To the United States Government, 46- year-old William Greer of South Burlington is the mastermind behind an international drug-smuggling operation that's been thriving in the Green Mountains for at least 15 years. But to Ellen Raymond, he's a living legend. Raymond is the defendant advocate for Vermont Vocals, an activist group supporting the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana. "He's a folk hero, the epitome of the real Vermonter," she says. "I have yet to meet someone who doesn't like Billy Greer."
Greer is a hometown boy remembered by many for his exploits on the gridiron as a star tailback for Rice High School in the 1960s. Senior year he was voted "best-looking." His family is known throughout the county for their dry-cleaning and laundry businesses. During the '70s and '80s Greer was a fixture in the nightlife scene — and a generous tipper at Burlington watering holes. Greer says he's had several ventures of his own over the years, including car-cleaning business called Classy Chassis.
Today, he's married, has two kids and is unemployed. And he's free on a $1 million bail — secured by property put up by his father-in-law, M. Keith Wright, owner of Skateland Williston — pending trial on federal drug charges. Along with eight alleged co-conspirators, Greer is charged with conspiracy to import and distribute hashish, money laundering and foreign travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise. If convicted, he faces 20 years in a federal prison.
But Greer has already done time behind bars. On August 13 he was released from a Québec prison where he had served four years of an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for importation of 54 tons of hashish — the largest drug seizure in Canadian history. Upon his release, he was escorted to the U.S. border at Highgate, Vt., right into the waiting handcuffs of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Out of a Canadian frying pan into a U.S. fire, Greer was arrested on an eight-count grand jury indictment.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson, Greer "has basically done nothing with his life other than deal drugs." Greer begs to differ: "If this is all I've done, where's my mansion on the hill? Where's my Lamborghini?" Greer claims he's "in hock up to his ears" and, in addition to medical bills for his young son's surgery, he owes the Internal Revenue Service $7000.
It's extraordinary for a once-convicted drug smuggler under federal indictment on new charges to speak openly to a reporter about his exploits, about the case against him and about his prosecutors. But then, Billy Greer is no ordinary guy. "As a citizen fighting for my life, for my family, I want to get the word out there what [the U.S. Attorney's office] is doing," he charges. "They're playing dirty pool."
Greer is referring to the claim that in July 1991 one of his colleagues, Michael Johnson, had a confession beaten out of him when he was captured by police at Greer's remote camp in northern Québec along the St. Lawrence River. His arrest followed the discovery — by a marine biologist studying whales — of hundreds of barrels of hashish floating in the river. Johnson's "confession" led to the arrest and extradition to Canada of Greer, Stephen Hutchins of Milton and six others. Greer and Hutchins were identified as the masterminds of the operation that brought 54 tons of Pakistani hashish across the ocean. Law officers estimated the street value of the shipment at $700 million.
Hutchins declined to be interviewed for this story. Greer, however, is adamant that U.S. officials knew of the beating and have covered it up. He notes that a statement at the end of Johnson's confession asked, "Was this made voluntarily without any menaces or threats on your life?" Greer claims Johnson was forced to sign "yes."
Johnson did not return to Vermont to testify at the extradition hearing, but Pierre LeBeau, the police officer who arrested him, did. And, says Greer, LeBeau testified that Johnson's statement was truthful.
Eight months later, when Johnson was signing his deal with the U.S. and Canada, Greer explains, "Michael says, 'listen, you want me to tell the truth?' They say absolutely. "
Johnson told the cops, says Greer, that "he had the shit beat out of him by Officer LeBeau and was forced to sign a confession." According to two handwritten statements Johnson made to Québec police officials on August 26 and 27, 1992, he had been threatened and hit by LeBeau. "Both threats," wrote Johnson, "were made before being choked and hit on the left side of my head." Johnson remembers LeBeau saying, "If you don't talk to us, there are two even bigger guys waiting outside this room that you will have to answer to, and they won't go as easy on you as us."
Johnson then wrote that LeBeau said, "How would you like to go to prison and get fucked in the ass?" When Johnson said no thanks, the officer threatened, "If you don't start talking, I'll make sure you go to a place where there's plenty of that."
Greer claims that Johnson informed John Pacht, his Burlington attorney, of the threats and beating. "We've tried to get Pacht to tell us if he told the U.S. government of the beatings," Greer says. "If Pacht did tell [Assistant U.S. Attorney] Anderson and [Special Agent] Rick Carter, then that's a violation of misconduct, because they withheld it from my counsel in court down here." Greer says his lawyer, Robert Kalina, intends to subpoena Pacht.
"They probably will," Pacht says. But he points out that he cannot discuss the matter without Johnson's permission, and he doesn't know the whereabouts of Greer's former partner in crime. Johnson is in the federal witness-protection program, though he's on the witness list for Greer's trial. So are several other co-defendants from the Canadian bust who have made deals with the government. They are expected to testify against Greer and Hutchins.
Interestingly, Officer Pierre LeBeau is not one of the 19 Canadian law-enforcement officials on the government's witness list.
"If they say they believe Johnson," says Greer, "they have to charge this guy [LeBeau] with perjury. That's why they didn't put him on the witness list. If we get him down here under oath, the cop is going to say, 'I didn't do it. Johnson's a liar.' Well, what position is the government going to take?" scoffs Greer. 'Oh, well, our informer is a liar?' What's the jury going to say?"
More to the point, will Johnson's beating — and the alleged official cover-up — get Billy Greer off the hook? The government paints him as a drug kingpin who's been in business for his entire adult life. According to the indictment, the 54-ton 1991 hashish shipment was not the first major drug operation for Greer and his pals. The government claims that Greer and Hutchins had established several routes along remote sections of the Vermont-Québec border, where their operation thrived.
