Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Stranger in a Strange Land: The Curious Times of Ronald Stark Part IV

Welcome to the fourth installment in my examination of the life and times of the enigmatic LSD baron Ronald Hadley Stark. From 1969 till the late 1970s networks Stark was involved with would dominate the international trade in acid, one of several contraband items Stark dealt in. Stark would rub shoulders with many of the key figures of the 1960s counterculture as well an individual or two with a deep background. As I've stated throughout this series, this researcher is greatly indebted to the fine work done by Skilluminati and readers looking for a quick run down of Stark's life are advised to check out the groundbreaking article already published there.

For those of you just joining me, here's a brief rundown of what's been covered thus far: During the first installment I went over what little information is available concerning Stark's background prior to 1969 and briefly addressed his introduction to the legendary Brotherhood of Eternal Love. With the second installment I noted the heavy influence Robert A Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress had on Stark as well as outlining Heinlein's own curious life; I also addressed the down fall of the Brotherhood and the militant groups Start kept ties with during the early 1970s. With the third and most recent installment I considered the origins of the "Microdot Gang", the British LSD syndicate that replaced the Brotherhood after 1973 as the world's leading supplier in the mid-1970s. With this installment I'll finish up with the Microdot Gang, among other things, so on with the show:

Stark in theory broke from chemist Richard Kemp after 1970 and the ties between the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Microdot Gang theoretically vanished. Kemp allegedly set out on his own with the assistance of his partner, Christine Bott, Stark's old associate (and a former member of the OSS) David Solomon, and a new partner named Henry Todd. Around the time the Brotherhood was being rounded up by the DEA the Microdot Gang was just coming into its own.
"A self-described political revolutionary, Kemp viewed LSD as a tool for furthering the radical cause. While living in a cottage in Wales, he gathered around him, a core of like-minded individuals and set up an elaborate network for disseminating his product. During the mid-1970s Kemp's group succeeded the Brotherhood of Eternal Love as the main psychedelic distribution operation in the world. Kemp's high-quality acid flowed from the United Kingdom to France, Israel, the Netherlands, Australia, West Germany, and the US. The British smuggling ring, however, had none of the mythos attached to the Brotherhood. Their notoriety would only come after they were busted. For even as Kemp was completing a manufacturing run of a kilo and a half of crystalline LSD, the police were watching him closely.
"Scotland Yard assigned twenty-eight detectives to nail Kemp's operation. The thirteen-month investigation became known as Operation Julie, so named after the key undercover agent, Sergeant Julie Taylor, who penetrated Kemp's network... The police arrested a hundred and twenty people, including Kemp, in the spring of 1977. Six million doses of LSD were seized in the raid. (Curiously, all of the acid later disappeared, prompting speculation that the police may have sold the drug.) During the trial, the prosecution claimed the Kemp's group produced half the world's supply of LSD in the mid-1970s. Kemp, unrepentant to the end, was convicted and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. Sixteen others also received jail terms."
(Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, pgs. 288-289)

