My Night with the DEA
and 6,500 Ecstasy Tablets
After my spell in prison I started a business — that became KashFlow, a SaaS accounting product. I sold the business at the end of 2013. Since then I’ve had a bit of time on my hands so have written down my life story. From growing up in care homes to prison on two continents to making millions. Now I’ve written it, I’ve no idea what to do with it. But I thought I’d share the following chapter. It’s all true — only the agents names have been changed.
Let me know what you think via Twitter — @duanejackson
Since I published this I’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and lots of people asking where they can read more of the story. This spurred me on to write the full book.
Read on for what became the first chapter or click here for more info on the full book .
The flight from London to Atlanta was uneventful, I’d been pleased to get some sleep after a heavy night drinking.
My hand luggage was stuffed with drugs and as I got to the top of the escalator, I spotted two sniffer dogs. My heart skipped a beat. I couldn't turn back. I could only stand in the crowd on the escalator slowly descending. It took forever. I could see them getting closer and closer. Every passing second seemed to add weight to my bag. I had no idea if Ecstasy had a smell that could be detected by dogs. It’s not something I had even thought about. I was trying to keep calm and not look nervous, even as my stomach was tying itself in knots. I became paranoid that one of the dogs was staring at me. My palms were sweating and I felt nauseous. I stepped off the escalator and waited for the dogs to pounce. They didn't.
A wave of relief came over me. I’d never taken Ecstasy myself but if I could have bottled the feeling I had just endured I am sure I could have sold it and made a fortune. Thank God this was to be my last trip, I never wanted to go through that experience again. I just needed to collect my checked-in suitcase, complete the deal and be on my way to see Simone for a weekend of romance in New York. I couldn’t wait to tell her about what just happened. I laughed to myself about how scared I was.
‘Excuse me sir, do you have all of your luggage?’ asked a man in uniform who had just materialised in front of me.
‘No. I’m still waiting,’ I replied.
He smiled, nodded and walked away.
Ahead of me I could see lots of Customs officers busy checking cases. At Gatwick, Heathrow or JFK I had never seen all of the Customs tables in use. But here it was like a jumble sale — every table had an open suitcase on it with a uniformed officer searching.
My bag appeared and I headed straight for the Nothing to Declare lane. My mind was telling my legs to move faster and my legs were shouting back to slow down, don’t attract attention! That initial relief disappeared and I began to panic again.
‘Step this way please,’ an officer ordered. F!#K!
He took my suitcase and gave it a thorough going over. It was clean, of course.
But my shoulder bag … would they notice it?
Pathetically, I tried to push it further round my back, willing it to disappear.
‘And that one,’ he demanded, indicating the bag that refused to disappear between my shoulder blades. Now I knew the game was up.
He pulled out the talcum powder, took off the lid and emptied it onto the stainless steel counter. I saw clouds of talcum powder, followed by dozens and dozens of tubes of Ecstasy tablets, all wrapped in clingfilm. Not a word was uttered but I could tell the officer was pleased with himself. How? Because the bastard started humming a merry tune as he worked through the rest of the bag.
Then he started to take the back off the portable speaker. There were thousands of pills there. He had hit the jackpot.
‘Are these yours?’ The guy who had previously looked bored silly and as if he’d have rather been at home — doing whatever it was Customs officers do on their day off — was somehow replaced by his identical twin brother, full of smiles and the joys of life.
‘Yes,’ I stammered. He asked me what they were. ‘Ecstasy tablets.’ I admitted.
More officers swarmed on me. I was taken to a holding cell, a large windowless room close to the Customs area. I realised that after the emotional roller coaster of the last few minutes I was remarkably calm. I guess I was resigned to whatever was to happen now was out of my hands and I just needed to go with the flow. I realized I was probably going to be a bit late getting to New York. Naively, I thought there was probably going to be a mountain of paperwork to get through before they gave me a formal slap on the wrist and sent me on my way with a cheery ‘Have a nice day!’ At worst, they wouldn't let me into the country and instead send me packing back to London without even seeing Simone.
Hang on… London. Allen was staying at my flat while I was away. He’d be wondering why I hadn't called to let him know I’d cleared Customs. By now he would have started to worry that something had gone wrong.
Alone, I was in that holding cell for what felt like hours, with my head spinning from the millions of thoughts racing through my brain. At some point I managed to stop kidding myself that I was going to be free any time soon. This was Georgia, they took this kind of thing pretty damn seriously here, didn't they?
