COWGIRLS & KILOS: The Bizarre Tale of a Dukes of Hazzard-Style Dope Ring,  Cut with a Heap of Southern Insanity

By Matthew B. Cox

IT WAS A MOONLESS NIGHT, three 4×4’s stopped under the cypress canopy. The vehicles’ high-beams hit the swamp and several alligators slithered off the banks into the black waters of the Florida Everglades. Jessica Marie Bell and her female co-conspirators—Aubrey Waldron, Jetta Frake, Jamie Hewitt, and Felisha Leitner—exited the vehicles. They were wearing an array of torn blue jeans, wife-beaters, and cowboy boots. Swamp Witch by Jim Stafford radiated from one of the truck’s stereos. 

The moment Jessie’s boots hit the dirt two air-boats loaded with methamphetamine from Mexico, emerged out of the darkness; they cut their engines and the flat-bottom-hulls sloshed onto the grassy shore. The smugglers stood in the boats holding shotguns, as the female crew of meth traffickers unloaded several hundred kilos of dope.

The girls could hear the task force helicopters approaching the rendezvous site as their trucks splashed and swerved through the dirt-trails, just ahead of “the law.” The vehicles roared out of the everglades, fishtailed onto Alligator Alley with Jessie and Aubrey in the bed of one of the trucks, making out while laying on a canvas covering four million dollars’ worth of “crystal meth.”

The all-female crew of Okeechobee drug traffickers had once again outfoxed the DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshals, and the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Narcotics Task Force.

I ENCOUNTER JESSICA MARIE BELL the morning after I arrive at the federal halfway house in January 2019. The seemingly shy introvert, engrossed in her iPhone, is on the tail end of her prison sentence. Her left arm is sleaved in Florida wildlife, including a massive alligator head. Like myself, she is in the process of struggling to acclimate back into society. Unlike myself, Jessie has been struggling her entire life.   

My name is Matthew B. Cox and I’m a con man. I had been imprisoned for a variety of bank fraud related offenses, and I’m 100 percent guilty of them all. While incarcerated, I spent the bulk of my time in the institution’s library, writing my fellow inmates’ true crime stories. Over the years, several of these stories have been profiled in national magazines and I’ve even gotten a few book deals. 

Over the next several weeks, I glean bits and pieces of Jessie’s life. In the past, I’ve focused on subjects with unique, clever, bizarre stories; Jessie’s case has many of these characteristics, however, I sense a life of limited options, quiet desperation, and dark secrets that she is reluctant to share.

JESSIE WAS BORN IN THE SUNSHINE state, but this isn’t a tale of stunning blondes sprawled out on gorgeous beaches surrounded by palm trees. This is a story, far-removed from the glamour of Miami and the wealth of Palm Beach. Unlike the movies and tourist commercials, Jessie’s yarn takes place nearly 100 miles into the Heartland of Florida.  

Nestled into the tropical swamps of the Everglades and the Kissimmee River, sits Lake Okeechobee and the sleepy backwater town of the same name. Boasting streets like Gator Cove Road, Cypress Drive, and Dixie Ranch Acres. There is no shortage of residents with epithets of Skeeter, Rooster, and Bubba, driving pickup trucks with gun-racks, living in trailers. The area is teeming with fishing holes, cattle ranches, dairy farms, and (although few outside the area talk about it) a massive methamphetamine problem.

Jessie’s father was a breeder, and her mother was a milker, at one of the local dairy farms. It’s backbreaking work. The industry as a whole is dominated by South and Central American-illegals, making her Anglo parents a minority.

Much like the Southern sugarcane and cotton plantations of the old south, the owners of the dairy industry designed the farms with dirt road subdivisions, filled with small cheap houses for their labor force. These are the neighborhoods that little Jessie, her older siblings; her sister Christine and her two brothers Paul and Loren grew up in.

“I don’t remember thinking that we were poor, because everyone we knew was poor,” she tells me. However, Jessie does recall her mother and father arguing about money. “They gambled a lot, and they were always behind on their bills.”

METHAMPHETAMINE BEGAN FLOODING the streets of Okeechobee in the early 90’s. It started with the outlaw motorcycle gangs and a variety of small-scale, local producers. The product was a low quality meth known as “crank” or “bathtub dope,” but then the Mexican cartels entered the scene. “Super labs” began springing up throughout Mexico, producing “crystal meth,” a highly purified form of the drug.

“There’s a lots ah smuggling that happens in South Florida,” says Okeechobee Sheriff Noel Stephen, during our interview. The thick necked, round bellied sheriff, continues, “It started with cocaine, marijuana and quaaludes being flown in and kicked outta planes right here in our rural county.” Over time the drug trade “developed into methamphetamine, primarily coming from Mexico.”

JESSIE WAS STANDING ON THE DIRT driveway—at the age of six—peering through the driver’s side window. Her mother had spent the morning packing her clothes. “Why are you leaving, mom?” she asked. “Why?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Her parents’ arguing had gotten worse and there were accusations of cheating. “I’ll explain it to you when you’re older.”

She can still remember her mother driving away. The lingering aroma of exhaust fumes and dirt. The fading taillights.

Jessie’s father married Courtney, roughly four years later. She was twelve years younger than him, but not as innocent as she seemed. Jessie’s father worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, at the dairy. Jessie’s stepmother took full advantage of her father’s absence. There was lots of alcohol, drugs, and boyfriends.

“Courtney would take me with her to other guys’ houses,” says Jessie. “I was so young that I didn’t realize how disrespectful she was being to my dad.”

When Jessie was eleven years old, she walked in on Courtney and her sister taking pulls from a crude meth pipe. Immediately, Courtney beckoned her closer. She placed the pipe to Jessie’s lips and told her to inhale. “I was eleven and I was a little scared,” admits Jessie, “but I wanted to be included.” She recalls a rush of euphoria overwhelming her “and I felt, super confident and focused. It was like breathing in pure adrenaline… I cleaned the whole house.”

WITH THE INTRODUCTION of methamphetamine came a spike in crime. According to Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, everything from burglaries to sex trafficking increased dramatically. “Eighty-five percent of the inmates we have incarcerated in the jail, is directly connected to methamphetamine,” Sheriff Stephen informs me. “There’s no monies to speak of from the local, state or federal government for treatment, it’s all in law enforcement.”  

Neither Jessie’s immediate nor her extended family was exempt from the meth epidemic. Nearly everyone in her family had tried meth or was a full-blown addict.

“I had family members regularly getting arrested for burglaries, DUI’s, possession, all kinds of petty crimes,” says Jessie. “All of them were trying to support their habit.”     

THE BRUSH FELT GOOD against Jessie’s scalp as her aunt dragged it through her hair. Joann had bought Jessie a little black dress for the occasion and even applied some makeup. Jessie and her aunt had smoked meth together on several occasions. Once, she had even met her aunt’s dealer, David Harrison*—a twenty-nine-year-old with a permanent five o’clock shadow and a mullet. But this time was different. This time her aunt had asked her to dress up.

* Name has been changed. On March 28, 2002, David Harrison was arrested for possession and distribution of methamphetamine. He was sentenced to 22 months in the Florida Department of Corrections.

“I remember her calling him and saying, ‘She’s here and she’s all dressed up. She looks real pretty.’ I didn’t understand why she was telling him that,” admits Jessie. “But I do remember feeling like a grownup in the dress.” The dealer showed up just as her aunt finished with Jessie’s hair. He handed her aunt a baggy with several grams in it and she told Jessie to go with the dealer.

The twelve-year-old was excited to be driving around with an adult. They dropped-off drugs at his various clients’ houses and he even bought her a hamburger. Then they drove out to the woods, he got her high on meth and kissed her.

“He didn’t have sex with me at first,” she says. “But every week he would push me a little bit further and further. He knew what he was doing wasn’t right.” Eventually they began having sex several times a week. “It took months before I realized that Joann was pimping me out… I was twelve years old.”

She began to resent her stepmother’s adultery. However, there was little she could do about it without exposing her own complicity and drug use. Jessie tried moving in with her mother, Charlotte, but she was in the beginning stages of addiction; taking excessive amounts of ephedrine, which made her unstable. Eventually, her mother would graduate to methamphetamine.

THE CHAOS OF JESSIE’S CHILDHOOD, believe it or not, took an even darker turn. The first time her brother, Paul, snuck into her room, Jessie was sound asleep. He was five years older than her and much stronger. “I never told anyone,” confesses Jessie. “I was embarrassed and scared that no one would believe me… Paul was my mom’s favorite; she was always taking his side.”

The molestation went on for longer than she wanted to discuss. However, Jessie would later learn that her brother was also sexually assaulting their two female cousins. Eventually, when Jessie couldn’t take it anymore, she moved in with her grandparents in Gainesville, Florida—far from Okeechobee. “They lived deep in the woods,” says Jessie, “on a three acre lot with two single-wide trailers on it.” 

Without a doubt, her grandparents were a stabilizing influence on the young teen. Jessie has nothing but warm memories of living with them. Once, she recalls convincing her grandmother to climb on the back of Jessie’s four-wheeler. “I was ripping through the woods and Gramma was screaming, ‘Now Jessie, that’s enough! That’s too fast! Stop it, Jessie! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!’ I couldn’t stop laughing, she was sooo cute.” 

Jessie had stopped getting high, her grades improved, and she joined Gainesville High School’s ROTC program. “I loved the program. The structure and the discipline. I was a part of a team… and that was super comforting.”

“I’VE ALWAYS BEEN ATTRACTED to both men and women,” says Jessie. The self-diagnosed pansexual, dated Johanna Connings, a buxom Norwegian throughout most of high school. “Johanna was a super sexy blonde with fair skin and grey-blue eyes. It was more about her personality than her looks.”

In many ways it was a typical high school relationship with multiple petty arguments, breakups and reconciliations. “I kind ‘a knew it wasn’t gonna last; we wanted different things. But I’ll always think of Johanna as my first love.” The couple parted ways not long before Jessie graduated high school.

Jessie had saved her money waiting tables at IHOP; she purchased her dream truck, a black Ford 250 4×4 crew-cab with 4 foot-high, 5 inch-stacks, sporting 37 inch tires. “I’d taken the tires off of a GMC Hummer,” divulges Jessie. “I loved that truck. I bought it just before I joined the Army.”

BEAMS OF SUNLIGHT pierced the jungle canopy looming high above the makeshift lab, located deep inside the mountains surrounding Culiacan, Sinaloa Mexico. Dubbed “super-labs” by American law enforcement, due to the extraordinary volume of product being produced—anywhere from one to five-tons per month. 

