Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘A very unlikely kingpin’: Reformed ex-Escobar associate inspires book, podcast about drug-smuggling past

Dale Varnam at Fort Apache is the center of a new book and podcast about his life in the drug-smuggling industry. (Port City Daily/Copeland Jacobs)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — More than a decade ago, Lynn Betz drove past Fort Apache, the junkyard-turned-roadside attraction containing a bus, a Movie Gallery sign, and a moat of toilets, and wondered what kind of mind would create such a place. 

READ MORE: Herbie the Love Bug at Fort Apache

That would be Dale Varnam, colloquially known as “Crazy Dale.” He’ll say so himself, and did on numerous occasions as he guided Port City Daily through Fort Apache this week. 

Located at 2357-2399 Stone Chimney Road in Supply, Varnam’s 28-acre compound is located 1.6 miles from Varnamtown. Just north of Holden and Oak Island beaches, Varnamtown consists of 300 residents, many of whom were involved with Crazy Dale in a drug-smuggling ring that’s said to be connected to Pablo Escobar at the height of the ‘80s drug trade.

Fort Apache contains film memorabilia — cars from “Driving Miss Daisy,” for example — marionettes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Clintons, the latter slumped around a dinner table. A Cinderella carriage and a nearly life-sized figure of Osama bin Laden grinning with a mouthful of blood behind the wheel of a Volkswagen. According to Varnam there is no symbolism between the figure and choice of transportation.

A reformed man, having found faith, Varnam has honed his ability to fashion art from garbage. 

“My thing is,” he said, “I say, ‘Lord, I’m thankful every day.’”

Now 76 and the proud steward of 60-plus felines, it’s even harder to picture Varnam as a drug smuggler. Lit signs taken from literal cat houses hang on the buildings in Fort Apache’s mockup town buildings — such as a replica of a western village — while his house cats and their kittens prowl the property, among chickens and turkeys. 

Old cars are scattered across Fort Apache. (Port City Daily/Copeland Jacobs)

More so, there are monuments to his past occupation as a drug smuggler. A man who once drove speed boats laden with drugs now stockpiles clothes for charity and promises to pray for visitors. Today, Varnam is more likely to pull a plastic cockroach from behind your ear in a sleight-of-hand magic trick than have Playboy bunnies mow his front lawn. 

The latter is one of many stories highlighted in “Varnamtown,” a podcast about Varnam’s lifestyle afforded by drug-smuggling, hosted by actor Kyle MacLachlan of “Twin Peaks” fame and investigative journalist Joshua Davis (“McAfee’s Last Stand”). The ongoing series produced by PodcastOne consists of eight episodes, the most recent released Thursday.

Once a notorious figure, it’s no surprise Varnam is back in the news 40 years after “the very unlikely kingpin” folded in on the drug trade. It’s how Betz describes Varnam in her new book “My Right Hand to Goodness: The Life and Times of Crazy Dale Varnam.” It’s set to be released March 12; Betz served as a consulting producer on the podcast as well.

Betz’s first introduction to Fort Apache with her husband Thom was in 2012. From the account she told Port City Daily, they visited the attraction out of curiosity after driving past it. 

“When we got in there, there were all these things for sale, used things,” she said. 

Fort Apache was once a junkyard, founded by Varnam’s father, Olaf, in 1957 — who also was a smuggler. Aside from being covered in anti-drug messages, props and vehicles, newspapers hang on the walls, enveloped in transparent film.

One headline reads: “Taste for adventure, money lured Varnam into drug smuggling.” Varnam is quoted in the article by reporter Alison Feldman that his friends were into drugs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, spurring his interest to stash away piles of marijuana in the woods for them. 

Illegal drugs were so widespread in Brunswick County, Feldman wrote, that Varnam “barely knew anyone who wasn’t either using, importing or selling.” 

Varnam initially smuggled marijuana and later cocaine, with both substances flowing into Brunswick County from Florida. Betz spent almost a decade unearthing and untangling the details by researching the StarNews (neé Morning Star), Brunswick Beacon and speaking with Varnam and others involved. She said one of Varnam’s biggest jobs made him upward of $23 million.

