The poster for the movie “American Made,” to be released Friday, Sept. 29, shows a grinning, cocky Tom Cruise as the drug smuggler Barry Seal, hauling a duffle bag bursting with cash. “It’s not a felony if you’re doing it for the good guys,” the poster teases. The film’s trailer has Seal casually boasting about his simultaneous work for “the CIA, the DEA and Pablo Escobar.”
One critic was led to ask: “So, was Seal a triple agent?” Perhaps. The producers say this swaggering story, based mostly in Arkansas, is all “based on a true lie.”
“American Made” is Hollywood’s second film about Seal, the trafficker-turned-government-informant who is fast becoming America’s most intriguing outlaw. HBO released the first, “Doublecrossed,” starring Dennis Hopper as Seal, in 1991, five years after Seal’s controversial murder.
When Cruise’s film was announced, its title was going to be “Mena,” after the town in Arkansas where a local company hid Seal’s aircraft and modified them for drug drops. I was a reporter focusing on drugs in the 1980s, but I learned of Seal’s three-year presence at Mena only after the night in 1986 when Colombian assassins gunned him down in Baton Rouge, La.
I became one of many reporters who tried to untangle Seal’s story and, though that task ultimately proved impossible, I did learn a lot about him. But now, the bits and pieces collected about Seal have provided enough material — enough “true lies” — for Hollywood to weave into films that enlarge his legend.
But his actual story is littered with dead ends — secrets that are still being carefully kept — especially in Arkansas. And here, I’m sorry to say, some police records that were open to the public 20 years ago are apparently no longer available.
I wouldn’t know this if it weren’t for Cruise’s film. When it was announced with a planned release in 2016, Rod Lorenzen, the manager of Butler Center Books, a division of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, asked me to write a history of Seal’s time in Arkansas to correspond with the movie’s release. I was honored. The Butler Center is part of the highly respected Arkansas Studies Institute, a creation of the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
I’m a huge admirer of the ASI and consider its staff my friends. Yet I declined. I told Lorenzen that the book he proposed would be too hard to write; that there were still too many people in power — in both political parties — who did not want Seal’s full story told.
But Lorenzen persisted. I began to waver, recalling the words of some Arkansans who’d known Barry Seal.
“I can arrest an old hillbilly out here with a pound of marijuana and a local judge and jury would send him to the penitentiary,” a former sheriff at Mena in 1988 had said, “but a guy like Seal flies in and out with hundreds of pounds of cocaine and he stays free.”
The prosecuting attorney there had avowed: “I believe that the activities of Mr. Seal came to be so valuable to the Reagan White House and so sensitive that no information concerning Seal’s activities could be released to the public. The ultimate result was that not only Seal but all of his confederates and all of those who worked with or assisted him in illicit drug traffic were protected by the government.”
And this, by the Internal Revenue Service agent who’d found evidence of money laundering at Mena: “There was a cover-up.”
Nothing had changed with regard to Seal since those men spoke those words, except that the savage war on drugs had ground on, while Seal — whatever he was — remained a hidden but important part of its history. Finally, I told Lorenzen I would write the book; I would document as much as I could of Seal’s secretive Arkansas years.
We agreed that the book would be called “The Mena File: Barry Seal’s Ties to Drug Lords and U.S. Officials.” Lorenzen commissioned a cover while I began my research by contacting the Arkansas State Police. I knew the agency had an extensive file on Seal because I’d read it decades earlier, shortly after Seal’s murder. In fact, I still had a letter from the former director advising me, in case I’d planned to make copies, that the file held some 3,000 pages.
But now, three decades after Seal’s murder, State Police spokesman Bill Sadler reported that he could locate no files on Seal. None. Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act requires the release of public records, but Sadler said that, in Seal’s case, the agency was unable to do that. I protested, and after weeks of back-and-forth, Sadler reported that a file on Seal had been discovered. He eventually provided a packet of 409 pages. He said this was all the agency could release after duplicates and documents that are exempt from public disclosure were removed.
Even allowing for duplicates and legal exemptions, I would find the reduction of publicly available records, from 3,000 pages 20 years ago to just over 400 now, disturbing. My concern increases when the case is one of national interest that’s also replete with political connections. As Sadler suggested, the state police in the past may have made too much available. On the other hand, if the grip on information about Seal has been tightened, the reason for this extra control might be traced to his earliest days in Arkansas.
By late 1982, when Seal moved his aircraft to Mena from his home base in Baton Rouge, federal agents had already identified him as “a major international narcotics trafficker.” Police watching Mena’s airport notified federal authorities that a fat man from Louisiana had begun frequenting an aircraft modification company there called Rich Mountain Aviation.
That same year, President Ronald Reagan appointed Asa Hutchinson, already a tough, anti-drug crusader, as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Wanting to keep tabs on Seal, Hutchinson ordered William Duncan, an investigator for the IRS, to watch for signs of money laundering around Mena resulting from Seal’s presence.
Another investigator, Russell Welch of the State Police, was assigned to look for evidence of cocaine arriving there. Duncan and Welch both told me that being assigned to Seal ended up ruining their careers.
Welch said he began to suspect that something was amiss one night in December 1983, when he and several other law enforcement officers had staked out the airport, watching for Seal. He said they’d seen the smuggler and his co-pilot land and taxi to a hangar at Rich Mountain Aviation, where workers installed an illegal, extra fuel tank in the plane.
Welch said that Seal had taken off into the wintry night, fast and without lights. But what he remembered most was how surprised he, the FBI agents and the Arkansas Game and Fish officer who’d joined them had been that, although officers for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had met them at a motel in Mena, none had gone with them to the stakeout.