Workers haphazardly drop large vats of pseudoephedrine into a pile. The containers are more cumbersome than heavy. Regardless, carrying them through the canyons is a daunting task.

In the early 2000s the Sinaloa cartel went all in on methamphetamine. They brought in chemists from both Germany and Israel to establish the operation of the labs; to teach local cartel operatives the manufacturing process; and to scale up the operation to an industrial production level. By 2005 the cartel was operating a massive manufacturing operation producing product on an industrial scale.

“The labs are set up deep in the mountains,” explains Kelvin Baez, a former associate of the Sinaloa Cartel convicted of trafficking methamphetamine. The principal components utilized in the manufacture of methamphetamine are ephedrine, hydriodic acid, and red phosphorus. “You can’t get ephedrine in Mexico, it’s banned.” However, the chemical is produced in Southeast Asia, where cartel operatives purchase it in ten and twenty-ton increments from unscrupulous Chinese businessmen. “Then, it has to be smuggled into Mexico through the ports the cartel controls.”

Once the raw methamphetamine is manufactured, it’s moved up country to the border area (“La Frontera”). There Sinaloa cartel operatives arrange to have it smuggled into the United States through the Tijuana Port of Entry just south of San Diego.

JOHNNY BUCK BELL WAS SITTING on the couch when Jessie noticed him. It was 2005, and Jessie’s aunt had convinced her to meet Johnny Buck at his stepsister’s place. He was a handsome 26 year-old country boy who didn’t take himself too seriously. “I hadn’t used meth the whole time I was in the Army, but someone suggested we get high, so…” Jessie punctuates the sentence with a shrug.

She tells me they talked for hours. “Our lives had so many similarities. I felt this amazing connection to him. He was super funny.”  

Johnny Buck worked for his step-father, Dickie Plat. He owned and operated a guide service; wherein guides would take groups of wannabe hunters into the backwoods of South Florida and hunt a variety of wildlife. 

“We hunted turkey, deer, and alligators,” Johnny Buck tells me during our interview. “But mostly, mostly we hunted hogs in Lake Port.” The area is just outside of Okeechobee; it’s predominately wooded and teeming with game. “It was a good living.” 

“I was so in love with Johnny Buck,” says Jessie. “Stupid in love.” Months later Jessie found out she was pregnant. “Johnny Buck couldn’t work full-time and raise a baby, so I dropped out of the Army.” Admittedly, resigning from the military is one of Jessie’s biggest regrets. “I loved the Army. I’d just finished training to be a military police officer…”

Marashellie was born in September 2006; shortly after, Johnny Buck and Jessie were married.

AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER, nearly everyone Jessie and Johnny Buck knew in Okeechobee, be it peer or kin, were involved with methamphetamine. “My mother and both of my aunts were using,” Jessie admits. Nearly all of her and her husband’s cousins were either casual users, functioning or nonfunctioning addicts. “My brothers were full blown junkies… almost all of our friends and family were using or selling or both. People we knew were always overdosing or dying or getting arrested.”

On October 9, 2006, Johnny Buck’s sister was arrested for trafficking meth. “Mandie and me were super close,” Jessie tells me. “She was sentenced to six years.” 

TWENTY THOUSAND VEHICLES cross into the United States daily via the Tijuana Port of Entry. For the right amount of cash, there are no shortage of American citizens willing to transport drugs into the country.

“We would pick up a car on the American-side of the border and drive into Mexico,” says Dulce Brito, a former drug courier convicted of smuggling methamphetamine. “We would like, rent a motel room and leave the car in the parking lot with the keys in it.” A cartel operative would then pick up the vehicle and take it to an autobody shop. “They build these compartments into the cars and hide the drugs in them,” she tells me. “You don’t know what’s in the car. It could be anything. In my case it was meth.” 

Once the vehicles cross through the port, they’re taken to the Los Angeles area, which serves as the Sinaloa cartel’s American-base of operations. There, cartel operatives retrieve the product and send the vehicles back to Mexico. 

“I know lots of girls that did it over and over again,” Dulce admits. Most couriers are eventually caught. The vehicles are flagged by the Border Patrol’s tagging system or drug dogs that alert agents to the presence of narcotics. “In my case another girl got caught a couple ‘a days before, and she snitched me out. The border patrol agents… they pulled me and my best friend over and they ripped the car apart and they found the stuff.” 

The U.S. prosecutor in Dulce’s case indicated that she and her friends were working “hand-in-hand” with the cartel. “How were we supposed to know them people were cartel,” she asks, “they were just some guys.”

ONCE JOHNNY BUCK AND JESSIE were married, they cut back on their drug use until it was nonexistent. They were driving nice vehicles and living in a brand new house. Things were good. “The guide business was bringing in good money,” Johnny Buck acknowledges. “Mostly it was your average tourists, but we had some bigshots like Guy Ritchie; I took out the Miami SWAT Team and a bunch of players from the Red Sox once.” 

They would take out groups from anywhere between two to ten guests and track down wild hogs. They would skin them, gut them, butcher them and send the guests home with their kill.

Johnny Buck and Jessie hadn’t used meth in years, “then one of my buddies showed up at the house,” admits Johnny Buck. “He had some dope with him, and I asked Jess if she was interested.” The couple discussed it, and they decided that things were going well. “In our minds, that justified getting high.”

“That weekend turned into a week,” Jessie tells me, “and then a month. That month turned into six months, and then a year.” She exhales at the thought of their middle-class lives deteriorating. “Suddenly we were two addicts struggling to raise our daughter and keep up with the bills. Then we lost the house.” In the midst of the chaos, Johnny Buck “went to pick up our truck and he just never came back.”

THE L.A. BASED CARTEL OPERATIVE—a licensed auto dealer—pulled the Chrysler PT Cruiser into the auto repair shop’s garage. He regularly purchased vehicles at local auto auctions on behalf of dealerships throughout the country. This one happened to be going to an Atlanta dealership. “My guy used the Southern California Auto Auction,” Baez informs me.

Vehicles are taken to a garage where their gas tanks are removed and stuffed full of methamphetamine—anywhere from forty to fifty pounds. 

“PT Cruiser and the Chevy HHR were the most popular,” admits Baez. “Besides their gas tanks, they have a hollow-chassis that can be stuffed full of product. You get another one hundred and fifty pounds of meth per car by using a PT Cruiser or an HHR.”

Once the installation is complete, the cartel’s operatives pay an auto-transport service to haul the vehicles from L.A. to Atlanta. The eighteen-wheelers can haul seven vehicles at a time, three or four of which contain product. The drivers have no idea their hauling methamphetamine.

“The second the vehicles hit Atlanta they’re gutted,” says Baez. “The cartel boys rent U-Haul box-trucks and they shoot down Intersate-75 to South Florida… with three or four hundred pounds of crystal meth concealed in the trucks’ walls.”

INSIDE THE PEEPHOLE, was a bastardized image of old Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard. Jessie wrenched open the door and there stood Steven Lee Oakes in his customary overalls, boots, and biker mustache. “Everyone called him Wildman,” Jessie tells me—a former-trucker turned methamphetamine dealer with a slight stutter who continually smelled of Stetson cologne. “I’d been buying a gram a week from him for the last few months, for personal use. But at this point, I was struggling and I needed to make some money.”

After Johnny Buck had left, Jessie returned to Okeechobee to live with her father.

“Wildman didn’t really want to sell me the two ounces,” says Jessie. “He didn’t want me dealing. He quoted me sixteen hundred dollars, for what shouldn’t have been more than eight hundred bucks. I told him there was no way I was paying that. We argued about it, but he wouldn’t budge.” Two days later however, Jessie received a call from Wildman wherein he told her to come pick up “the dope and bring the eight hundred.”    

Wildman lived in Davenport located just over the Okeechobee line, in Polk County. Unofficially, Polk is known as the methamphetamine capital of Florida. “Without a doubt, it’s a major problem,” admits Polk County’s Sheriff, Grady Judd. “We’re dealing with an international drug-smuggling operation that spans from Mexico to Miami. The problem is, as fast as my deputies lock up the traffickers, the distributors and the dealers, the cartel replaces ‘em.”

Jessie pulled her black Ford next to Wildman’s faded blue Ford crew-cab pickup. The Walmart parking lot was nearly empty. They swapped out the cash for the “ice” and Jessie was on her way. She made a few calls to some friends and, just like that, the product was sold. Jessie had just dropped off the second ounce when Wildman called her and said, “You got my money; the eight hundred?”

“What’re you talkin’ about?” she replied. “I gave you the eight hundred.”

“That was only half,” he stammered. “You, you, you still owe me the other half.”

Jessie grinned inwardly. “Fuck you; you know damn well I ain’t payin’ you no sixteen hundred.” 

According to Jessie, Wildman “bitched and moaned” about her “gettin’ over on him,” when it was him trying to “pull a fast one” on her. 

“That’s how it was dealing with him,” she says. “Everyone in the drug community is regularly tryin’ to screw each other over.” However, she had just made nearly $1,000 with a couple of phone calls. “I had a five-year-old daughter and a drug habit to take care of, and I couldn’t do that working a job at Walmart.” As a result, Jessie began “slingin’ dope for Wildman,” along with her all-female crew.

RESTING ON A HORSE at the side of Nine Mile Grade on the edge of Okeechobee, sat Felisha Leitner. She was in a sports bra with her black hair pulled to the sides in ponytails; a Browning deer tattoo sat high on her calf. “Me and Wildman were dropping off some dope for her,” says Jessie. “That was the first time I met Felisha. She was a contradiction in motion, smoking dope, but dating an Okeechobee Sheriff’s Deputy, Paul Jackson. She’d tell you she was just using, but our indictment said she was dealing.”

According to the court documents, Felisha is only one of several of Jessie’s group of female friends that was trafficking as well as using methamphetamine. In fact, the indictment describes a well-oiled criminal enterprise led by Steven “Wildman” Oakes. 

“There was Jetta,” says Jessie, “she was super cute; petite with short red hair.” Jetta Frake lived in a small one bedroom “cracker-box” on the edge of one of Lake Okeechobee’s canals. “She was studying to be a nurse at one of the local community colleges, and dealing dope to pay for school and support her habit.” 

There was Teresa Lee Green, a tall, frumpy fast talking dirty blonde. “I’ve known Teresa Lee since I was thirteen. We used to get high with my aunt Joann,” Jessie informs me. “She’s funny, but she’s crazy… And there’s Aubrey.”

As Jessie describes the cast of characters, I can almost picture the scene inside of the Okeechobee narcotics unit; a dozen hardened deputies sitting in a large room, scowling with disgust, as their lieutenant pins photo after photo on the corkboard; creating a makeshift crime family pyramid dominated by half-crazed real-life Daisy Duke Florida-crackers.  