Varnam said in the podcast that he gave away a lot of his money to people throughout town and believed he was doing good for the community.

Some relics from that chapter in his life are housed at Fort Apache, like a yellow speed boat he said was used to transport  drugs, all the while waving to the Coast Guard as the boat sped by. 

In the years Betz became acquainted with Varnam, she said she met characters who were a part of his life: “Dale would start to bring people over to our house — truly, many, many, many people, willing to tell their stories.”

Plenty are covered in MacLachlan and Davis’s podcast, which trace how Pablo Escobar moved his drug-smuggling operation from Miami to Varnamtown because it was drawing too much attention from law enforcement. That’s when Varnam, whose family goes back decades in Varnamtown, entered the cast of characters, smuggling drugs via boat and dressing the part. 

“He went Miami Vice all the way,” said a pseudonymous man called Lefty interviewed in the podcast about Varnam. “Don Johnson ruined him, I guess; silk shirts, no T-shirt, gold chains, driving shoes.” 

According to Betz, the 300-person town was once “the second biggest point of entry for illegal drugs on the eastern seaboard, second only to Miami, Florida.” Hundreds of townspeople were  involved in the operation. This included paying off government officials and law enforcement, such as Brunswick County Sheriff Herman Strong, as well as Shallotte Police Chief Hoyal “Red” Varnam Jr. and his brother, former Brunswick County Commissioner Steve Jackson Varnam.

Strong was found guilty by a federal court jury and served four years in prison, while Red Varnam and Steve Varnam pleaded guilty. Former governor Mike Easley, then district attorney, prosecuted all the people involved in the case in Varnamtown.

But why did Varnamtown embrace illegal smuggling?

“Because it was available to them and everyone seemed to jump on board,” Betz said. “If you weren’t on board, you knew that a lot of your friends were, and they weren’t getting caught. In fact, you were above the law because everybody knew the sheriff was involved. Plus, they were so poor.”

Betz explained the desperation of Varnamtown grew from the collapse of the local fishing industry; the fisheries couldn’t compete with less expensive fish imports and there were precious few alternative sources of income. 

This extended to Varnam, who said his family historically were commercial fishermen, but when the fishing dried up, he turned to working with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. 

“Dale’s international contact was a man I call in the book ‘Tito.’ Tito was second to Pablo Escobar in the hierarchy of the Medellin Cartel,” Betz said, “So as a result of Dale’s relationship with Tito, Dale had that relationship that he could enjoy. He interacted with Pablo Escobar in a couple ways.” 

Betz highlighted a standout instance included in her book when Varnam and Escobar were at the same cocaine manufacturing drug lab in the jungles of Guatemala. 

“Every big deal that I went through, I’d have to take a polygraph test,” Varnam said. “They were testing me to measure that I hadn’t messed with none of their stuff.” 

Betz said at one point Escobar asked Varnam if he wanted to buy an island in the Caribbean. He did — and a mansion.

“Dale paid $3 million,” she said, “and the reason why he bought the island is because they had a 3,000-foot runway, so you could fly in and out easily from the United States and South America and bring the drugs in.” 

Dale Varnam at Fort Apache, where he continues live. (Port City Daily/Copeland Jacobs)

Back in Brunswick County, a runway awaited the landing of a Lockheed Lodestar emblazoned with the REO Speedwagon logo in the early ‘80s (the plane once belonged to the rock band). Two pilots — who happened to be in a physical altercation as the plane approached its destination — crash-landed outside of Varnamtown, drawing attention of law enforcement. The pilots fled the scene afoot, escaping into a nearby forest, leaving behind bales of cocaine.

Drug Enforcement Agency officer Mike Grimes was called to investigate and captured the pilots. As well, a local officer, Larry Joyner, was investigating a ship that ran aground with 18 tons of marijuana. Grimes and Joyner paired up and began tracking the drugs.  

Eventually, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation stepped in and tapped agent Corey Duber to conduct the case with the DEA. After interviewing townsfolk, including friends of Crazy Dale, many said he was the biggest dealer in town. Duber eventually approached Varnam to become an informant. 

Taking the deal would lead to dozens of drug-trafficking charges being dropped that were leveled against Varnam. He took the offer and turned in upward of 100 hundred people with his testimony. 