According to sources close to the case, Hutchins had first operated the enterprise that smuggled hashish into Canada. The drug was exchanged for bundles of "Benjies" — tightly packed bundles of $100 bills bearing Benjamin Franklin's portrait — which were brought back into Vermont. Apparently the enterprise went undetected for at least a decade. The government indictment alleges that a successful 50-ton shipment had been off-loaded in the St. Lawrence River in 1989. Greer says with a chuckle that he "can't comment on that."
Special Agent Rick Carter is, like Greer, a native of South Burlington. Though several years younger, Carter says he had heard of Greer's exploits at Rice High School when he was growing up — and his classmate, Sharon Wright, later married Greer. Carter, a bearded longhair with the physique of a middle linebacker, worked as an undercover drug investigator for the Vermont State Police before joining the DEA in 1990. "The Case of the Swaggering Smuggler," a Reader's Digest article written by Vermont freelancers Richard and Joyce Wolkomir in May 1994, detailed Carter's longtime relationship with Greer.
"For seven years [Carter] watched Billy Greer's house, tracing a spider web with Greer at the center," the article stated. Carter would lay out in the snow, no matter how frigid the night, peering into the Greer residence through binoculars. In the mid-'80s, Carter finally got Greer on a misdemeanor — cultivating 150 pot plants. The punishment: a $500 fine. But when the 54-ton hash deal went down in 1991, Carter was clueless.
"I like the guy," Carter says about Greer. "He's a good guy, but he chose a lifestyle 20 years ago. He made his bed and now he's got to sleep in it."
"In Reader's Digest," says Greer, "Carter said he laid outside of my house for seven years. He's never seen me hand anybody any drugs. He's never seen me hand anybody any money. If he followed me for seven years and I was a drug kingpin, then why wasn't I arrested? Why wasn't I indicted?"
According to Carter, two groups were involved in the Canadian hash deal. One group worked for Hutchins, the other for Greer. Carter says the former were "more mature people." He also confirms that until Greer became affiliated with the operation, the hashish went in one direction — north into Canada — and afterwards began flowing into the U.S. as well. Carter asserts that Greer and Hutchins dealt cocaine in addition to hashish and marijuana. But Greer denies it: "That's absolutely not true at all."
At a recent federal court hearing on Greer's unsuccessful motion for bail reduction, Carter exchanged pleasantries with Greer and his wife. But after the hearing, Greer confronted Carter face-to-face on the issue of Michael Johnson's confession.
"He and I have a relationship," says Greer. "We're friends. Listen, I don't hate the guy. We've known each other for many, many years and he's got an ego as big as a barn."
As for Greer's candor with the press — and recent appearances on the Cannabis Cable Network on television arguing his case — Carter says Greer is "just trying to get his point of view out to influence anyone who will listen."
Billy Greer doesn't claim to be an altar boy. He freely acknowledges the crime he committed in Canada. "I did the time for it," he says. And what was it like spending four years in a Canadian prison?
"It was fantastic," Greer replies. "Where I was, there were four tennis courts and an in-ground swimming pool. I could order fresh fruit and vegetables in from the outside each week. My wife and children could come up and stay on the compound with me every 12 weeks. We could order restaurant food in from the outside."
At least that's how it was for the last 18 months of his sentence served in Laval. Prior to that he and his fellow Vermont drug smugglers were locked up in a prison in Cowansville, Québec — a place Greer describes as "a real tough joint.
"I saw three people get killed," he recalls. "There were a lot of riots. They don't segregate ... people by their crimes. They put them all in there together. It was a violent place, but I didn't have any problems." Greer adds that being involved in the largest hashish seizure in Canadian history actually earned him and his colleagues a sort of hero status in the prison. "We were treated with respect," he says.
Michael Johnson, however, was not one of them. He had to be protected, Greer notes, otherwise "someone would have killed him in jail. It's not like it is here in the U.S. — they don't put up with rats up there."
Just last week, yet another of his co-conspirators, Bill Carr of Hinesburg, struck a deal with the feds. Carr was one of the original eight arrested in Canada and served time with Greer. "You can quote me," says Greer, "that Carr's a rat. I have no problem with that. He ratted."
Few federal drug cases ever reach a jury. Most are settled through plea bargaining. But nailing Greer and Hutchins would be like trophies on the wall for the feds. For starters, they'd like to know where the money came from to finance those enormous shipments of hashish. They've got questions they believe Billy Greer can answer. But Greer swears he'll never tell.
"I couldn't live with myself," he says. "I couldn't let my children or family look at me if I was a rat or an informer. I couldn't cooperate against anybody," he insists.
Greer supporter Ellen Raymond is circulating a petition to draw attention to the case. In two weeks, hundreds of Vermonters have endorsed the statement: "We the people of the great state of Vermont beseech our government to hear our petition regarding the eight-count indictment for Billy Greer and Steve Hutchins. With our signatures we show our interest and support. We feel the time they served in Canada reflects punishment enough. Please use your wisdom and jurisprudence regarding our plea."
Meanwhile, Greer remains free on bail pending trial. Three times each week he reports to the probation office in Burlington's federal building. He is required to submit to random urine tests.
Greer knows the noose is tightening as his fellow defendants strike deals with the government. And he realizes, he says, that federal prosecutors will be "livid" that he's talking to Seven Days about the case, and that he's accusing them of misconduct.
"I'm looking at 20 years of my life," says Greer. "I've got to fight back. What am I going to do? Cower in the corner like all the other defendants? Just take the blows as they come and do a plea bargain for 15 years of my life? I'm not going to do that. I'm going to come out swinging."
But will the local legend hit a home run or strike out? Federal officials say the trial — if it goes to trial — will take place around March 1996.