“Aubrey Waldron,” says the lieutenant, “a career criminal.” He places a folded-up article underneath her photo and pins the two of them to the board. The image shows a cute blonde sneering at the camera trying to look tough, however, the cupcake tattoo on her neck says she’s anything but. “Miss Waldron was arrested last year for boosting expensive trucks and trading them for meth.”

The sound of the deputies’ angrily grinding their teeth permeates the room as the lieutenant places Jamie Hewitt’s photo on the board. “Another career criminal,” he says. He points to Jamie’s neck tattoo that reads “Trust No One” and continues, “this little trainwreck, was arrested back in 2010 for stealing the United Cerebral Palsy charity-donation-boxes out of convenient stores.” Several deputies shake their heads. “Shit, we just found Miss Hewitt’s ex-husband wandering around in the swamp. Apparently, he was high on meth, and got lost out there for nearly a week!”

At this point, I cannot help but point out, “Your friends sound like maniacs, driving around in four-by-fours shooting guns in the air, waving Confederate flags, and—”

“We weren’t a bunch of white trash racists,” Jessie quips. “We were cowgirls. We distributed to good ol’ boys and gangbangers—fifty percent wood and fifty percent hood.”

STEVEN “WILDMAN” OAKES was the “largest methamphetamine distributor in the history of Okeechobee County,” says Cortney Coker, lead U.S. prosecutor in the Oakes’ case. Coker leans back in his chair and explains that Wildman’s product wasn’t low-grade “shake and bake dope. He was selling Mexican methamphetamine. It was ninety-nine percent pure, and he was very, very proud of his product.” 

His organization was structured. He had a system, a source, routes, and distributors. “He was a problem for the local sheriff,” continues the U.S. prosecutor. “Okeechobee’s a rural community. You have huge cattle ranches, orange groves, farmers, and big swamps where people hunt alligators. It’s an area kind of left behind,” says Coker, “and they’re very suspicious of outsiders.”

“The Mexican cartels are steadily shoveling stuff into the county,” admits Sheriff Stephen. “Being a small community, we have limited resources.” For every hundred pounds of methamphetamine seized by his deputies, the sheriff suspects, 10,000 pounds make it to the streets.

“At some point,” says the U.S. prosecutor, the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office “let the U.S. Attorney’s Office know, they wanted to start a federal investigation into Oakes’ organization.”

Sheriff Stephen tells me, “The creation of a task force enabled us to work with multiple agencies—surrounding counties’ sheriff’s offices, DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshals—and obtain federal dollars,” allowing for additional equipment and overtime. “We were able to do a lot more with the dope unit.” Such as raiding “dope houses” throughout Okeechobee with the department’s armored personnel vehicle. “There’s not a subdivision in my county that don’t have a dope house in it. I want those neighbors to know we’re doin’ our job.”

“I try to be creative,” chuckles Stephen. For example, the sheriff, photographs the defendants standing next to a sign placed in their front yards that reads “This Drug House is Closed for Business.”

“My favorite,” says Jessie, while uncontrollably grinning, “is the picture of Richard Bonnell—he’s a friend of Johnny Buck’s. He was wearing cow pajamas when his place was raided. They put him on the front-page wearing cow pajamas!”

JOHNNY BUCK’S AUNT AND HER boyfriend were drug dealers. Throughout January the couple made several controlled buys to an undercover agent that went by the name “Carl.” They were arrested by the Okeechobee task force on February 1, 2013. “For some reason his name always stuck with me,” says Jessie. “I remember they said he drove a white pickup truck with fence posts in the back.”

Wanda Adkins was sentenced to two years and her boyfriend, Raymond Arnold, received three years.

THERE WASN’T A NEIGHBOR in sight as the driver and cartel distributer for the area twisted the screws holding up the internal wall-panels of the truck. The U-Haul rested on the driveway of a middle-class house located in a lonely suburb on the fringes of Ft. Myers, a small city on the southwest coast of Florida. Nestled between the Gulf of Mexico, Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, Ft. Myers was a perfectly inconspicuous location to redistribute the cartel’s methamphetamine.  

“Some of that product gets sent to Central Florida,” says Baez. “But most of it is transported down to the distributors in Miami.” Once in Miami, the product is supplied to local dealers or transported to Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach.

“The problem with transporting meth—or any drug for that matter—is law enforcement,” admits the former-drug trafficker. “I-75 and Alligator Alley are heavily watched by the highway patrol, but the swamps…  the swamps are another story entirely.”

South Florida’s Big Cypress and Everglades National parks are a smugglers paradise; their extensive series of winding canals and expansive sawgrass marshlands make it nearly impossible to cover with traditional watercraft. According to Baez, rather than run the risk of having Mexicans drive the methamphetamine to Miami, the cartel’s operatives in Fort Myers pay some of the locals to run the loads on their air-boats through the national parks. “I’m talkin’ about your stereotypical Florida redneck-cracker-types,” he tells me. Country boys who grew up in the areas surrounding Lake Okeechobee, watching their uncles operate stills making moonshine. “These are people who drive trucks, love guns and Trump. They pilot them air-boats through the swamps’ canals and deliver the load to cartel operatives on the outskirts of Miami; without ever leaving the water.” 

Although the area is patrolled by the National Park rangers and various counties—Monroe, Collier, Broward, and Miami-Dade—they are spread thin when it comes to the expansive two million acres of everglades. “Them good-ol’ boys running these loads, use souped up air-boats; even if they can’t outrun the law,” says Baez, “the drug-runners simply dump the product they’re transporting overboard into the swamp before they’re ever caught.”

Air-boats transporting meth through the Everglades didn’t surprise Sheriff Stephen, “Hell, they’re shippin’ dope through the U.S. mail, Amazon will drop it on your front doorstep.”  

“WILDMAN WAS THE PLUG,” says Aubrey. He would meet with his cartel contacts and distribute the product. “He liked young, pretty, pretty girls.” The former high school cheerleader, concedes, “that’s how we met.” One female knew another female, according to Aubrey, and before long, Wildman had taken the group of young women and turned them into drug traffickers, supplying meth to local dealers. “I didn’t like to move large quantities, I did it, but I didn’t like it.” Not all the girls had an issue with “moving weight.” Aubrey tells me, “Jamie definitely didn’t mind.”

“Jamie Lee Hewitt was quite a character,” admits U.S. prosecutor Coker. “She was one of the more prolific distributors. She had a real bad criminal history, and she knew a lot of people in that world.”

“Jetta was up there too,” confides Aubrey. “Wildman was helping her through nursing school, but Jamie was a big, big part of it. She ranked right up there with Jessie. They were Wildman’s main girls.”

According to the U.S. prosecutor, Jessie, Aubrey, Jamie, Jetta, and Felisha weren’t your typical twentysomethings. They were a well-oiled machine moving a significant amount of product. “That was super unusual, especially in the meth game; every major distributor being a woman,” says Coker. “I had never seen that before, and I haven’t seen it since.”

PROLONGED METHAMPHETAMINE use has significant ongoing negative effects, according to Lin Sternlicht, LMHC, a therapist, and addiction specialist. “The neurological impacts are significant. It drastically changes parts of the brain and decreases the level of neurotransmitters,” says Sternlicht. “This can cause problems with brain functions.”

Anxiety, intense anger, hyper-insomnia, psychosis, and delusions are just some of the issues. “Abusers often need to take higher doses of the drug to obtain the desired effect,” says Sternlicht. “Withdrawing from methamphetamine only intensifies the long-term neurological problems, thereby causing an intense craving for the drug.”

RICHIE WAS HIDING BEHIND the couch with Jessie’s cell phone clutched in his hand when she exited her bedroom. “What the fuck?!” she screamed. He had been awake for three days straight on meth and paranoia was setting in. “You scared the shit outta me Richie!”

Jessie had been dating Richard Watson for several months—she had known him since they were kids. The liaison had started innocently enough when she moved back to Okeechobee; Jessie had been his supplier and they began “hooking up” occasionally, but the relationship deteriorated quickly. “He turned into a straight addict,” she says. “I stopped giving ‘im dope—I tried to get his addiction under control—but he just went to someone else. He was super jealous.” 

Eventually, Jessie decided she couldn’t deal with Richie’s jealousy anymore. She stopped returning his calls and a few days later—while she was sleeping—Richie broke into her father’s house and stole her cell.  He then texted his brother, from Jessie’s cell, stating: I told Richey what we did.

“He was nuts,” she tells me. “I kicked him out of my dad’s place; and a couple of weeks later I caught him perched up in a tree, across from the house.” Jessie sighs at the thought of it. “The only reason I mention him, is because that’s around the same time I found out I was pregnant.” 

Mikayla was born in March 2013.

Richard Watson was arrested on distribution charges “like a year later, along with a bunch of other people,” says Jessie. “He got nine years.” 

“YOU PLAY, YOU PAY,” says Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen in an Okeechobee News article regarding the arrests. Thirty-two people were arrested throughout the county for the sale of prescription pills, heroin, and methamphetamine. “We’re arresting people who have been selling drugs for a long time,” points out Sheriff Stephen. “These are not users we’re picking up. Some do use, but they’re primarily selling.”

WILDMAN WAS NO SOUTHERN gentleman, according to U.S. prosecutor Coker, Wildman regularly used drugs to take advantage of young girls. “Methamphetamine has a sexual side effect to it. Wildman was almost sixty years old, but these girls were very young and part of it was a sexual thing. There was Rachel Baldwin*, a young girl right out of high school,” says Coker. “She was trying to get a degree at the community college in West Palm Beach.”

* Name has been changed

The U.S. prosecutor went on to say that during one of the many intercepted calls, Rachel stated, “Hey, Wildman can I get a bump? Can I get a little dope before school; so, I can get through the day?”

“Sure, honey,” he responded.

“Do I have to get naked, like I did last time?”

“Well honey, I don’t give it away for free.”

In a second documented incident, Wildman took a young girl to Orlando; got her high for four days. On the fourth day, she came out of the shower wrapped in a towel. “She sits down next to him on the bed and starts crying,” states Coker. “She told him, ‘Wildman, I want to thank you for getting my hair done, getting my nails done, all the things that you bought me. But I feel like I’m fucking the dope man.’ He responded, ‘News flash, honey, you are fucking the dope man.’”

THE CELL PHONE RANG sometime around noon. “Jessie,” hissed Aubrey, “you gotta come get me.” She and Wildman had been “partying” at a mutual friend’s house in Lakeport; at this point, Aubrey had been awake for days and the neurotoxic effects were causing paranoia. “He won’t let me leave.”

