up their conversation and reported them to the police, who called customs, where an agent dutifully took the tip.

Jacobsen wore monogrammed shirts, so he used aliases, like ``Ed Johnson,'' that shared his initials. He kept a low profile in his personal life, which was difficult at church, in particular.

Fellow members of Spring Hill Baptist Church found Jacobsen cagey, vague, distant. Conversations that began with, ``What do you do?'' invariably ended abruptly. He couldn't tell anyone the name of the fake Skymaster business for fear they'd drop by during a deal.

``Nobody really knew who I was,'' he said.

He testified in 1988 before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime regarding Seal's work in Nicaragua. He spoke behind a screen so only the committee, not the television cameras, could see him.

``We were in the middle of the most significant investigation of my career,'' he told the committee. ``We had a chance to get together all the cartel members.'' Two of his Mobile-area neighbors, watching CNN, recognized his voice.

``Called me on the phone, said, `I heard you on TV.' I said, `Yeah,' I had to admit it. I asked them not to repeat it. They never asked me from that point on what I did,'' he said.

The Skymaster post did not raise the veteran agent's annual salary of $85,000, but it consumed long hours and weekends and inevitably smothered his home life. He divorced his first wife, and married again in 1990 in Fairhope.

They lived on his horse ranch in quiet Robertsdale, a small pecan orchard out front and swimming pool in the back. Sometimes, bucking conventional wisdom, he took smugglers to the house, careful to drive on meandering back roads so the dopers couldn't find the place later.

``You don't communicate with anybody. That's the problem,'' he said. ``You're constantly on guard.''

His second marriage failed. He bugged his own telephone to hear his wife's calls, according to his affidavit in his divorce case.

The grind of undercover work always thinking through situations to predict problems got to the point that he felt nauseated in the mornings before heading out, he said. His partner, Winberg, carried a miniature pharmacy of stress tablets and antacids in his briefcase.

``It comes to a point where you don't work for the government anymore,'' Jacobsen said. ``There is so much red tape. They make it so hard for you to make a case. After a while, it becomes a personal thing. As a lawman, you want to put people in jail for doing drugs because you personally are against it. That's the way it became for me.''

He was burned out, ``burnt to a crisp'' after eight years in Mobile, six of them undercover, and retired in September 1995. He works part time, out of his home, as an investigator for the Alabama Board of Cosmetology. He inspects beauty parlors, a job previously held by elderly women who had lately been harassed.

Today, he sings in the church choir. He is planning both a nonfiction book and a novel about his career.

The books are good excuses for the man once leery of lenses to dig through the old snapshots of him posing beside huge stacks of bundled cocaine bricks, the trophy shots of a past life.

Go to the Mobile Register home page
Go to Operation Skymaster cover page
DROP US A NOTE AT: register@dibbs.net