Kemp and associates were weary of indicating that they were part of a broader network, however.
"Thanks to Bing Spear's forensic investigations at the Home Office, the Julie squad had known since 1976 of British connections with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Kemp however, when he was interviewed after his arrest, played down the past association with the Brotherhood and with Stark – though he did admit that the sophisticated safe deposit arrangements in Swiss banks were set up under Stark's supervision."
(Acid: A New Secret History of LSD, David Black, pg. 143)
Reportedly several police officers, including Detective Inspector Richard Lee (Operation Julie's head), believed that Stark was being protected from somewhere during the investigation.
"... 'Nancy', the Operation Julie squad's informant, 'strongly suspected that Stark was involved with the CIA and had friends in the American embassy.' Whether anyone in Britain was able to ask the CIA if they were running Stark is not known. Lee could only have got to them through the British security services, who told him nothing.
"It is much more likely that an American agency in possession of top secret information on Stark would have briefed MI6 rather than pass any relevant information to the British police, who were left to assume that Stark was an 'ordinary decent criminal'.
"Inspector Lee believe that after the Brotherhood have been broken up in 1972, a new organization had filled the void very quickly: 'The organization had significant links with people... involved with the Brotherhood... At the time of the Brotherhood break-up, most of the principal offenders had jumped bail, and some of the fugitives – including Randall [who was never caught] and Stark – had undoubtedly played a part in creating the new organization'."
(Acid: A New Secret History of LSD, David Black, pg. 144)
the wanted poster for members of the Brotherhood at large during this time frame 
Before leaving the Microdot Gang, its also interesting to note how the politics of the group were portrayed and attempts made at linking them with terrorism:
"Lee had noticed that the network he was investigating had 'a cell-like structure similar to that used by terrorist groups.' He began to suspect actual terrorist connections when, during the surveillance of the 'Let-It-Be Commune' in Wiltshire, a car used by a dealer suspected of working for the LSD network was linked in some (unspecified) way to the West German Red Army Faction. A check of an associate of the distribution network in Wales 'showed him to be Peter, John Panting', described by Lee as an associate of the Angry Brigade, which carried out a couple of dozen bombings between 1968 in 1971... After the trial in 1972 of the 'Stoke Newington Eight', the Angry Brigade was effectively defunct...
"Lee says he never learned what action, if any, the security services took as a result of his information and he got nothing from them in return regarding any drug-smuggling activities which MI5 and MI6's terrorist targets might have been involved in.
"Although none of the 130 people arrested in Operation Julie were charged with anything of a political or terrorist nature, the supposed 'terrorist connection' emerged in the pre-trial press coverage – when juicy tidbits were fed to journalist from the police PR department. The Daily Mirror, for example, ran a piece on how Kemp and his colleagues were allegedly preparing to put LSD into the water supply. The Leveler commented caustically: 'Connoisseurs of the anti-dissent rumor will recognize the similarity between the Mirror's allegation... and the equally groundless rumor that the Baader-Meinhof Group intended to deposit nuclear waste and Lake Constance.'
"Documents from police files, allegedly revealing the defendants' political views, were also circulated to the media. Richard Kemp was described as 'right-wing until midway through studies at Liverpool; converted to left-wing revolutionary'; his 'motive for suspected acid activity (was) a catalyst of British revolution by youth brought on by the use of LSD.'
"Christine Bott, Mark Tcharney, Andrew Munro and Todd's distributors, Alston Hughes and Martin Annable, were described as left wing. The political views of Todd, who had less contact than Kemp with the Brotherhood, were 'unknown' and his group, compared with Kemp's, comes across in the files as more motivated by money than politics...
"When asked what he spent his money on, Kemp told the police that he had supported rock festivals such as Windsor and Glastonbury, and had given money to Release, the organisation set up to help defendants in drug cases. Asked if he had 'supported politics', Kemp replied:
"'What organisation?'
"'Head politics.'
"'The name of the groups?' 
"'I don't want to discuss it.'
"Kemp's partner, Christine Bott, told the Julie Squad interrogators that she thought 'cannabis and LSD if used properly lifts the veil and one sees the truth'; that 'we weren't in for the money... I felt it was my contribution to alter society... I believe in Eternal Love thing – similar to Leary's'.
"Bott likened herself to another woman doctor, Rose Dugdale, who was committed to the IRA's bombing campaigns rather than to the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. But said she was 'not into guns', and that 'given the chance to use acid, people would be happier'...
"In reality, the only drug dealers of any significance during this period who had any terrorist connections were Howard Marks, and asset of MI6 and, as we shall see, Ron Stark, to whom Lee was denied access despite his role as a catalyst for the British acid industry."
(Acid: A New Secret History of LSD. David Black, pgs. 141-144)

The curious figure of Howard Marks was already discussed in brief during the third installment of this series. But effectively a major effort was made to link the Microdot Gang, the bulk of whom were politically liberal, to terrorism despite the only real links coming from two individuals, Marks and Stark, tied to one branch or another of the UK and/or US intelligence services.