“I’m on my way,” replied Jessie. She rushed over to the house while trying to calm Aubrey down. But according to Jessie, she was “sketched-out” and babbling incoherently. When she arrived, Wildman was in the shower. Jessie quickly packed up Aubrey’s things and they took off.

“Here’s the thing,” says Aubrey, during our interview, “you can only lead an old man along for so long before you’re gonna have to give him what he wants, and I just couldn’t do it.”

“I don’t think she was in any real danger,” declares Jessie. “Wildman’s an old horndog, but I never thought of him as being dangerous.” Then, there was the time that Jamie “tore my dad’s house apart looking for her dope—dope she had lost. She blamed my mom and me for stealing her stuff.” However, it turned out that Jamie—in a fit of paranoia—had hidden the “dope” and simply forgotten where she had placed it.

There were times, admits Jessie, when situations became truly dangerous. “Tom Tom Arnold was a friend of a friend,” she tells me. “He and his gangbanger buddies were at a party with several other people. They were all doin’ dope and Tom Tom misplaced an ounce of crystal.”

He then decided that a girl at the party had stolen his drugs, so, Tom Tom called Jessie. “I’m on my way to your place,” he said. In his delusional state, he believed that the girl had hidden the meth in her vagina. “I need you to check this bitch’s pussy for my dope.”

“Tom Tom, she doesn’t have an ounce of dope in her vag!” Despite this, Tom Tom showed up at Jessie’s house with several of his buddies, Thomas McGill—a guy Jessie had known for years—and the girl that Tom Tom thought had stolen his meth. Which turned out to be Aubrey.

They barged in and Tom Tom—tweaking and half-crazy—demanded Jessie take Aubrey into the bedroom and check her for the drugs. That’s when Jessie noticed that he was wearing plastic bags around his feet tied off with rubber-bands and a 9mm semi-auto handgun. What seemed borderline-comical abruptly turned grave.

Jessie quickly took Aubrey into the room and she removed her pants, but there was no meth. Tom Tom went crazy with rage. In his delirium, he decided that Aubrey must have hidden the meth somewhere in the house, so he and his buddies began tearing apart Jessie’s dad’s house. Suddenly, Tom Tom yelled, “Everyone get the fuck in here!” and he forced Thomas, Aubrey and Jessie into her father’s bedroom.

“Tom Tom was pointing the gun at our heads—jumping from Aubrey’s forehead to Thomas’ to mine,” says Jessie, “and screaming, ‘where the fuck is it!’ I remember thinking, Ohmigod, my dad is going to come home and find our bodies in his bedroom.”

Jessie pleaded with Tom Tom, not to kill them. “I told him, ‘We don’t have your dope,’ and he looked me in the face and said, ‘It’s okay, I talked to my mom, she said I could kill someone… I got permission.’ He was so far gone, I thought for sure he was gonna kill us.”

Then, from the other room someone muttered, “It’s gotta be at James’ place,” and just like that, Tom Tom and his buddies rushed out of the house.

“Stuff like that was always happening,” admits Jessie. “We were just a crew of junkie halfwits and wannabe gangsters struggling with addiction while tryin’ to stay one step ahead of the law.”

PRECISELY WHEN THEIR SEXUAL relationship began, neither Jessie nor Aubrey could say. However, they both agreed that there had been a long-simmering attraction. “Jessie knew how I felt about her,” says Aubrey. “We messed around, but it was never going to work. We liked each other, but we both liked dudes too.”

The girls’ on-again-off-again relationship had nothing to do with their feelings for one another and more to do with the casual nature of the meth community. Jessie explains that she and Aubrey would be inseparable, “then one of us would meet some guy and stop coming around.”

“We are always gonna have love between us,” admits Aubrey. “We were good for each other. We have a bond.” 

OVER FRUIT LOOPS at the halfway house one morning, it dawned on me that Jessie had been making a decent amount of money selling methamphetamine, yet she still lived at her father’s house. “Why not move out,” I ask her. “You had enough money.”

“How could I move?” she replies. Jessie explains that she could afford her own place, but property management companies require you to have a job and good credit; none of which she had. “Besides, why would I move; Johnny Buck lived right down the street, so did my sister, and my dad didn’t want me to move.”

She goes on to tell me that most of her time was spent, hunting and fishing. “Working on trucks and riding four-wheelers. I loved my life.” 

OFFICER SHANE SNYDER—a law enforcement zealot—is a corn-fed country boy with a perpetual sneer and an aggressive attitude. He was the head of the Okeechobee task force, during the Oakes’ investigation. One of his many responsibilities was coordinating the group’s efforts with the federal agencies. Their goal being infiltration of narcotics organizations and building cases against these crime groups.

“There’s nothin’,” Snyder tells me during our interview, “nothin’ I enjoy more than takin’ drug dealers down.” 

Primarily, the approach taken is to pull over the dealers and their buyers, arrest them and convince them to act as confidential informants to build a case against the organization’s hierarchy.

When you’re building a case from scratch, “You’ve gotta have the right bait in order to get the target,” Sheriff Stephen informs me. An undercover agent isn’t going to walk up to Wildman and buy dope. “It’s gonna take a doper to buy from a doper, you know. We gotta find the right doper to work with.” For this strategy to work, law enforcement must “flip a defendant” and convince that individual to cooperate.

IT WAS DUSK as Jessie, Thomas and two of his “sketchy” friends were passing through Glades County on their way to Okeechobee. Jessie was driving one of Thomas’ buddy’s red Chevy king-cab—she was the only one of the four that had a valid-license. Her backpack was resting on the floorboard, containing three ounces of meth.

She had just braked for a stop sign, when a Glades County Sheriff’s cruiser passed in front of them. “The deputy slammed on the brakes, whipped the cruiser around, and hit the lights,” Jessie tells me. “Thomas yelled, ‘Hit it!’ I wasn’t sure if they were looking for the truck, me or Thomas—the cops were always looking for Thomas for something—but I had dope on me, so I punched the gas.”

Jessie roared down several back roads and turned onto the highway, she then yanked the wheel to the left and swerved into a sugarcane field. “I hit the lights and waited,” she says. “We could hear the deputy’s siren gettin’ louder, louder, and louder; about thirty seconds later, the cruiser shot by… and he just kept on going.”

They waited in the field for an hour, listening to the sounds of sirens in the distance. Occasionally two or three cruisers would drive by the field. “I took the back roads home,” she tells me. “We passed several sheriff’s deputies, but we didn’t get stopped.”

“EVERYONE KNEW THE TASK FORCE was watchin’ us,” says Aubrey. However, she didn’t think much about it. “Jessie mentioned they was onto Wildman, but they’re always watching you in Okeechobee.”

THE LOONEY TUNES’ animated characters Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog spring to mind as Jessie describes her and her friends’ numerous encounters with Okeechobee deputies. “That’s exactly what it was like,” admits Jessie with her lips tightening into a mischievous grin. “Half the people I knew went to high school with the same deputies that were investigating us. Felisha was dating a deputy and another friend of mine, who was dealing dope; she was married to a detective who worked for the Okeechobee Police Department.”

Sometime around April, Jessie and her friend, TJ, were in Lee County when they were pulled over. “TJ had a real nice black Cadillac CTS,” she says. When Jessie asked why they were stopped, the deputy told them the vehicle’s tint was too dark, which it was. However, Jessie believes that because they were known drug traffickers, the tinted windows were just a pretext. “They called in a K9 unit, but we didn’t have anything on us.”

A few days later they were pulled over again for the same infraction. The harassment went on for months. “It got so bad,” Jessie tells me, “that TJ eventually took the tint off.”

Two days later, they were pulled over again. “The funny thing is, when we asked the deputy why he’d pulled us over, he said, ’Your window tint looks darker than the state’s legal limit.’ I said, ‘What tint?’” The deputy stepped back from the vehicle and scowled at the Cadillac’s crystal clear windows. “He got all pissed off, pointed down the road and said, ‘Get the fuck outta here!’ We burst out laughin’ and took off.”

IT’S A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE, admits Sheriff Stephen. He and his deputies grew up in Okeechobee. “We’ve arrested some of these people fifty times. They’ve got twenty felonies and they’ve been to prison two and three times.” Admittedly, the sheriff knows several of the players in the Oakes’ case. “Lacy Locklear, Jamie Hewitt and Felisha Leitner,” says Stephen. “Shane and I grew up with Felisha’s father, we’ve known her her whole life, we’ve arrested her before… and we sent her to prison.”

“IT WASN’T ALL CAR CHASES and dope deals,” says Jessie. “There were good times, too.” She and her dad would go fishing in the lake; and after Johnny Buck had moved back to Okeechobee, Jessie and he had developed a strong friendship. “Me and Buck would go hunting hogs and alligators. He’s a good guy and a good dad to our daughter.” There were plenty of family barbecues, the occasional state fare, lots of trips to the local movie theater, and of course, the Okeechobee Mudfest.

JESSIE PUSHED THE FUEL NOZZLE into the Ford about the same time she noticed Juan, a Mexican customer of hers, exiting the 7-Eleven. She had supplied him with “dope” on and off over the last year, but she hadn’t seen him around lately. They exchanged nods and he made a beeline for her. “You still in the same line of work,” he asked. Jessie nodded and Juan said, “I’d like you to meet someone; a friend of mine from Mexico.”

Two days later, Jessie met Juan and Jesus Torres just off State Road 98. Jesus pulled a kilo of crystal meth out of the trunk of his vehicle and asked, “Can you move this?”

It was more meth than Jessie had ever seen—approximately a $100,000 worth of product and a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years under the federal sentencing guidelines. She had never sold more than a few grams at a time, but she knew some dealers that could help her move it.

“I can try.” The Mexican gave Jessie half of the key on consignment and they parted ways.

Roughly a week later she met Jesus at a gas station with the cash for the half-kilo as well as the money for the second half.

“I couldn’t believe how easy it was,” she tells me. “Two weeks later it was gone and I went back for another half-key; and the amount kept growing and growing… I’m not stupid, I knew Jesus was with the cartel.” What Jessie didn’t know, was that Jesus was under surveillance by the task force.

JESSIE WOKE UP IN AUBREY’S BED. She was talking on her cell—one of Aubrey’s contacts had been “busted” the night before and his arrest was in the newspaper. Jessie and Aubrey had spent the previous day getting high and they’d been up most of the night. It was early, too early for “druggie gossip.”