“He was so frightened of going to prison,” Duber said on episode six of “Varnamtown.” “He cooperated quicker than anyone else.”

For providing undercover intel, Varnam never served time — though Duber said on the podcast he was looking at 1,200 years. Yet, Varnam got off with only probation, due to the agents putting in a good word for him. 

A few years later, however, Varnam ended up behind bars due to a heisting operation. Investigators confiscated stolen goods out of his home at Fort Apache; for violating his government deal, Varnam served 10 years of a 35-year sentence.

His turn away from the lifestyle has veered into a life of charity and gonzo entertainment, with its theology reinterpreting wild years through a prism of humor and penance.

There’s a diagram at the gates of Fort Apache; life, death, and heaven or hell. It might have the moral purposes of a cathedral, but the architecture is welcomingly kitsch, not dauntingly Gothic, and the horrors of a brimstone afterlife are to be averted by ranks of grinning plastic skeletons.

Indeed, if there is any message to be taken from the tableaux, it is the ridiculousness of sin and the ease of redemption. Messages about the power of God are everywhere. Some say “In our end, what matters is love” — another, “A world of land, our God is everything.” 

There really is no substitute for listening to Varnam in person. He answers direct inquiries with extended stories, hopping from subject to subject with impressionist brio. 

“How many people do you know who’ve been struck by lightning?” he asked. 

“It killed the pigments in my skin, and I still bleed at night,” Varnam said, holding up his ears to show the damage. He said lightning struck inside his cell while he was serving time in prison. 

Despite his past, Varnam doesn’t use drugs, nor does he drink. He told the story of a bad experience with alcohol, prompting him to stay away from the bottle:

“I graduated in 1970, and when I went to my class reunion,” he said, speaking of Shallotte High School. “When my classmates came together, all my classmates said, ‘Dale, you’ve got to drink something.’ I said ‘I don’t drink.’”

He refers to one friend, “Mr. Charlie,” who brought a jug of Old Crow whiskey. 

“I took the lid off, held my nose, and I drank it, and when I drank that, oh my gosh…” 

Varnam said his friends told him afterward: “‘You ate three cans of Alpo dog food.’” 

At Betz’s prompting during PCD’s visit Monday, Varnam mentioned another incident where he ruined a room’s drywall. 

“The bad part was Charlie had a Chinese carbine,” Varnam said. “I took the bayonet and cut holes in the sheetrock. My family had to take care of that.” 

Varnam is working to repair Fort Apache in preparation for a fall reopening. In 2018, its walls were breached by an SUV, which injured three people — one of whom was Varnam. He had to be airlifted to the hospital and the injury left him with many broken ribs and screws in his legs. H The attraction also closed temporarily after Hurricane Matthew.  

Per Varnam, the Covid-19 pandemic extended this for more years of inaccessibility.

Fort Apache is a larger version of the model houses he created from used cigar boxes behind bars. Upon release, he went to a halfway house in Wilmington — which Varnam told PCD in 2017 was worse than being locked up.

“Man, I felt safer back in prison,” he said seven years ago.

While in Wilmington, Varnam began meeting filmmakers, who took an interest in his compound and what was buried in the stockpile. Varnam rented out items for set-dressing films, especially old cars; he also helps with local theater productions. 

Varnam’s fort was even featured on “American Pickers” more than a decade ago.

He has amassed a collection of film regalia, too, in turn. His stock includes the Zoltar fortune-telling machine from the movie “Big” and St. Alban’s hospital car from “The Godfather,” which attracted recent attention. 

Because March 14 is the anniversary of “The Godfather”’s release, Varnam said he received a call from the History Channel recently. The person was named Courtney, “whoever that is,” he added. Per Varnam, she asked: “Do you still have that crap in Brunswick County?”

“No matter who comes,” Varnam said, by a row of toilets that stand like scruffy porcelain sentinels across Fort Apache, “Brunswick County — that’s where all the crap is.” 

Fort Apache has a collection of toilets and other odds and ends on a 28-acre compound that Varnam owns. (Port City Daily/Copeland Jacobs)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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