Jackpot: The True Story Former reporter hits big with a topic the Lowcountry has been waiting for

By Wendy Nilsen Pollitzer

Jason Ryan

Author Jason Ryan recently released “Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs,” a researched account of Operation Jackpot and a book the Lowcountry has been anticipating for quite some time.


Through extensive interviews with kingpins, smugglers, investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys, as well as research of trials and legal proceedings, news archives, and government records, Ryan, a former staff reporter for South Carolina’s The State newspaper, has created a narrative that details the rise and fall of the gentlemen smugglers. Jackpot is his first book.

Ryan shared a few of his thoughts about “Jackpot” with The Island News:


On his interest about the subject:


One of the smugglers’ daughters introduced me to the story of the Lowcountry’s “gentlemen” marijuana smugglers, and I was immediately intrigued. This woman hadn’t seen her father in more than 20 years on account of him being a fugitive from Operation Jackpot, and I soon learned he was only one of many, many men who dared smuggle marijuana and hashish through marshes up and down South Carolina and the rest of the East Coast. The more I learned about the gentlemen smugglers and Operation Jackpot, the more I became convinced the story needed to be told, chronicling all the outrageous parties, jailbreaks, manhunts, close calls and disasters at sea. The smugglers definitely broke the law in style, and the government went to extraordinary lengths to catch some very slippery outlaws.


On its research and writing:


It took me a little more than three years to research and write Jackpot, interviewing dozens of men and women on both sides of the law. I spent about a year in Beaufort doing this research before moving to Charleston, where the bulk of the Jackpot court records and trial transcripts were stored. In some cases, it took a considerable amount of effort to convince the smugglers to talk, and my interviews went right down to the wire. I was in the Florida Keys and Palm Beach two weeks before my deadline, wrapping up some loose ends. No matter the amount of lobbying and coaxing I had to do, though, each and every interview was worthwhile, as I heard one fascinating story after another, whether I was in a judge’s chambers or out on a shrimpboat.


On its reception since publication:


Jackpot has only been out for a few weeks, but the feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Many people say they couldn’t put it down, which makes me both pleased and distressed, as a book that took me three years to write takes others three days to read. I think people appreciate the narrative I crafted, weaving together action, history and the often amusing (and just as often astounding) behavior of extremely memorable characters. Readers are taught the mechanics of smuggling operations and law enforcement investigations while being given the chance to contemplate the bigger concepts of justice, loyalty, rebellion and legacy.


Many readers also say they are startled to learn just how successful the smugglers were, and how many pounds of pot came through South Carolina’s marshes in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s good to hear, and I hope that readers appreciate how drug trafficking and the United States’ War on Drugs has changed in the decades since Operation Jackpot. Without excusing the smugglers’ crimes, I essentially make the argument that the men and women in Jackpot represent a golden age of drug smuggling, when violence was rare and adventure and camaraderie were in good supply. Nowadays, guns and money seem to rule drug trafficking, which isn’t healthy for smugglers, cops, or our society.


Beaufort readers can meet Jason Ryan on Monday, May 16 at the Beaufort Branch of the Beaufort County Library at 6pm.

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