“I was on the front page myself a few times,” says Aubrey, regarding the arrest. “But it was kind a’ surreal, I guess. I mean like shit is getting real now…”

Unquestionably, task force members were following Jessie and nearly everyone within her circle. “The people we were dealing with were getting arrested constantly,” Jessie tells me. “I’d been pulled over a bunch of times and I’d had some near misses, but I’d never been arrested.”

For the most part, Jessie didn’t believe that she would be ensnared in the investigation’s ever widening net. “I didn’t realize just how wrong this whole thing would go.”  

ON OCTOBER 9, 2013, Jessie was sitting on her dad’s couch watching her daughters play. She was unaware that only a few blocks away, members of the Okeechobee Task Force, FDLE, and DEA were huddled together inside of several vehicles, slipping into Kevlar-vests, loading AR-15 semi-auto assault rifles, while racing through her father’s subdivision. Several informants had led them to a dealer who was working with cartel members; subsequently, a judge had signed off on a search warrant for 3573 Northwest 24th Avenue.

Suddenly, multiple SUVs screeched to a stop in front of the home and the armed officers poured out with their semi-autos held high and tight. They yelled, “Law enforcement!” and bashed in the front door with a battering-ram. Most of the house’s occupants dropped to the ground, but several scattered out of the back of the residence. One of those individuals was Jessie’s cartel contact, Jesus.  

“My dad’s house was four blocks away,” Jessie tells me. Jesus had escaped the raid by hiding in the woods behind the house. “He called me and asked, ‘You gotta whip?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, why?’” Jesus explained the situation and informed Jessie that he would call back if he needed a ride, “but he never called.”

The Okeechobee Task Force, FDLE, and DEA arrested seven individuals during the raid and seized 12 pounds of methamphetamine.

Jesus Torres was arrested two weeks later for methamphetamine trafficking. “My cell number was in his phone,” she continues, “they had surveillance pictures of us meeting and everything, but they didn’t arrest me because I was a part of a much larger investigation.”

THE TASK FORCE wasn’t created to take down the local dealers, says U.S. prosecutor Coker. “We want to dismantle the entire trafficking organization, that way somebody else doesn’t step up and continue running the group.”

According to Coker, there was a loyalty between Wildman and his distributors. He would show up at their homes with candy and milkshakes for the kids. “Everyone was Wildman’s friend,” says the U.S. prosecutor. “When his people would get arrested on state charges, he’d bail them out, and get them a lawyer… That type of loyalty makes it difficult to turn them.”

THE STAINLESS-STEEL POT, resting on the kitchen counter, was made of surgical grade steel and it had a vented lip; it was perfect for fermenting mash into moonshine. It even had a lift basket to siphon the wash to spurge the grains, whatever that means. Jessie’s new boyfriend was a moonshiner. “He had all of the equipment and stuff,” she says. “It was just a hobby, but he was really into it.”

Jessie had known Justin Thomas for years; he had recently been released from the State of Florida’s Department of Corrections. Justin had done a little over a year for possession of explosives and attempting to make a destructive device. “Some guy owed him money and Justin decided to blow him up,” admits Jessie. Fortunately, for Justin’s intended target, he wasn’t nearly as good of a bomb-maker as he was at making moonshine. “The bomb didn’t go off,” she continues. “Still, it got him on the terrorist watch list.” 

Justin reached out to Jessie sometime in November and they began hanging out. “I didn’t think of it as a serious thing,” says Jessie. “At the time, Justin was the type of guy that was gonna end up back in jail. He’s been in and outta prison his whole life.” 

In mid-December, Jessie found out she was pregnant.

THE GLADES COUNTY DEPUTY motioned for Jessie to lower her window. He had pulled her over on a trumped up equipment violation; stating that the rear trunk hatch wasn’t properly secured. Justin was sitting in the front and Robert Smith—a friend of Justin’s—was in the rear. Because they were known drug traffickers, the deputy asked if he could search the vehicle, but Jessie declined. “We didn’t have anything on us,” she tells me, “but Justin had a still in the trunk.”

There was no K-9 available, so the deputy had no choice but to let them go. However, according to the December 24, 2013, police report, the deputy called ahead to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and let them know that the trio were headed in their direction.

Lieutenant Shane Snyder with Okeechobee pulled the vehicle over; a minute later a K-9 unit pulled up. The handler commanded “Kiki,” the German Shepherd police dog, “Find dope.” He walked the K-9 up the side of the vehicle, and Kiki alerted by sitting down at the rear passenger side door.

Jessie, Justin, and Robert sat on the curb with their wrists cuffed behind them. The search only lasted a few minutes, but they found nothing. “Funny thing is they never searched the trunk,” says Jessie. “The whole time Lieutenant Snyder glared at us.”

The following day, Jessie was walking to the bus stop, to pick up Marashellie, when Snyder pulled up beside her in his patrol vehicle. “Miss Bell,” said Snyder, “let me talk to you for a second.”

“No thanks; I don’t have anything to say to you.”

“I just wanna talk to you about some of your associates,” replied the lieutenant. The most likely reason for Snyder approaching Jessie, was to convince her to act as a confidential informant. “You could help yourself out.”

Jessie snickered and walked away.  

“That night I was in Walmart,” she says, “and I noticed Snyder walking toward me. He was in plainclothes; and he glared at me as he walked by.” The lieutenant was alone. According to Jessie, as she shopped with her two kids Snyder kept an eye on her from a distance. 

“Snyder’s a real piece of work,” admits Jessie, “but in his defense, he’s dedicated his entire life to cleaning up Okeechobee. He builds cases against drug dealers, arrests them, sends them to prison… and a year later they’re back on the street.” It’s more than drug dealers breaking the law by distributing a controlled substance; methamphetamine has destroyed Okeechobee. Numerous crimes can be attributed to the drug—prostitution, burglaries, home-invasions, car-jackings, murders. Families have been torn apart. Lives have been ruined. “Is he a bully, sure he is, but he lives in Okeechobee with his wife and kids; he’s got every right to be an asshole when it comes to this.”

THE TINT WAS TOO DARK, that’s the excuse that the deputy gave Vasilios Rallis—a friend of Justin’s and the driver of the stationwagon—for pulling over the vehicle. Justin was sitting in the passenger-seat and his brother Cole was seated in the backseat.

Because Vasilios didn’t have a valid driver’s license, the deputy asked everyone to exit the vehicle. According to the police report, that’s when the deputy noticed Justin attempting to hide something in his groin area. He was immediately searched, along with his black backpack, and the deputy discovered a sunglasses-case containing a bag of crystal meth and a small pipe.

On December 27, 2013, Justin was charged with possession of methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.      

JESSIE WAS EXTREMELY uncomfortable with body aches and fever. She had been detoxing ever since she had found out about the pregnancy. Both Jessie and Justin had agreed they were going to “clean up their act and go straight,” but she hadn’t heard from him in two days. 

“So, I called Cole,” says Jessie, “and he told me that Justin was arrested.” Several months later, Justin was sentenced to three years. “Now I had three little girls to take care of,” Jessie tells me, “And two of their dads were locked up… I’d dug myself into a hole so deep, I couldn’t get out of it.”

Jaylie was born July 2014.

ROUGHLY THE SAME TIME Jessie was giving birth, Lieutenant Snyder, along with the newest members of the task force, DEA Special Agents Ron Coddington and Andrew Irwin, sat down with a potential informant, Larry Crews. No doubt the task force officers showed Crews a photo of Wildman; discerning that Larry knew Wildman, every dealer and junkie in Okeechobee knew Wildman.

Crews had been arrested a month earlier, on a possession-of-a-weapon by a convicted felon charge; he was facing a substantial amount of prison-time. However, this was his chance to help himself out by cooperating against Wildman.

“People cooperate for various reasons,” says U.S. prosecutor Coker, “sometimes they want the government to lower their sentence, sometimes it’s for money and sometimes they just wanna do the right thing.”

Shortly after that meeting, on July 23, 2014, Crews called Wildman to setup a controlled buy between Wildman and his girlfriend, Stephanie Sharp. 

Lieutenant Snyder taped a body-wire between Sharp’s breast and handed her $100 in cash. Just after 6:30 p.m., she met Wildman in the parking lot of a Marathon gas station. Sharp climbed into the cab of his pickup truck and they exchanged the cash for the dope—weighing 1.2 grams with package. The following day, Snyder and several members of the task force met with Crews and Sharp a second time. She was equipped with a wire, and $300 to purchase an “eight ball.” At around 7 p.m., the informer purchased the dope from Wildman in the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store. The methamphetamine weighed 3.8 grams with package.

Those controlled buys convinced a federal district judge to allow the task force to intercept audio and electronic communications of Wildman’s cell phone. “We were able to obtain recordings of phone calls of pertinent drug trafficking,” says Coker. In addition to hearing Wildman’s conversations, the task force was able “to follow the transactions from his source of supply to the distributors down to the buyers,” explains the U.S. prosecutor. “The wire tapes really blew the whole thing open.”

THE CROAKING GOT LOUDER as Johnathan Smith’s* air-boat drifted along the marshland area of the Okeechobee. It was after midnight and dark as coal. Suddenly, Johnny hit the water with the flood light and several pairs of frogs’ eyes turn bright in the black water. Jessie thrust her gig-spear into one of them and quickly shucked his body into the burlap gigging bag.

* Name has been changed

Understand that “Johnny” was a legend in Okeechobee. In fact, according to Jessie, he had been busted by federal law enforcement back in the mid-80’s for picking up loads of marijuana that had been dropped in the Everglades by drug smuggling planes. Nowadays, he smuggles the occasional load of meth for the cartel.

“The task force had been following me for days,” says Jessie. “Of course, I didn’t know it at the time.” The discovery would later show gobs of surveillance photos, documenting numerous drug transactions between Jessie and Wildman. “I had no idea of how interested they were in catching me.”

Jessie and Johnny had only been on the water around two hours before they heard the humming of another air-boat. They caught the faint blue light of a federal patrol craft in the distance and suddenly “bam!” a beam of light struck them. 

Johnny leapt into the pilot seat, hit the throttle, and the powerful engine roared to life. “We were gigging frogs, not meetin’ drug smugglers,” says Jessie, “but I did have several ounces on me and I’m sure Johnny had dope on him.” They spent the next few minutes slaloming between the cypress tree embankment of the swamp until there was enough distance that Johnny could safely shutoff the engine and drift to a stop next to an island. “He had a kill switch that shutoff everything—engine, lights, everything,” she informs me. “We waited for around an hour in the pitch dark; listening to the feds air-boat in the distance and the croaking of frogs and the occasional bellowing of gators.”

“DON’T LOOK NOW,” Felisha whispered to Wildman, “but that’s the DEA sittin’ over there.” It was noon, and they were seated at a booth inside of Cowboys Bar-B-Q & Steak Co. Two tables over were three task force officers.