For the first time it hit home just how much trouble I could be in. I hadn't set out on the path of a career criminal. I wasn't a hardened East End thug. I had just fallen into an opportunity to earn an extra bit of money to pay my bills and keep the roof over my head.
Eventually, the door opened and two guys I hadn't seen before walked in.
Special Agent Shelby introduced himself and his partner, Anton, both from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the DEA. I’d heard of them, they were the stuff of Hollywood movies. Anton was black, stocky and in his late thirties. Shelby was white, tall and skinny with long hair. He looked like a drug user, certainly not a cop or a DEA agent. Maybe he was also an undercover drugs officer. I couldn't place his age. Maybe a young 40 or an old-looking 25.
They both wore plain clothes, jeans and T-shirts, but with their badges hanging from their trousers and packing guns in their holsters. Shelby suddenly started scaring me witless by saying I was looking at 25 years in jail and a $1 million fine. I thought he was winding me up. But he wasn't joking, that’s exactly what I was facing.
They started quizzing me about the drugs. Where did I get them? And, more importantly, who was meeting me in Atlanta? I avoided answering as best I could and tried to plead ignorance. If anyone ever really does meet a stranger in a pub and is asked to carry drugs for them then good bloody luck getting anyone to believe you.
I was playing dumb in a desperate bid to buy time. I knew by now that Allen would have known that it had all gone wrong. With no coded phone call from me to confirm I had cleared Customs, the whole Stateside operation would have been alerted too.
Shelby had finally had enough and gave me an ultimatum: Help them lay a trap for the American buyers or go straight to jail.
‘Do not pass Go? Do not collect two hundred pounds?’ I asked with a smile. I was actually starting to enjoy myself. It all felt a bit surreal.
‘Dollars,’ said Anton. ‘You’re in my country now’. He wasn't smiling.
Great line, I thought. “You’re in my country now”. I could imagine Harrison Ford saying that to the Russian baddie.
I couldn't grass up my friends, it just wasn't an option. I certainly wasn't going to give up the Americans either. It was inevitable that I was going to go to prison at some point. My goal now was to delay that for as long as possible, even if just for a couple more hours.
I did my best to look thoughtful, as if I was mentally struggling with a big difficult decision. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll help you catch the buyers.’ I thought I could string out their questioning and play along with the game. The buyers would be long gone as I hadn't made the call to London to say I was past Customs.
‘If you hadn't got stopped, what would you have done once you got out of the airport?’ asked Shelby. ‘Here’s a clue: the answer isn't “I don’t know”.’
“I would have gone to a hotel and waited for a phone call”, I lied.
When I’d been searched at Customs, I’d had a scrap of paper in my pocket. On one side was Simone’s name and phone number. On the other side it read ‘Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza’ and an Atlanta phone number — the results of my last-minute rushed research that morning before leaving home.
‘Which hotel?’ he asked again, getting impatient. He pulled out a folded up polythene packet from his back pocket. It had my scrap of paper in it. He put it on the table in front of me ‘This hotel?’
I just nodded.
‘So this is the hotel.’ Anton said. It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. And it was aimed at Shelby, not at me.
They smiled at each other, extremely pleased with themselves and their well-honed interrogation techniques. The pair had a major drugs bust in their sights. Their enthusiasm was bordering on cockiness.
‘So what are we waiting for? Let’s get you checked in,’ Anton declared before they both left the room. He was certainly smiling now.
Ten minutes later they were back but confused and not pleased with me. They realized the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza were two different hotels, not the name of one.
I resisted the urge to say ‘Well, duh!’ Surely this should have been self-evident to two highly-trained drug enforcement officers who were on their own patch. Had it really taken them so long to figure out?
I continued playing dumb and just said, ‘Are they? I didn't realize.’
‘Which one would you have gone to?’
I wasn't sure. Maybe Holiday Inn as I had written it first. Shelby and Anton couldn't fathom out the conundrum and called for their superior.
The Boss Man arrived. I never got to know his name. He was older, in his mid-fifties perhaps and, although smartly dressed, I couldn't help thinking he was wearing a cheap suit for a man calling the shots.
He looked me up and and down as he entered the cell and was obviously underwhelmed.
‘Is this the guy?’ he asked Anton in the thickest southern drawl I’d ever heard.
He wanted to hear my whole story for himself. I found it difficult to understand his accent and I kept asking him to repeat himself. At the same time he was baffled by my East London accent. It was quite comical: here we were talking the same language but neither could make head nor tail of what the other was saying.
