NEW ORLEANS — The scheme was so outlandish it was difficult, at first, to take seriously.
Investigators could not believe that the whole preposterous plot would ever get under way, that a former customs agent and 13 other people--almost all of them from small American towns like Sugar Tree, Tenn.--would really set out to take over the South American country of Suriname.
But by Monday, when most of the members of the self-styled mercenary group arrived at the tiny airport in Hammond, La.--dressed in business suits, but with suitcases filled with semi-automatic weapons--law enforcement officers were believers. They arrested 14 persons and charged them with violations of the Neutrality Act.
They are calling it "Bayou of Pigs II." An earlier "Bayou of Pigs" occurred here in 1981, when a group of white supremacists plotted to sail a yacht from New Orleans to take over the Caribbean island of Dominica. They were arrested at a local marina as they were about to embark.
The self-styled mercenaries who arrived in Hammond for the flight to Suriname were taking with them revolvers, compasses, walkie-talkies, shotguns and commando blackface, as well as thousands of rounds of ammunition and a book titled "Ambush and Counter-Ambush" adapted from an Australian military manual.
The plan, as spelled out in the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court, was to pose as bankers, meet with the president of Suriname, overpower him and take control of the country.
Further, the band of commandos, including Barbara Johnson, 45, of New Orleans and her 18-year-old son Michael, is claiming they were working for a Netherlands-based foundation that would pay 1.5 billion Dutch gilders--about $615 million--when the takeover was complete. The Netherlands held Suriname, then called Dutch Guiana, as a colony until it was granted independence in 1975.
"These guys are going to say anything they can to save their skins," said J. Robert Grimes, the regional commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service. "These guys were looking for some excitement."
Avoids Political Label
While Suriname is a Marxist nation, both the FBI and Customs Service refused Tuesday to say whether the mercenary group was a right-wing organization.
"We're making a point not to say anything that would characterize these guys with a label or philosophical bent," said FBI agent Clifford Anderson. "They are from all over the country. They are almost all from small towns."
The bizarre tale that ended with the arrests Monday began two months ago, when both the FBI and customs officials began independent investigations after rumors began circulating about a possible attempted coup. The two agencies combined their investigation when they discovered they were working on the same case.
Anderson says that one of the central figures was Tommy Lynn Denley, a former customs agent and Panama Canal Zone policeman, who was open about his intention to overthrow the Suriname government of Commander in Chief Desi Bouterse, who took power in a 1980 military coup.
Agent Very Skeptical
But Anderson also said the idea seemed preposterous. "If you had asked me a week ago if they were serious, I would have said no," he said. "Until then I was very skeptical."
According to the criminal complaint, the events leading to the arrests began to take form on July 8, when customs undercover agent Harold McGovern talked to a man identified as John L. Ambielli of Lafayette, La.
McGovern claimed Ambielli asked him if he would be interested in financing the overthrow of Suriname, which borders Brazil, Guyana and French Guiana, and promised a 10-to-1 return on the dollar. McGovern said he later met Denley who told him that he needed $20,000 to finance the operation, which would involve at least 30 highly trained men, who had been on other missions, that he needed a chartered plane, and that support troops from Nicaragua would be involved.
Then, on Monday, Denley and 12 others were loaded into vans driven by undercover customs agents who had also infiltrated the scheme, for the 80-mile ride to the DC-3 that had been chartered by federal agents for the attempted overthrow. Denley, in a separate van, was arrested as soon as he was out of sight of the others. The remaining 12 were taken to the Hammond airport, where they were arrested in a hangar.
Held Without Bond
Ambielli was later arrested in Lafayette and all were charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. They were arraigned before a federal magistrate Tuesday morning and were being held without bond.
"I think there's going to be some interesting follow-up," said Grimes. "It's not a story that's going to be a one or two day thing and then die." Grimes also said that federal agents may have done the accused mercenaries a favor by stopping them in Hammond.
"We probably saved their lives," he said.
Those arrested Monday in Hammond were identified as the Johnsons; Homer Phillips Jr., 31, of Harrisburg, Mo.; Hector Tellez, 31, of Oak Forest, Ill.; Jamie Bright, 30, of Marion, Ohio; Don Morton, 46, of Colby, Kan.; Fred L. Rich, 41, of Columbia, Mo.; Vanus Livingston, 56, of Sugar Tree, Tenn.; Steven Green, 25, of Evansville, Ind.; Raymond Livingston, 25, of Jefferson, La.; Roger McGrady, 36, of Sacramento, Calif., and Daniel Lee Marchand, 29, of Tennyson, Ind.