SAN FRANCISCO — At first glance, Bruce Perlowin seems rather mousy--slight, bespectacled, soft-spoken, with a scraggly beard and tangled hair tied back in a ponytail--sort of a leftover flower child from the '60s.
He talks about the love-ins, about "everyone sitting around in the sun, getting to know each other, listening to the band playing." He says that his great dream was "to raise the consciousness of the planet"--through yoga and "smoking a little pot."
But when you ask Perlowin, 34, about what he used to do for a living--before federal lawmen caught up with him and he was sentenced to from 10 to 15 years in prison--he makes it clear that the dream got sidetracked, and on a grand scale.
Fleet of 90 Vessels
He talks about the fleet of 90 vessels--including fishing boats, speed boats and even a converted minesweeper--that he used to haul about 340,000 pounds of marijuana into California over a five-year period, with sales totaling $120 million.
He tells how he hired a research firm in Berkeley to learn how other major drug dealers had operated, "finding out what mistakes they had made" and seeking out the "weak spots" in law enforcement so he could set up his own counterintelligence system.
He mentions the hilltop surveillance centers overlooking San Francisco Bay, crammed with sophisticated electronic gear used to monitor the Coast Guard, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, Customs agents and local police.
He brags a little about the 1,000-foot pier he bought in the bay, safely under the radar shadow cast by the Richmond Bridge, where he set up a dummy boat-building works to cover massive offloadings of marijuana--"right under their noses."
He describes an elaborate "money-laundering" scheme--involving a Las Vegas casino, a Luxembourg Trust, a Panamanian corporation and a bank in the Grand Cayman Islands--that he used to process the vast flow of small-denomination "street bills" generated by his illicit business.
And he reminisces--a bit sadly--about the $3-million mansion that he built in a lovely canyon in rural Mendocino County; complete with bullet-proof walls lined with steel, a stairway that could be electrified to repel invaders and a complex communications center that tied him to the disparate operations of his international drug-smuggling ring.
"I was the biggest in California--one of the biggest anywhere," Perlowin said. "Nobody else came close to the scale we were operating on."
Federal officials don't dispute the point.
"He's for real," said Asst. U.S. Atty. James Lassart, head of the federal task force in San Francisco that put Perlowin behind bars.
'What He Says Is True'
"When you first meet him, you think he's kind of flaky," Lassart said. "But after you get to know him, you realize what he says is true. We've corroborated it.
"He's a very intelligent man. Very organized. He ran a very heady operation--the biggest we've ever seen."
Perlowin--who has been spending most of his time recently at the federal penitentiary in Texarkana, Tex., where he has been serving concurrent sentences after pleading guilty to racketeering, income tax evasion, currency violations, smuggling and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise--is currently in the San Francisco County Jail.
Prosecutors here are trying to get him to testify before a federal grand jury about some of his more than 200 associates in the smuggling operation.
Although Perlowin says he has yet to talk, others have, and 30 members of the ring have been convicted in California, Florida and Michigan. Perlowin's former attorney, Harvey Sande, was indicted by the grand jury here, and additional indictments are expected soon.
Perlowin--while refusing to testify against "friends"--is willing to admit now that the smuggling operation was wrong.
'Addicted to Greed'
"I was addicted to greed," he said during a recent interview at the jail. "I wanted to own everything. When I got the money, I said the heck with changing consciousness."
Perlowin said it all started in the Miami, Fla., area in the 1960s, when he was a teen-ager.
"I thought people should smoke pot, take LSD, to expand their perceptions," he said. "We'd skip school and go to the botanical gardens. It was a beautiful park, and you were there with people you really cared for . . . smoking pot . . . and wherever you looked, there were your friends . . . .
"One time the high school called and told my dad I was a pusher--it was the only time he ever hit me. I said, 'No, I'm a dealer.' The pusher doesn't care about people. I did."
Using that rationale, Perlowin said, he eventually expanded his operations until he could sell 50 pounds of marijuana a week, "then a couple of hundred, then even more . . . ."
Perlowin said that in October, 1975, he provided the drivers and vehicles to transport a 7,000-pound load of marijuana that arrived in South Florida from Jamaica. "I was 24 years old," he said, "and I'd just made $100,000 in 10 days."