Anton began to interpret. Boss Man asked if they called me Steady Eddie back in London.
I frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Wod yummin?’ said Boss Man, obviously not understanding me.
Anton translated for me and the big man explained that someone in as much trouble as me seemed incredibly calm. I just laughed, which was probably not the best reaction.
The truth is that it didn't feel real. It was as if it was happening to someone else. I was struggling to take these guys seriously. And the American accents just added to the feeling that I was trapped in a film.
Finally, someone decided for no apparent reason I would have definitely gone to the Crowne Plaza and not the Holiday Inn. With that they booked me in over the phone and within minutes we were suddenly on the move. For the first time in hours I left the airport and I realised it was now quite late, probably about 11pm.
Shelby and Anton, with four other officers, escorted me through a maze of corridors in the airport and we left the building through a nondescript side exit. I was shoved into the back of a big Jeep with blacked-out windows, squeezed in between two burly agents in the back. Anton and Shelby were in the front.
As the car-cum-tank moved out of the airport, Shelby put on some music and kept turning around and smiling at me. It dawned on me that he was expecting a reaction to the music, so I listened a bit closer.
‘Bad boys, bad boys. What you gonna do? What you gonna do when they come for you?’ I vaguely knew the song but had no idea what Shelby wanted. He stopped the CD and enthusiastically explained that it was the theme tune from the show Cops and he always played it when he made an arrest.
‘I’ve never seen it,’ I confessed.
Shelby was clearly disappointed and we drove the rest of the way in silence.
It didn't take long before we came to a stop at a petrol station. On one side was the Holiday Inn. On the other side, not quite as tall, the Crowne Plaza. Shelby got out immediately and disappeared in the general direction of the latter.
‘Right. Let’s get this show on the road,’ boomed Anton, pointing at the hotel.
‘Go up to reception and give your name,’ he ordered. ‘You’re booked into Room 709. You’ll see agents you probably recognize from the airport. Don’t make any attempt at eye contact and don’t talk to them.
‘As you walk from here to the hotel there are 10 guns pointed at you, so don’t even think about trying anything stupid.’
Too late, I thought. I already have.
I wasn't planning on doing anything. I didn't know what they thought I could do. Maybe summon a helicopter to rescue me? They must have been watching too much James Bond.
‘Quiet on set,’ I muttered to myself as I stepped out of the car and made the short walk to the hotel. It felt weird to be out in the fresh evening air on my own. It was certainly refreshing after the crowded cell and car but short-lived as I very quickly reached the foyer.
Without difficulty, I spotted the agents, including Shelby. I walked straight past him and as I did I sensed him walk into my shadow and follow me as I approached reception. He was right on my shoulder as I walked up to the desk. Yeah, Shelby, that seems really natural, mate.
‘My name is Jackson and I have a reservation,’ I told the pretty receptionist
‘Certainly sir,’ she replied, tapping into her keyboard.
‘No reservation here for you.’ as she looked up from the screen. ‘But we have vacancies — how many nights will you be staying with us?’
‘Sorry, but I do have a reservation. It’s for room 709.’
‘You can’t have, sir — we don’t even have a seventh floor,’ she explained.
The next 30 seconds seemed to go on forever. I was just standing there looking at her. The receptionist must have thought I was crazy. I didn't know what to do or say. I was standing like a statue, feet set in concrete and staring blankly at her. I could feel Shelbys presence next to me but was desperate not to turn and make eye contact with him. I didn't want to piss off the DEA.
Shelby finally leaned over, discreetly showed her his badge and confirmed we had booked Room 709. She struggled to maintain her patience and her smile had been replaced by a look of frustration. She repeated to him that they didn't have a Room 709. Pulling out his notebook, Shelby gave her a reservation number.
‘Ah!’ the receptionist brightened up. ‘I see the problem! That’s a reservation code for the Holiday Inn just across the way there.’
I was still standing there like a complete idiot, staring at some fixed point in the distance, as if someone had removed my batteries. But I could feel the energy seeping out of Shelby.
He babbled into his radio. Instantly a load of guys who had been sitting around reading newspapers in the hotel lobby, stood up simultaneously and walked towards the front of the building.
‘Come with me,’ Shelby demanded, grabbing my arm and whispering: ‘Walk with me out of the lobby.’ Outside, the undercover agents were standing together.
They had obviously given up on the whole discretion thing as at least two of them had put on their DEA baseball caps, while one had the logo on the back of his jacket. They looked a formidable sight. Any would-be drug buyers in the area, especially my imaginary ones, would certainly have been scared off by now.