Earlier in the week, while sitting inside Paul’s vehicle in the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office’s parking lot, Felisha’s boyfriend had identified several men leaving the building. Paul had stated that something “big is going down. The feds are in town.”

Inconspicuously, Wildman glanced around the room at Agents Coddington and Irwin with the DEA and one of their task force colleagues—I like to think it was Lieutenant Snyder, but I can’t be certain. They were completely unaware that their prey was staring directly at them. Nor did Wildman comprehend that these were the men designated to build a case against him and his network. 

“Can Paul find out who they’re targeting?” asked Wildman.

“I don’t think so,” replied Felisha, “no one’s talking’ to him about it; it’s very hush hush.”

Court documents would later reveal that the deputy was purposely being “kept in the dark” because his girlfriend and her associates were targets of the investigation.

“WE DON’T CONDONE that type of relationship,” says Sheriff Stephen. His department has specific policies regarding fraternizing “especially certified staff having relationships with known felons.”

During our interview, Aubrey tells me, “Once, me and Felisha was sittin’ on her couch smoking dope when her man, the deputy, came home for lunch.”

“Felisha had her baby’s daddy—who worked for the sheriff’s department—getting intel for Wildman,” U.S. prosecutor Coker explains. “She was bringing Wildman to the house with dope on him, and she was allowing her kids around him.”

THE CAMERA CAPTURED A CRISP digital image of the faded blue Ford sitting idle at the east side of the parking lot of a Texaco gas station. Despite Wildman’s heightened paranoia, he never noticed the task force surveillance officer capturing him and Sharp speaking in the cab of his truck. According to the Incident Report, on August 6, 2014, the pair exchanged $250 for 3.3 grams of meth.   

Over the next few months, Crews and Sharp set up multiple controlled buys with Wildman. On August 11, Crews met with Wildman at the Texaco, and purchased $250 worth of meth—3.4 grams. Two days later, Sharp hooked up with Wildman behind a Pizza Hut to swap out $450 for 7.5 grams of meth. On September 19, both Crews and Sharp linked up with Wildman at the Twin Palms Liquor Store to buy 2.7 grams of meth for $250. Days later, they grabbed two bags full of meth—a total of 7.1 grams—in the parking lot of Eli’s Western Clothing Store, and handed Wildman $450. Then, on September 30, Crews purchased 10.3 grams for $650. 

At this point, the task force decided to transfer Crews and Sharp’s cooperation over to an undercover agent that went by the name “Carl.” It took some convincing, but Crews—using the ruse that Carl was his boss—talked Wildman into meeting with the undercover. 

It was October 8, and Wildman’s blue Ford was idling in the parking lot of the Cracker Trail Country Store. Crews climbed into the cabin while the undercover stood outside, patiently waiting next to his white Ford crew-cab 4×4. Crews quickly exchanged $850 for 16.3 grams of meth with Wildman and the two men then exited the vehicle. Crews then introduced Wildman to the undercover agent. 

Less than a week later, Wildman was convinced to meet Carl on a side road near Cracker Trail Country Store; there, they swapped $850 for 14 grams of meth. An additional 31.2 grams were purchased two weeks later, by the undercover for $1,500.  

At this point, Crews and Sharp were no longer involved with the controlled buys. The undercover was now dealing directly with Wildman.

“OTHER THAN WHEN WE WERE locked up,” says Jessie, “I can’t think of a time when we were all together—Aubrey, Jetta, Jamie, Felisha and me.”

We are seated on the couches in the dayroom of the halfway house. Jessie recalls a few times when she and Audrey took Marashellie fishing; Jetta and Felisha might have come along once or twice.

“Then there was Jamie…” Jessie tells me that Jamie was constantly in and out of jail; ranging from burglaries to possession charges. “Jamie would get in fist fights with other girls, and guys! She was trouble. Plus, she was a shit talker. She had a strange fixation on me and she was always talkin’ shit about Aubrey and me.”

LARRY CREWS WAS PARTYING with several people when he got a little too high, and confided that he had set the “old man up”—at least one of those people was Jessica Rutherford. She was one of the many dealers that Wildman regularly supplied with meth. The following day, Jessica called Wildman.  

When he got the news, Wildman was understandably concerned. He had been selling drugs for decades and he recognized that the task force’s net was tightening. People were cooperating with the feds. At nearly sixty years old and in declining health, Wildman knew that he wouldn’t survive a lengthy prison sentence. Someone had to “shut these snitches up.”

Lacy Locklear had a propensity for violence. He had been in and out of prison most of his life; for everything from battery to domestic violence. “Locklear was Wildman’s enforcer,” says U.S. prosecutor Coker. For two decades Locklear had distributed methamphetamine, collected money, and committed acts of violence on those that didn’t pay. “Whether it be break people’s jaws” or threaten someone, Locklear would take care of them. “He has a temper and he’s dangerous.”

Something had to be done. According to the wiretaps, Wildman called Locklear and explained that Crews was cooperating with the task force. “The word I just got is, yes, he’s the police and he lives out there on State Road 710.” Wildman went on to explain that “the word on the street was,” Crews had worn a wire during two controlled buys. “If he did, if he made two of them, I’m fucked. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go out there and sit down with his ass—”

“Yeah, I’m goin’ with you,” interrupted Locklear. “Because if he did, I’m gonna kill that motherfucker.”  

That conversation caused the task force to dispatch deputies to Crews’ residence, stated Coker. “We had to get him out of the community before Locklear could carry out his threat… because he’s violent; and he doesn’t mind violence.”

When I brought the incident up, Jessie was shocked. She had never heard about Wildman or Locklear harming anyone. Then again, she’d never read the court documents related to the case. “Wildman always seemed like a harmless old man to me,” admits Jessie, “and I only met Lacy once.” She grinned at the thought of him. “He was wearing overalls, like Wildman used to… They were just a couple a’ old hillbillies.”

JESSIE AND AUBREY were riding with Wildman on December 2, 2014, when the undercover called him to arrange a meeting. The girls didn’t have an issue going with Wildman to make a sale, until Jessie spotted the undercover sitting on the side of the road in his white pickup truck with several fence posts hanging out of the back. “Wait a second,” snapped Jessie, “this is the same guy that busted Johnny Buck’s aunt.”

“Hold on now girl,” replied Wildman, “I done sold to this dude a few times already; he’s good—”

“Well, then you’re goin’ to jail,” said Jessie, and she pointed toward a store. “Drop us off; we don’t want no part of this.” 

Wildman passed by the undercover and proceeded just down the road; there, he dropped Jessie and Aubrey off. After selling “Carl” an ounce of crystal meth for $1,500 he picked the girls up.

According to the Incident Report, in exchange for $2,800, Wildman sold the undercover two ounces of crystal meth roughly two weeks later.

“I tried to tell him the guy was no good,” says Jessie during our interview. People were getting busted all around them and it was inevitable that some of them were cooperating, “but Wildman said, ‘Girl, I been sellin’ dope since before you were born; I know what I’m doin’.”  

“IT’S A MOONLESS NIGHT,” I tell Jessie, “and three four-by-fours stop under the cypress canopy.” The vehicles; high-beams hit the swamp and several alligators slither off the banks into the black waters of the everglades. As Jessie, Aubrey, Jetta and the other girls climb out of the pickups, Swamp Witch by Jim Stafford radiates from one of the truck’s stereos. “The moment your boots hit the dirt two air-boats loaded with methamphetamine emerge out of the darkness, they cut their engines and the flat-bottom-hulls slosh onto the grassy shore.” Jessie grins as I excitedly chatter on about how the smugglers stand in the boats holding their shotguns, “as you and your female crew unload hundreds of kilos of meth—”

Jessie interrupts with, “What are you doin’?” 

“Just listen,” I snap and continue. “I picture task force helicopters hovering in the distance—they just missed you. The pickups roar out of the Everglades, fishtailing onto Alligator Alley with you and Aubrey in the bed of one of the trucks, making out while laying on a canvas covering millions of dollars of dope—”

“We never met any smugglers in the fuckin’ swamp,” says Jessie, struggling not to laugh. “None of that happened.”

“I’m just saying that’s how I see it; like if it became a Netflix series or something.”

“No one’s making a series about ‘a bunch of Florida cracker-chicks slinging dope in Okeechobee.” She smiles at me and says, “You’re funny, but that ain’t never gonna happen.”

FELISHA PRESSED THE ARROW button and her iPhone fired off the colors, makes, and models of half a dozen task force members’ vehicles. Wildman had asked her to start collecting the descriptions whenever she was at the sheriff’s office meeting Paul. 

Moreover, according to U.S. prosecutor Coker, Felisha wasn’t the only one of the girls’ conducting surveillance on Wildman’s behalf. “Teresa Green would take pictures of her neighbor, Detective Roy Gilcrest.” The detective was a member of the task force and occasionally other members of the task force stopped by his house. “Miss Green took pictures of every car that was ever parked in his driveway. Including, the undercover cars.” 

Based on the information Wildman had collected from his own informants, periodically he would spot the undercover vehicles tailing him. Even more odd, were the times when the vehicles would show up in areas where Wildman was certain he couldn’t have been followed.

“Wildman would drive 400 miles a day distributing” product from Yeehaw Junction to the Glades, says Coker. “It’s not like you can stand on the street corner in Okeechobee and sell methamphetamine. These are flat Florida planes. He could see a tail from five or six miles away, even if they were being covert.”

After spotting the same undercover vehicles numerous times, Wildman stopped by Johnny Buck’s and asked him to check underneath his truck for a tracking device. Just inside the frame, Johnny Buck found a small black metal box. “I couldn’t believe it,” admits Johnny Buck. The device was held in place by two high-powered magnets. “It freaked me out so bad, I threw the fuckin’ thing in the canal.”

THE DISCOVERY OF THE TRACKING device along with the prolonged exposure to methamphetamine had Wildman on edge. At roughly the same time, he received a call from an individual—an individual that Wildman chose not to reveal—that stated, Malinda Yates and Brenda Minor were cooperating with the task force. Like most addicts, the accusation caused Wildman to make the leap from suspicion to indisputable evidence. “I want ‘em hurt real bad,” said Wildman, on the intercepted call to Locklear. He offered him $500 to go to each of the women’s houses and “break both their noses and their jaws… You need to shut them bitches up.”

“I’m gonna need help on this one,” grunted Locklear. “I gotta guy.”

Wildman suggested they wear masks and gloves. “I don’t want this comin’ back on us.”

