Tons of pot covered beach 40 years ago
Shortly after 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 24, 1977, a CB operator radioed that a shrimp boat appeared to be on fire south of the jetties. Hours later, the story of the ill-fated Gilberto in Fernandina Beach was being told to the nation by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News and T-shirts were being printed and sold commemorating the event.
“Tons of marijuana were scattered across the beach when the burning Gilberto exploded. The boat had run aground and the crew, carrying a cargo of 50,000 pounds of grass, is believed to have set fire to the vessel,” according to a News-Leader report at the time.
The boat’s crew was arrested and charged with smuggling 25 tons of Columbian marijuana with a value estimated at nearly $18 million.
The three men told officials they had been hijacked at sea. The captain, Lorenzo Isorda Aros of Miami, said at first the hijackers posed as passengers who wanted to charter his boat. He said he picked them up in Puerto Rico and once they were at sea, the hijackers pulled guns on them and forced them to pull alongside a vessel that was loaded with marijuana. He told the investigating officers that the hijackers demanded at gunpoint that the Gilberto take on the pot, then he and his crew were forced to head for City Island, N.Y. The wreck on the south jetties, according to the captain, was no accident. He said he told one of the crew members to set the boat afire and they could get free from their hijackers.
But the police did not give any indication they believed the captain of the Gilberto. Federal authorities suspected they had loaded the pot from a freighter in international waters.
“It was foggy. The crew must have thought the south jetties were the north jetties. I’m sure they were not familiar with the area,” said a Drug Enforcement Administration officer at the scene.
Fire units from Fernandina Beach fought the blaze on the boat, and “marijuana was off loaded by the pickup truck load. Then, it happened … the gas tanks ignited, and exploding debris and ‘Columbian Gold’ were soaring through the air,” according to the report.
Soon, marijuana aficionados were attempting to scavenge what they could from the area. Police warned the pot smokers that possession of more than five grams of grass constituted a felony and that burning diesel fuel had contaminated the grass.
“I for one wouldn’t know what good marijuana tastes like, but certainly, I would be afraid to smoke any of that,” Police Chief H. W. Doak said.
Their message of caution came too late for many. At least 24 people were arrested for picking up the scattered grass, but others were told to just give what they had grabbed to the police.
“Many of the people we apprehended on the beach were simply told to turn over the marijuana,” Doak said. Those arrested had in their possession well over the five-gram limit, according to the report.
“One man even told me that he was down there flounder gigging. He didn’t have a gig. All he had was a plastic bag,” said Doak.
Police officers stayed busy during the holiday weekend patrolling the area and trying to collect as much of the weed as possible. That which could not be picked up was covered with sand by bulldozers and grading equipment from the city and from Ft. Clinch State Park.
By Sunday afternoon, Nov. 27, most of the police activity in the area had ceased. “After all logical efforts had been expended to clean up the bits of marijuana along the beach, personnel thereafter maintained a motor patrol at low tide,” police said.
The wreck of the Gilberto was partially salvaged by city officials on the Tuesday afternoon after Thanksgiving. A bulldozer was used to push as much of the wreckage as possible to a higher waterline.
The three men, who were at first lodged in the Baker County jail by federal authorities, arrived in Fernandina Beach on the following Tuesday to face charges here as well.
Frank Chadwick, the resident agent for U.S. Customs in Jacksonville, said the boat was carrying one of the biggest hauls of marijuana ever brought into the country on a vessel that size.