Boss Man was there, not looking happy. Shelby still hadn't let go of my arm and I thought he’d forgotten he still had hold of me. So I got to listen to the entire conversation that followed. It turned out that the phone number on my scrap of paper was for the Holiday Inn. So, despite being told to book me in to the Crowne Plaza, some underling didn't check the correct number and simply called what I had written down.
Given the huge DEA presence and the fact that it was hours after I should have checked in to the hotel to wait for this supposed phone call, it’d be fair to assume my buyers would have given up by now.
Well, you’d be wrong. The evening’s entertainment was only just getting started. Unbelievably, Boss Man decided it was worth going across the road to the Holiday Inn for Drugs Bust: Take Two.
The big car pulled up and I was chucked into it, flanked by my new friends. We went through the charade of driving back to the garage, the only difference being I was told to go directly to my room on the seventh floor and nowhere near the reception desk. By the time I reached Room 709, its door and that of the adjoining room were wide open and everywhere was swarming with agents.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air but I could only feel sorry for them as there were no drug dealers about to call to arrange a big pick-up. I was like a bad Santa, leaving them with no presents to unwrap.
At first I was told to sit on the bed and not move. The room next door was being set up as a monitoring station and I watched the agents as they discussed where to position their cameras and microphones. They even went to the extent of hiding a camera on top of the curtain rail and bugging the phone. It was all very elaborate.
‘Where will they sit?’ I suddenly realized I was being quizzed.
‘Sorry?’ I asked.
‘Where will they sit? Your buyers, where will they sit?’ said yet another agent, one I’d not previously seen.
Where would a non-existent drug dealer sit when doing a non-existent drug deal? I wondered.
‘On the chair?’ I replied without a hint of facetiousness.
‘Right, the chair!’ he said, as if he’d just had a eureka moment, remembering the well-known fact that drug dealers simply loved a good sit down in a chair. Time to move the room’s only chair from its natural place in the corner to an odd angle near the foot of the bed. He disappeared next door, returning again to adjust the position of the chair slightly to get a clearer shot from his curtain-cam.
‘Doesn't that look a bit silly there?’ I asked.
Boss Man agreed with me and ordered it back where it was.
‘But it’s out of shot there,’ protested Agent Curtain Cam.
‘Then move the damn camera!’ said the head honcho, beginning to lose patience.
The chair went back to its original position and the camera was installed inside a plastic bin. This was going to be interesting I thought, genuinely curious to see how he was going to disguise the hole he’d made in the side of the bin for the camera. He pulled the bin bag down to just above the hole. It was not as inconspicuous as it was on the curtain rail but it’d probably do.
But then, rather than put the bin back on the floor, he carefully positioned it on the side unit next to the TV. Not only did it look stupidly out of place but given its new altitude you could now quite clearly see the hole for the camera. He checked the monitor in the other room and was apparently happy with the view.
The boss walked in and looked at it. ‘Uh oh.’ I thought he was going to kick off but either he’d given up on getting any decent work out of his men or that’s where he was used to seeing bins, he seemed perfectly happy with the set up.
I was thankful I was not really planning to do a deal in this room. Anyone who came into that room would have taken one look at the bin-with-a-hole-pointing-at-the-chair and walked straight back out again, potentially shooting me as they left.
Eventually, calmness descended over the room. The cameras were all installed and tested time and time again. Shelby, Anton, a couple of other agents and Boss Man were with me, just chilling, but excitedly waiting for the call … the call that was never going to happen. Agent Bin Cam must have been on monitoring duty next door because he was not with us. I wondered how long they would wait?
We had not eaten for hours and hunger was starting to set in. An agent was dispatched to McDonald’s and I ordered six chicken nuggets, chips, barbecue sauce and a Coca-Cola. As we tucked in, small talk turned to England and we sat chatting like a group of pals about television programmes and other trivia.
Every now and then the boss would chip in with a ‘what did he say?’ and Anton would do his Anglo-American translation. But as we continued to talk I noticed a change in the chief’s mood as he began to tire at the lack of any real action. He still couldn't understand my accent and was beginning to get the right hump. I could only imagine that the penny was beginning to drop and the phone call was just not going to happen.
Then his mood blackened completely and he started shouting, accusing me of lying and wasting their time. Well, he wasn't wrong there. The louder he became the less and less I could understand what he was saying. Anton had to interpret for me and that made him madder still. He had finally lost it. The game was up.