The most frightening part of this incident, according to U.S. prosecutor Coker, is that “the two women, that they thought were cooperating, they weren’t cooperating.” 

Fortunately, on April 20, 2015, the task force was able to intercede on the women’s behalf, before Wildman and his henchmen could harm them. Both women were relocated out of the area.

When I asked Wildman if deputy Paul Jackson—his informant inside the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office—had been the source of the information, all he would say was, “The information came from a very, very reliable source.” To this day he believes that both women were cooperating with law enforcement. “It wasn’t just Melinda Yates and Brenda Minor,” he declares, “a bunch ‘a people were snitching.”

Precisely what information had been leaked by deputy Jackson, the U.S. prosecutor couldn’t say. However, he did admit that “Paul Jackson eventually lost his job due to his relationship with Felisha and Wildman.”

WILDMAN SHOVED A CHICKEN TENDER into his mouth and grunted, “People are talkin’.” It was mid-April and Jessie, Aubrey, and Wildman were having dinner at Parrott Island Grill, an Okeechobee dive. “The law’s posted up at my place, twenty-four, seven. I got their vehicles makes, models, and tag numbers.”

“Told you not to sell to that guy Carl,” said Jessie. “You’re slippin’ old man.”

Wildman replied with a noncommittal grunt.

Their dinner chitchat comprised of who was “working with the feds” and “who had recently been arrested.” Your typical “druggie gossip.”

“Aubrey came home with me that night,” says Jessie. “I only mention it because that night I recalled seeing the same car several times on the way home and it was parked down the street from my dad’s house the next day.”

DESOTO COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES were conducting surveillance of Timothy Backer on August 20, 2015. His Lincoln sat idle at the pumps as Tim pumped unleaded underneath the awning of the Speedway gas station. Tim was a known drug dealer, and his license was suspended; making him an easy target. Additionally, Tim was with Jessie, a known methamphetamine trafficker with Wildman’s organization.

No sooner had Tim pulled out of the station than the deputies flipped on their cruisers’ lights and sirens. Both vehicles fishtailed out of a forested area and onto the highway. Jessie had two ounces of meth on her, but she didn’t have to tell Tim to punch it; he was way ahead of her.

“He didn’t have a chance of losing them,” she admits. “He was driving like a crazy person and I was terrified; but I was also hoping we could get far enough ahead of them; I could toss the dope.”

Tim swerved around several vehicles and just missed a third sheriff’s cruiser joining the pursuit from a cross-street. The Lincoln was slowly pulling away. “Still, Tim’s Lincoln was no match for the cruisers,” says Jessie. “Those cruisers got like, three hundred and fifty horsepower.”  Suddenly, Tim shot through an intersection and the deputies dropped back slightly, “but I didn’t think we were gonna get away.”

Then, Tim blew through two stop-signs and a traffic-light. According to the Incident Report, the deputies made the decision that Tim had become too reckless and the cruisers broke off the pursuit. “I couldn’t believe it.”     

Two days later, around 8 a.m., Jessie, Tim and a couple of friends were getting high in Tim’s girlfriend’s mobile-home, when Desoto County Sheriff’s deputies banged on the front door. “Law enforcement. We have an arrest warrant for Timothy Backer,” barked an official voice. “Outta the trailer, now!”

Everyone scurried off, according to Jessie, “like cockroaches; like there was anywhere to hide… It was a single-wide trailer.”

While everyone tried to fit into tiny closets and cupboards, Jessie sat patiently on the couch for the deputies to rush through the door. They yanked everyone outside and handcuffed them. Minutes later, the deputies discovered multiple stashes of methamphetamine along with drug paraphernalia.     

“We were all arrested and taken to the sheriff’s office,” she tells me. “They fingerprinted me and charged me with drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.” After a couple of hours, several members of the task force arrived. They pulled Jessie into an interrogation room. “They asked me how I knew everyone and I said, ‘I don’t know any of those guys. Hell, I hardly know Tim.’”

Jessie was released on bond the following morning. “I’d never been arrested before and it scared me,” admits Jessie. “I knew that I had to straighten out my life or I was going to end up in prison.”

INDICTMENT WAS NOT A TERM Jessie was familiar with, until Jamie mentioned it. The two girls were sitting on Jessie’s bed getting high, and Jamie stated that she had heard that the government was in the process of indicting everyone connected to Wildman. “Jamie went into this long spiel about how we were better than this,” says Jessie, “and how we could run away together.” Jamie had always harbored a crush on Jessie, “We’d made-out a few times, but that was it. I didn’t like her like that. In a girl-girl-relationship, I’d always been the guy, but Jamie was a tough chick; she had a tattoo across her neck that said, ‘Trust No One.’ What the fuck! I couldn’t date her.”

COKER STEPPED INTO THE Okeechobee Command Center on August 28, 2015. “There were approximately a hundred local, state, and federal officials in this warehouse,” says the U.S. prosecutor. The U.S. Marshals and the Okeechobee SWAT team were coordinating simultaneous raids “preparing for these massive arrests that morning and I wanted to be there for support.”

Prematurely, someone posted the indictment on Facebook. The news spread like wildfire.

Jessie was at Johnny Buck’s house visiting her daughter, when his roommate, Mellissa, rushed into the living-room. “Ohmigod!” yelled Mellissa. “They just raided my dad’s place; there’s an indictment on Facebook!” She pointed at Jessie and screeched, “and you’re on it!” 

Melissa shoved her cellphone in Jessie’s face and pointed to her name. “I couldn’t believe it,” Jessie tells me. “I’d been indicted for conspiracy to possess and distribute methamphetamine with a mandatory minimum of ten years to life. Everything started spinning; I couldn’t believe that I’d done anything to deserve a life sentence.”

Seconds later Jessie’s dad called her and said that SWAT team members and U.S. Marshals had just searched his house. They were looking for her.

Jessie didn’t want to go back to her father’s place—she needed to think. So, she went to John Meara’s sister’s house—she was a legitimate citizen outside of Jessie’s circle. Jessie had known John and, by proxy, his sister for years; Jessie was certain the authorities wouldn’t think to look for her there. “Plus, he was a nice guy,” says Jessie, “I knew John would help me.”

THE MARSHALS ARRESTED Felisha, Jamie, Teresa, and dozens of others at their homes throughout Okeechobee and the surrounding counties.

“Not sure if Agent Coddington and the other agent were there when I got arrested,” admits Jetta, during our interview. “I would have remembered; he was gorgeous. He had these amazing blue eyes.” Jetta was certain, however, that Coddington and Erwin transported her from the marshals’ detention center to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Coddington swabbed the inside of my mouth for DNA.” She smirks and continues, “I’m pretty sure I stared into his piercing blue eyes as he rubbed the swab against my inner cheek.”

It was around 7 a.m. when Aubrey heard the banging. Jessie had left her house around six that morning to pick up her kids from her sister’s house. “I thought it was her at first, like coming back. But after the second knock, I was like, Nah, that’s a cop knock. When I opened the door, it was the fuckin’ SWAT team.”

While the deputies searched the house, Aubrey was placed in the back of a cruiser and transported to the county jail. “I actually knew the cop by name; I’d gone to high school with’em.”

Despite the task force’s efforts, Wildman and Jessie managed to elude capture.

“I WAS IN TEXAS WHEN THEY RAIDED my place in South Florida,” says Wildman. “I started receiving texts and phone calls from my people.” Was he meeting with cartel members or simply on vacation? Wildman wouldn’t say. What I do know, is that the SWAT team immediately turned their attention to Wildman’s family. “They started harassing my mom and my brother, so I went back to Florida to get my shit in order.” 

BAM! BAM!! BAM!!! banged the SWAT team members and marshals at approximately 7 a.m. When Johnny Buck cracked the door, half a dozen well-armed law enforcement officers collectively shouted, “Arrest warrant for Jessica Bell; open the door!”

Johnny Buck stepped backward and the men swarmed into the residence. Screams of terror shrieked out of Marashellie’s room as the marshals searched the house. A minute later, the lead marshal demanded to know Jessie’s whereabouts, but Johnny Buck didn’t know. “They were pissed-off about Jess not bein’ there,” he admits. “The guy gave me his business card and told me to have her call him.”

At roughly the same time Johnny Buck was describing the raid to his ex-wife, Jessie’s sister called. “Jess, the police were just here,” she said. “They have an arrest warrant for you.”

The marshals then went to Jessie’s mother’s house, then to Justin’s brother’s place, and subsequently to Jessie’s grandmother’s residence.  

THE LAKE OKEECHOBEE NEWS’ front page announced, fifteen people were arrested Friday on federal charges for their participation in conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. An additional 29 were detained on state violations of the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organization Act, said Assistant State Attorney Ashley Albright.  

The takedowns started at 4 a.m. Friday and were carried out simultaneously in four counties, according to Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen. Fifteen SWAT teams took part in Friday’s execution of the arrest warrants. He went on to say that nearly a million dollars in methamphetamine was seized. 

“Each of these individuals were shown to have been a part of, and contributed to, the criminal enterprise headed by Steven ‘Wildman’ Oakes,” said the state prosecutor, “Each of them contributed to the criminal organization… a number of suspects are still being sought.”

“I’ve always heard if you are going to dance, you’d better be prepared to pay the fiddler,” said Sheriff Stephen, “well, a lot of people have been dancing in the Okeechobee drug trade. Today, the fiddler was paid.’”

JESSIE COULD FEEL the warmth of the asphalt beneath her feet as she walked. She had relocated to her grandmother’s, but it had been weeks and the marshals were closing in. “They had stopped back by my dad’s and my sister’s houses,” she tells me. “The stress was killing me.” She was roughly half a mile from her grandmother’s place. “I was walking—trying to clear my head—when I saw these two black helicopters.” Jessie didn’t think much of them at first, but after several minutes of walking in the rural area it was obvious that they were tracking her. “I took off through the woods, toward my aunt’s place—it was ‘bout a mile away.”

By the time Jessie breached the property, there was no doubt that the helicopters were following her. “My aunt had several abandoned cars around her yard,” continued Jessie. “So, I climbed inside this old beat-up four-door; it was all rusted and mildewed, it was disgusting.” She laid in the backseat, silent and motionless for hours; listening to the helicopters, crickets, and mosquitoes. “Eventually, when I couldn’t hear ‘em anymore, I came out.”

After weeks of reading newspaper articles and harassment by law enforcement, Jessie’s grandmother was concerned that she might get in trouble for harboring a fugitive. She plead with her granddaughter to turn herself in. “She was scared,” recalls Jessie, “plus, I didn’t want her to get in trouble… I wasn’t gone more than a day or two, and the marshals raided my grandma’s place.”

