A van carrying a load of marijuana approached the Siesta Key north bridge Feb. 11, 1977, while a truck with similar cargo approached the Stickney Point Bridge.
Two men simultaneously navigated a powerboat away from the dock behind 4051 Higel Ave., ostensibly on the way to meet drug wholesalers.
The vehicles were traveling the route of one of the biggest drug-smuggling operations in Sarasota County history. But, local narcotics agents stopped the van and swarmed the Higel Avenue house that served as the headquarters of the group that would be known as the “Siesta Key Seven.”
It was the largest drug bust in county history at the time.
Local authorities set up a surveillance outpost at a resident’s home across the canal roughly six weeks prior to the Feb. 11 action. Mangrove thickets provided heavy cover of the group’s operation, which included cocaine trafficking.
Narcotics agents uncovered 8,550 pounds of marijuana at the Higel Avenue house, which was rented with fake names, worth more than $5 million ($20 million today). That amount of marijuana, on average, would be worth more than $28 million, according to a report by PBS.
Authorities seized the drugs, along with a handgun, an M14 assault rifle, vehicles and the boat. It took agents weeks to remove and document contraband to be used for trial, and defense attorneys for the seven men used the timeframe in an attempt to suppress evidence discovered after arrests.
All seven of the suspects were sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading no contest for the various crimes.
The arrests would prompt then Sarasota County Sheriff Jim Hardcastle to ask for a $200,000 federal grant to start an organized-crime task force, which would marginally disrupt a state-wide drug ring that reached as far as California.
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