What happened next could only be described as a minor miracle. The phone rang. How could this be happening? Who on this planet could be phoning me? There was not another living soul (apart from my new DEA pals) who knew I was in Room 709. But whoever was on the other end of that phone certainly caused a commotion. To be more precise, all hell broke loose.
Boss Man quietened everyone down and told me to answer the phone. No translation required.
I picked up the receiver and as soon as I said ‘hello’, the shrill sound of an agent‘s radio filled the room. Some dickhead had forgotten to turn his radio off!
The phone went dead, most likely because the caller heard my British accent and realized they had the wrong room or maybe they weren't expecting a male voice and didn't have the courtesy to apologize. But Boss Man was convinced the radio had scared off my contact. The guilty agent had the bollocking of his life. I was just grateful that he was shouting at someone else.
They convinced themselves the buyer was going to call again but I knew differently. He wouldn't because he didn't exist. Everything I’d told them was a fiction.
We sat twiddling our thumbs for another hour or so. Boss Man realised he’d got me wrong and I wasn't a lying time-waster after all, but tempers were once again becoming frayed and I realized that the hapless agent was nowhere to be seen. He was probably on the first plane to Alaska for a new posting.
The boss must have been totting up all the overtime being racked up by his agents for all this effort, which was so far hopelessly unrewarded. He was bombarding me with questions but I could only play dumb. I just kept repeating that I was instructed to go to the hotel and wait for the call.
He suddenly remembers about the name Simone and the New York phone number on the piece of paper.
‘Tell me about her again,’ he demanded.
I saw no reason to lie about Simone. I was relieved we were on a topic that I was happy to talk about without being evasive. I’d briefly explained who she was earlier in the night but now I spoke enthusiastically about her being my girlfriend and studying drama at university in New York. I told them I was going to buy a domestic ticket to go to see her once the deal was done. For once I was not telling porkies. But he became obsessed with the idea that she was part of the deal and the destination for the drugs. I just laughed. There was only way to find out, he insisted: ‘Phone her now.’
It was the middle of the night in New York, too, but he didn't give a damn, demanding I called Simone to tell her I had been delayed. I didn't really have an option. I had to make that call. And they were listening in. No-one needed to be told to make sure their radio was off this time.
Simone was genuinely surprised to hear my voice. I explained I’d been held up and could not get to New York till the next morning. She said it was fine and I suspect she probably wanted to get back to sleep. But Boss Man moved his finger in a circular motion to indicate I should keep the conversation going. I was struggling to think what to say but remembered the play she was excited for us to see together, so I asked if she had managed to get tickets for Snakebite.
‘Yes, yes. I have two tickets for us,’ she said, ‘but I haven’t been able to get an extra one for Natalie. She really wanted to come with us.’
I had been concentrating on talking to Simone. So when I looked back up at the agents in the room I was amazed to see the change in their demeanor. They were all smiles! Boss Man was running his finger across his neck indicating that I should end the call. We should have done sign language from the outset! I said goodnight to Simone and put down the phone, fully aware that I was totally not going to see her any time soon. I looked across at the boss and it was the first time I had seen him so happy. It was kind of creepy to think that this guy, who had been so miserable for what was beginning to seem like an eternity, was standing in front of me with a huge grin on his face.
The madness continued. Shelby and Anton gave each other high fives. I naively asked why they were all smiling.
‘Now we know Simone was the real recipient of the drugs! You said ‘Snakebite’. Do you think we’re stupid? It was code. We are the snake and you have just been bitten my friend.’
What? My mind started racing. If this was what they believed, what was going to happen to Simone? When they asked her surname I genuinely couldn‘t remember it. All I knew was that it was an Italian name that began with an ‘S’. I wanted to tell them so they could see I wasn’t lying. She really was a drama student and involved with a play called Snakebite.
But they weren't having any of it, making arrangements for New York cops to bust Simone.
The boss turned to me and told his agents: ‘Right, get him out of here.’
I was handcuffed and shoved in a marked police car, taken to a small local station and thrown in a big dark cell with two local Atlanta hoodlums. I remember it being eerily quiet and dark. It was suddenly all getting a bit scary and real. For the first time I wasn't really sure what was going to happen next but it wasn't long before I found out.
As dawn broke, I was back in cuffs and on the move, this time in a prison van, for a 45-minute transfer to Clayton County Detention Centre.
What Happened Next?
Since I published this I've had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and lots of people asking where they can read more of the story. This spurred me on to write the full book which is now available. Click here for more info.