METH ARRESTS CONTINUE, said the Lake Okeechobee News on September 2, 2015. Nearly everyone sought for selling and distributing methamphetamine in and around Okeechobee was arrested, according to Assistant State Attorney Ashley Albright. If convicted, those arrested on the state charges could each face a maximum of 30 years in prison. 

“The main cog in this distribution wheel is Steven ‘Wildman’ Oakes,” said the prosecutor. “Unfortunately, he has yet to be apprehended.”

“I WAS PLANNING ON TURNING MYSELF in,” says Wildman. While getting his affairs in order, Wildman made the mistake of calling his mother on her birthday “from my brother’s phone. They traced it, got my location and the SWAT team showed up and arrested me.”     

JESSIE SLIPPED THE KEYCARD into the door of her room at the Days Inn in Wildwood, roughly an hour north of Tampa. She hadn’t wanted to stop for the night, but it was getting dark and John was hungry and tired. “I had just sat on the bed and John was closing the curtains, and he goes, ‘Holy shit! Two cops just walked by.’ I was super freaked out.” The pair had around four grams of methamphetamine on them, so, they hid the drugs and slipped out of the room. Jessie tells me, as they were slipping down the rear staircase, they spotted two cruisers in the adjacent fast food restaurant’s parking lot along with several SUV’s.      

“I’m not sure how they missed us the first time,” says Jessie, “but when we were driving off, we could see them rushing toward our room on the second-floor.”

Approximately the same time Jessie was fleeing the marshals, Jetta was seated in a holding cell in the federal building; waiting to be transferred back to the detention center. “One of the correctional officers asked one of the marshals, ‘Did you get her?’” Jetta tells me, “and the guy was like, ‘Nope, we missed her… again.’ I remember thinking, You go girl.” 

“MY MOM’S ADVICE was to leave the state,” says Jessie. Her mother had a friend that was a long distance truck driver; and he had agreed to take her with him. “She said he would pay for everything, and I was like, ‘Eventually, this guy’s gonna want something from me.’” Jessie shakes her head at the thought of it and continues, “My mom’s best advice was that I become a truck-stop-lot-lizard. I told her, ‘Are you nuts? I can’t run for the rest of my life; I’ve got kids.’”    

THE MARSHALS RAIDED John’s sister’s house in the early morning hours of September 23. He was describing the incident, when Jessie noticed movement in the surveillance monitor, sitting on the counter. Eight SWAT team members as well as several marshals could be seen rushing through the property’s front-gate. 

“Right after the raid,” says Jessie, “John met me at Justin’s grandmother’s house.” As the authorities surrounded the house, she realized that John had inadvertently led them straight to her. 

There was nowhere to run, so Jessie walked out of the front door. The lead marshal yelled for her to place her hands on her head and walk backward toward the sound of his voice. She was handcuffed, placed in an SUV, and transferred to the detention center.

“I was a flight risk,” says Jessie. The SWAT team as well as the marshals had been chasing her for nearly a month, “so, I didn’t get bond… When my federal public defender came to discuss accepting a plea agreement, I told him that I wanted to go to trial—I had to get back to my kids.” She was certain that the government didn’t have any evidence against her. “I thought I was some kind ‘a gangster or something.”

MOST DEFENDANTS COOPERATE. By working with law enforcement and providing information regarding co-conspirators, defendants can potentially reduce their sentences significantly.

“If you’re guilty, trial is a mistake,” says U.S. prosecutor Coker. “Co-defendants turn on one another all the time.” The United States Attorney’s Office boasts a 97 percent conviction rate; predominantly due to the government’s overwhelming use of cooperating witnesses. 

“I couldn’t go to trial,” admits Wildman, “the feds had too much evidence; and everyone was snitchin’. I didn’t have no choice, but to take a plea deal.”

JESSIE HAD HER DISCOVERY spread out on her bunk when Jamie entered her cell. Her co-defendant had been flirting with Jessie for weeks and not getting anywhere. Jessie was in the unit with Jetta, Felisha, and Jamie; Aubrey and several of their co-defendants were being held in another part of the facility.

“Jamie started telling me that she’d always been attracted to me, and I cut her off,” confesses Jessie. “I said, ‘Are you fuckin’ serious? I’m trying to fight my case and you’re in here trying to hook-up? What’s wrong with you?’”

As the months passed and her trial date approached, more and more of Jessie’s co-defendants signed plea agreements, but she was certain that none of them would testify against her. By the beginning of 2016 everyone but Jessie had signed plea agreements. “Then, in February, I received the government’s list of witnesses against me.” She informs me that nearly every one of her co-defendants was prepared to testify against her. “If I went to trial and lost, I would have gotten twenty years, and I’d never see my kids again.”

In April 2016, Jessie signed her plea agreement.

FEDERAL PROSECUTOR COKER, agents Coddington and Erwin as well as the undercover DEA agent and two marshals met with Jessie in the Miami Federal Building. They had some questions regarding the case. Specifically, they wanted to know how she had known that “Carl” was an undercover agent. “What gave it away,” asked the undercover.

“A couple of years ago, you setup my ex-husband’s aunt,” replied Jessie. “She told me it was a fed named Carl, driving a white pickup with fence posts in the back. So, when I saw you… I just knew.”

Coker and the undercover glanced at one another—Jessie’s identification of the DEA agent had been a serious concern.

“You know,” said the undercover, “my grandfather’s name was Carl.”

Jessie nodded. “I get that it’s sentimental, but you might want to change it up.”

It seems like an odd thing to do, but during the debriefing, Jessie thanked Coker and the agents for arresting her. She had been clean for several months and the detriment of her lifestyle was sinking in. “I remember Erwin told me, ‘Most of your co-defendants are going to do their time and go right back to the same old thing, but you have a chance to succeed in life. You can do better than this.’ The comment probably didn’t mean much to him,” admits Jessie, “but it meant a lot to me.”

THE DEPARTMENT OF CHILD SERVICES took Jessie’s two youngest daughters—Mikayla and Jaylie—into state custody. Both of their fathers were in prison and her sister had five kids of her own; she simply couldn’t afford to keep them. “My mother was a full-blown addict,” admits Jessie, so she couldn’t take them “and I refused to leave them with my aunt or my brother… Marashellie was living with Johnny Buck, but he was battling addiction, and he could barely afford her. There was no one to take care of Mikayla and Jaylie.”

DCS placed the girls in a foster home with a good family. In fact, their foster-mother, Regina, began corresponding with Jessie. “She would send me photos of the girls and tell me what they were up to,” Jessie tells me. “We became really close.”

Just before Jessie was sentenced, Justin was released from prison; with the help of his mother, he was able to get custody of Jaylie. Richie, however, was still in prison and wasn’t getting out anytime soon, nor was he interested in being a father.

“I didn’t want to give her up,” confesses Jessie, “but DCS threatened to take custody of Jaylie and Marashellie if I didn’t.” Regina had promised that if Jessie allowed her and TP to adopt Mikayla, she would always be a part of her life. “She told me that I’d be able to visit her and someday I’d be at Mikayla’s graduation.” Jessie only wanted the best for her daughter. “I love her so much.”

THE GIRL’S VOICE ECHOED throughout the unit as she sang Hallelujah in the darkness of her cell. It was nearly midnight, tears streamed down Jessie’s cheeks as she laid in her bunk and listened.  Your faith was strong, but you needed proof… The typical unit noise had vanished and all that could be heard was the voice of an angel.  She tied you to a kitchen chair. She broke your throne, and she cut your hair; and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah

That morning, Jessie had signed the adoption papers. Although she knew it was the right decision for Mikayla, the guilt was overwhelming. …it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

AT WILDMAN’S SENTENCING, he asked the court for leniency. “I’d like to walk outta prison someday,” he said, “instead of being carried out. I was wrong in what I did and I’m sorry.”

Unswayed, by the defendant’s plea, the judge sentenced Steven “Wildman” Oakes to twenty-five years. 

JESSIE SAT QUIETLY AT THE DEFENSE table on May 31, 2016; sheathed in a tan-jumpsuit, she listened as her attorney told the judge, “Miss Bell represents a true dichotomy…” Drugs had ruined her life and “irrespective of what this court decides… She has lost her children [and] that will weigh on her far in excess of any sentence that she has imposed in connection with this case.”

Her attorney went on to say that Jessie had been in the military, however, that career path was interrupted “by an unexpected pregnancy… This was a woman that was involved in this case because of a physical need that she had for narcotics.”      

“I’ve made some bad choices,” said Jessie when addressing the court. “My mind was clouded by drugs and my judgment was altered… I’m thankful I’ve been given the chance to rehabilitate.”

The judge sentenced Jessie to five and a half years and recommended that she be placed “in the Residential Drug Treatment Program, at a designated Bureau of Prisons institution.” 

AUBREY WALDRON’S CASE remained with the state of Florida, she received six months in the county jail and probation. “I’m not a huge fan of incarceration,” she jests, “but it could’ve been worse… at least I didn’t end up with a federal sentence.”

Jetta Frake and Felisha Leitner didn’t get so lucky, they were both sentenced to six years, to be served in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. However, due to Jamie Hewitt and Lacy Locklear’s extensive criminal histories; Jamie was sentenced to ten years and Locklear was sentenced to fifteen years.

THE RESIDENTIAL DRUG ABUSE Program (RDAP) is an intensive nine-month substance abuse rehabilitation program administered by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Inmate-participants are taught to identify patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and beliefs in order to improve their coping skills—Jessie entered the program three years into her sentence. 

“RDAP has nothing to do with drug addiction,” says Jessie. “It’s about changing your thinking; the way you react to problems.” Admittedly, she hated every single minute of the program, however, “it changed my life.”

“If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it again,” declares Felisha. She doesn’t credit RDAP with her sobriety, however, “I feel like I learned a lot as far as my anger goes. But as far as drug use goes, it’s been because I chose to be sober, not because of the program.”    

OVER BREAKFAST, in late March 2019, I catch Jessie and another female inmate grinning at the contents of a photo album. True to her word, Regina had stayed in touch with Jessie during her incarceration. They exchanged letters, spoke on the phone, and Regina even sent photos of Mikayla. “As soon as I got on my feet,” says Jessie, “we planned on me coming to see Mikayla.”

Unfortunately, within days, TP informs Jessie that Regina has been fighting pancreatic cancer for some time, and the treatment isn’t going well. “He told me that he was aware that Regina wanted me to be a part of Mikayla’s life…” Regina passed away days later. “But TP has never allowed me to see Mikayla.” Jessie takes in a deep breath and continues, “I understand his concerns; I can only imagine what he must think of me.”