Howard "Mr. Nice" Marks
And that brings us back to Ronald Stark. During 1975, just as Operation Julie was closing in on the then-thriving Microdot Gang, Stark would appear in a curious but highly advantageous spot: the Italian prison system. Prior to this, however, he had been living it up as an international drug lord with authorities none the wiser throughout the early 1970s. During this time he made some curious contacts:
"The fact that Stark was wanted on a drug rap in the US hardly put a damper on his international escapades. He spent much of his time in Italy during the 1970s, cavorting with Sicilian Mafiosi, secret service officials, and political extremists of the far left and far right. Stark's antics took him far afield. Occasionally he traveled to the Baalbek region of Lebanon, where he negotiated with a Shiite Muslim sect for shiploads of hashish. Stark claimed to be a business representative of Iman Moussa Sadr, a powerful Shiite warlord who controlled vast hashish plantations and a private army of 6,000 men. The area under his dominion was said to include training camps used by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and other terrorist groups.
"Back in Italy, Stark rented a small apartment in Florence. But he rarely stayed there, preferring the posh hotels of Rome, Milan, Bologna and other cities. By day he carried on as a smooth and successful businessman. At night he donned a pair of faded blue jeans and a work shirt and mingled with student radicals and other extremists. Moving in left-wing circles was nothing new for Ronald Stark. He had a knack for popping up wherever trouble was brewing. An American expatriate bumped into him on the streets of Paris during the peak of the Sorbonne uprising in 1968. In London he frequented the clubs and bars that were hangouts for dissident elements, and he made his first appearance in Milan during the 'hot autumn' of 1969, when massive student demonstrations and labor strikes nearly paralyzed Italy. Furthermore, Stark was tight with the Brotherhood leaders who contributed money to the Weather Underground for Timothy Leary's prison escape.
"Whatever game Stark was playing took an abrupt turn in February 1975 when Italian police received an anonymous phone call about a man selling drugs in a hotel in Bologna. A few days later at the Grand Hotel Baglioni they arrested a suspect in possession of 4,600 kilos of marijuana, morphine, and cocaine. The suspect carried a British passport bearing the name Mr. Terrance W. Abbott. Italian investigator soon discovered that 'Mr. Abbott' was actually Ronald Stark. Among his belongings was the key to a safe deposit box in Rome that contain documents on the manufacture of LSD and a synthetic version of cocaine. There was also a vial of liquid that scientists could not precisely identify (they figured it was something like LSD). Other items seized by police included letters from a certain Charles C. Adams written on stationary with the letterhead of the American embassy in London. The message from Adams, a foreign service officer, began with a confidential 'Dear Ron,' and were addressed to Stark's drug laboratory in Brussels, which had been raided in the fall of 1972 by a team of American agents."
(Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, pgs. 279-280)
Stark's "Terrance W. Abbot" passport
Would you be surprised to learn, dear reader, that Stark and associates were able to clear out of the Brussels laboratory just before American agents arrived thanks to this tip from Mr. Adams? Such was the curious fortune of Ronald Stark, a man who seems to have always been Johnny-on-the-spot when radical left elements were stirring in the West (and beyond, as his ties with the PLO indicate). As noted above, he made the scene in May 68; hooked up with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love just as the youth movement was in full swing in their home base of California and encouraged leaders to forge ties with the militant Weather Underground; and rubbed elbows with elements in the UK dedicated to the "armed struggle" all the while he was helping establishing the left-leaning Microdot Gang (as was noted in part three).

And naturally investigators started paying special attention to the Microdot Gang just after Stark is arrested in Italy thanks to an anonymous tip. And just who do you suppose Stark happened to link up with in prison, dear reader?
"While awaiting trial in Don Bosco Prison in Pisa, Stark worked as an assistant to the prison barber and put his multi-lingual talents to good use by translating legal documents for prisoners. His allegiances, however, had once again apparently swung from one extreme to the other. Stark was now holding court with inmates who were members of the Red Brigade and other left-wing groups. He showed a very thorough knowledge of Middle East politics and let it be known that he was well connected with armed Palestinian factions in the Lebanon – particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – and it may be that he even passed himself off as primarily a Palestinian in the 'national identity' sense.
"To his fellow prisoners, Stark was obviously a man of many talents, some of which were of use to them. What was less obvious was the Stark was informing on them. In spring 1976 he made contact with the chief prosecutor of Pisa and passed on details of conversations between himself and Red Brigades leader Renate Curcio. Stark told the state's attorney that he had heard prisoners discussing a plan to assassinate Judge Francesco Coco in Genoa. At the time, Coco was preparing the prosecution of Curcio and 52 alleged Red Brigades members.
"In the case of the Judge, Stark was soon proved right; in June 1976, he was shot dead along with two bodyguards. The significance of this act was twofold. It was the first deliberately planned killing attributed to the Red Brigades (previously they had only opened fire to escape from bungled operations). But also – and chillingly, considering the company Stark was keeping in Italy when he was arrested – Judge Coco was investigating the Mafia as well as the Red Brigades.
"At Stark's trial, in July 1976, he proclaimed himself to be a political prisoner and refused to recognize the court. He was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment – 10 of which he would never serve – and fined $60,000."
(Acid: A New Secret History of LSD, David Black, pgs. 164-165)
the hypothetical banner of the Red Brigades
It proved to be most fortuitous to Italian authorities to continue having Stark in prison and informing on the Red Brigades, because they would allegedly embark upon a kidnapping that would rock the Italian state to its core very shortly thereafter. In the next installment we shall consider this bizarre series of events. Stay tuned.

1 comment: