A legendary drug dealer makes a play for the corporate-speaking racket.
FEBRUARY 06, 2015
By Steve Miller for Boston Magazine
When George Jung finally walked out of New Jersey’s Fort Dix prison on an ordinary Monday last June, he was thinking about chowder. At 71, he’d spent the past 20 years locked up and goddammit, he’d always missed the food from his childhood in the Boston suburbs.
He settled for a half-assed bowl, his first since the Clinton administration, at the airport in Philadelphia—as close as he’d make it to his native Weymouth. He wasn’t headed home, yet. Instead, he was en route to a halfway house in Northern California as part of his supervised release. And so he was forced to eat his off-brand chowder with an agent of the federal court system—not with a beautiful woman, who might have joined him 30 years ago during his heyday, when he was the right-hand man and smuggling king for one of the world’s largest and most fearsome cocaine cartels. In his mind, though, Jung felt like he was back in the late 1970s, sitting on the sun deck of his beach home in Cape Cod. And the white chowder in the Styrofoam cup tasted just fine.
After the meal and a cross-country flight, Jung landed in San Francisco, where TMZ paparazzi were waiting to videotape his return to the world. “Life’s a rodeo and all you have to do is stay in the saddle,” Jung told the camera, beaming at the attention. “I’m back in the saddle again.”
As stage entrances go, it couldn’t have been scripted any better for Jung, who was famously portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2001 movie Blow. With no marketable skills to speak of, it’s hard to blame him for hoping that his criminal celebrity will somehow pay off. “What can George do?” says Tom Tiderington, a former Fort Lauderdale, Florida, narcotics detective who busted Jung in 1985. “He has no résumé, and he’s set up for failure. The only thing he has is the residual value of his past.”
Jung graduated from Weymouth High School in 1961 as a star-spangled football hero, but gained fame years later as “Boston George,” a nickname used by his former confederate Pablo Escobar. At one time Jung was the only American working for the Medellin cartel, which smuggled billions of dollars of cocaine into the United States. “There was an 85 percent chance that if you snorted cocaine between 1977 and 1984, it was ours,” Jung has said with a touch of pride. It eventually, and predictably, landed him behind bars for two decades. The Depp film cemented his fame while he was locked up, and by the time Jung was released this summer, he had convinced himself that the straight world outside the prison walls would readily embrace him. After all, wasn’t he adored from afar by the reported 6 million Americans who regularly used cocaine during the 1980s? Hell, this was going to be easy. His prospects seemed to be confirmed when he got a call, shortly after his release, on his brand-new Alcatel cell phone.
“How’s it going, motherfucker?” the voice on the other end whispered.
“Thanks for calling,” Jung said. “Jesus, I feel like Brando in On the Waterfront.”
“You are Brando,” said the voice, familiar to anyone who’s seen a movie in the past 20 years. It was Johnny Depp. Hello, Hollywood.
When they spoke, Depp was coincidentally in Boston, making what Jung refers to as “that movie about the sociopath.” For reasons that remain unclear, Jung refuses to mention the name James “Whitey” Bulger or the biopic, Black Mass, in which Depp plays the famed South Boston gangster. Perhaps he fears he’ll be upstaged as the biggest Boston criminal in Depp’s life. “He asked me for any good restaurants on Cape Cod,” Jung recalls, in a tone meant to convey that talking to movie stars is no big deal. “I told him about the Esplanade and the Charles and the Boston Symphony playing there.”
Jung’s cocaine empire—once estimated at $100 million—has crumbled, but he is certain he can rebuild his fortune, this time by cashing in on his celebrity. He even has a plan.
George Jung may be out of the narcotics business, but he is very into the business of being Boston George.
Like Jesse James, John Dillinger, and Clyde Barrow, the personable outlaw is a tenant of our cult-of-celebrity culture. Jung is the epitome of the hippie rebel without even trying—his lore and legacy an intoxicating trail of good vibes and hearty times. But let’s be clear: He most decidedly does not look like Johnny Depp, one of the great faces of film history.
At about 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Jung has a face so crooked it should have its own parole officer. Rivers of wrinkles run up, down, and sideways, interrupted by a hawkish nose. His mouth turns upward and left when he talks, and his hair is the envy of any respectable septuagenarian, brown and flowing south to his clavicle with a middle part. The wrinkles are hard earned from years of heavy cocaine use, relentless drinking, and then sitting in a prison cell for nearly half of his life. The creases come also from the stress of living in a world where a close friend could betray you at any second. With his New England accent a fading memory, Jung notes that he was a “thrill junkie,” living for the next delivery more than the next blast of blow or dough. These days, however, he knows his intentions are legit, because “the thrill is gone.”
He was never the smartest crook. Even his rap sheet scans stupid: Busted in Mexico, Chicago, Cape Cod, Fort Lauderdale, 1970, 1972, 1980, 1985. Varying sentences never served in full, thanks in part to turning state’s evidence against cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder in exchange for leniency. That probably should’ve been his cue that he wasn’t cut out for the life. Then the kicker: a 1994 pop in the Boston area for moving some pot.
What Boston George had, back in the day, was his looks—but he doesn’t have those anymore. “It’s something you have to adjust to when you become old,” he acknowledges. “You’re nondescript.” The problem is, now he’s trying to live his life between the ears. “I have wisdom now,” he says. “Maybe I’ve got 10 more years to live and I want to live it. I saw a lot of kids in prison for drugs, and as far as being a pioneer in the drug business, it wasn’t my intention to destroy society by bringing drugs in. It was obvious that no one forced them to do them; it was a consensual business. If some kids can listen to what I have to say, that’s gratification. I still want to give back.”
The question is: Would anyone be crazy enough to listen?
Although he was still wearing an ankle bracelet, Jung was already dreaming of coming back East—when we spoke by phone in September, he was looking forward to meeting up with high school friends to reminisce. We even discussed putting together a face-to-face lunch with Bill McGreal, a former Massachusetts state trooper who went undercover to bust Jung in Eastham in 1980. “He’s been in the joint 20 years now and he’s like his own PR department,” McGreal told me, eager to see his old foe.
There were other plans, too. The Johnny Depp movie was based on a book —also called Blow—written by Bruce Porter in 1993. In prison, Jung had cowritten a novel about smuggling called Heavy—touted as the sequel to Blow—and it was finally ready for the public. All it needed was a publisher and the thing was sure to be another hit.
In addition to hawking his book to the highest bidder, Jung was already fielding requests for TV, radio, and podcast appearances—and, of course, chatting with fawning Hollywood buddy Depp. But quietly, George had also set his sights on the unlikeliest of goals: a career as a motivational speaker for corporate audiences. Get this: Boston George—the new Tony Robbins. Why not? He already had a pitch rooted in bootstrapping entrepreneurship. “What the corporate level would be interested in,” Jung told me in September, “is this kid from Weymouth with a few hundred dollars building an empire.”
Like many a corporate raider or angel investor, Jung had made and lost multiple fortunes. The key was to learn from failure. “I’ve had a lot of good times and a lot of agonizing times, and I’m willing to relate that to people who are interested in hearing me,” Jung said. “I’m 72 years old and it’s not a bad living. It beats collecting Social Security.”
Things were going to be just fine.
Years of drug smuggling, prison, and celebrity haven’t eroded the fondness for Jung back home, where his old pals remember their friend with a grin. He wasn’t much of a schemer in high school, says Malcolm MacGregor, who graduated from Weymouth High School alongside Jung in 1961. “We were very good friends, and we’d drive around town listening to Nancy Wilson. We’d hop trains into Boston. George was easy to get along with, and very much a ladies’ man.”
Words used to describe Jung during the early 1960s include “laid-back,” “good-looking,” even “smart”—the kind of guy you could trust. “My mother often said, ‘You were a good boy until you went to California,'” Jung told me. “I was a businessman, though, I wasn’t a hippie, and my whole objective was to make money. The thought of making hundreds of thousands of dollars was incredible to me. I was going to get a motorcycle and travel the world and drown in adventure. But when I got the money, it turned out it wasn’t about that—it was [really] about the thrill of smuggling.”
During his heyday, when he wasn’t serving time or moonshining loads of cocaine, Jung regularly flew home from California to see friends and hold court at the local Weymouth joints, cashed up and always ready to party. He’d hit the Great Escape, a townie bar, and run into old pals who were pretty sure they knew his line of work but didn’t ask, says former classmate Buddy Cheverie. “We didn’t really want to know.” Classmate Bob Stella, who by 1980 was already a prosperous businessman, will never forget Jung coming up to him and saying, “Give me 10 grand and I’ll bring you back $100,000.” Stella wasn’t interested in the shady proposition. For one reason, he says, Jung was attracting the FBI, who would “hang there and take pictures of license plates. They were looking for any string to get George with.”
The feds would also drive past Jung’s parents’ house on Abigail Adams Circle, the one where his mother famously called the FBI on him in 1973—depicted in the movie Blow—when Jung was visiting while hiding from the law. Strangers still cruise by the house, but these days it’s mostly teens getting their kicks over seeing the childhood home of a drug titan. “Kids from Weymouth have written me letters over the years and said, ‘I know you buried treasures around the house, I’ve seen the movie,'” Jung says. “Some inmates at Fort Dix said they had taken metal detectors over the area. There’s nothing out there.”
So far, the current homeowners agree. “My son was on my case for a long time about ripping out some floorboards,” says Brian Kerrigan, the second post-Jung owner, who bought the house in 1987.
Today, there’s little of George left in Weymouth except some memories of a Happy Days childhood. “Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again,” George says, “but I can go home again if I want.”
Some people I spoke with for the article, such as former classmates, asked not to be mentioned by name. One had a son who is up for an award in a strait-laced industry and feared the family name connected with Jung might hurt his chances of winning. So Jung can go home again, but it may not be anything like he remembers it.
“I expect him to show up on my doorstep and try to borrow some money,” says Rick Mycock, a Barnstable attorney who represented Jung for a time in the late 1970s, when Jung was living in his beachfront Cape Cod home, flush with drug money and legal woes. “He’ll come to me for some free drinks and he’s bound to find trouble again. He has no ability to prevent himself from being a jerk.”
When Los Angeles drug kingpin Ricky Ross emerged from prison in 2009, filmmakers were champing at the bit—a movie about Ross’s life, Freeway: Crack in the System, was finally released in October. When Mike Tyson was freed from prison in 1995 after serving three years on a rape conviction, boxing promoters and casting agents dangled huge sums of money to lure him back into the limelight. And when actor Robert Downey Jr. left the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in 2000 after spending a year there for violating his probation, he walked onto the hit TV show Ally McBeal and smack into a Golden Globe award.
So maybe Jung’s not crazy: What’s America, after all, without second chances? His master plan was to make big bucks speaking to corporate groups and entrepreneurs. With few connections to that world, however, Jung needed some help, and it came from the most improbable source: Tiderington, the cop who busted Jung in Florida back in the 1980s. Tiderington reconnected with Jung nearly 10 years ago, when the lawman’s son sent Jung a letter after seeing the movie Blow. Jung, a faithful correspondent when he was in the clink, kindly replied, and it triggered enough sympathy in Tiderington to compel him to reach out on Jung’s behalf to the Young Presidents’ Organization, an international business group of corporate chiefs with 400 chapters around the world. Alumni include one-time MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth and former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner. If Tiderington and Jung could book the Young Presidents’ event and give a talk about the nation’s drug problem, “that would lead to the introduction of the notorious George Jung,” Tiderington says. “Then there would be a Q & A with George. I don’t think he could carry the day as a speaker, [but] he could answer a lot of questions.”
When asked about Jung’s potential involvement, however, Young Presidents’ CEO, Scott Mordell, dodged the question entirely, issuing a blanket statement: “Members lead thousands of events each year around the world that are independent of our international organization’s events. Guest speakers are often invited to speak at a YPO event to share information on the topic of becoming better leaders.”
Still, Jung is certain that the Young Presidents’ Organization will come to see what he has to offer: how a kid with a dream, however illegal, moved his life to the stratosphere, stashing millions in offshore bank accounts and living a life that few ever get to check out. That’s the definition of leadership in the “Boston George” world. “It’s ironic how you can be chastised your whole life and then be welcomed back into society,” he says, clearly unaware of the emerging resistance to his message.
“He thought he’d come out and people would throw money at him and he would be more of a celebrity,” says Tiderington, rightfully concerned for his renegade friend. “But it’s not happening.”
In fact, it was becoming clear to me that Jung was having trouble turning his celebrity into cash as easily as he’d hoped—and that his aspirations for the corporate speaking circuit were pure folly. His book Heavy failed to find a publisher and ended up as a self-published ebook, selling on Amazon for $5.99. A website, georgejung.com, peddles “Smuggler Wear” clothing, Jung-penned manuscripts, and comic books, all with the Boston George brand in mind—but he admitted, when asked, that hardly any of the goods have moved. The fame he’d been banking on was looking more like broke-ass infamy.
Coincidentally, that’s right about the time when Boston George stopped talking to me.
When Jung and I first spoke over the phone in September, he was looking to spread the gospel of his redemption and was excited to come back East—he just needed permission from the feds to leave the halfway house in California. Travel under supervised release requires the permission of a prisoner’s supervisor, and each case is weighed individually. As I waited for word from Jung to book the hotel and air reservations, I got a text from T. Rafael Cimino, who claimed to be “representing” Jung. The nephew of Hollywood director Michael Cimino, whose main claim to fame is the Oscar-winning Vietnam flick The Deer Hunter, Cimino had coauthored Heavy while Jung was still in prison. Cimino had since landed Jung several radio and television appearances.
All seemed to be moving ahead. Cimino even said he would be joining Jung in Boston—giving Boston George his first official hanger-on. “We only have four days” with Jung in Boston, Cimino texted me. And then, suddenly, nothing—texts, emails, and phone calls went unreturned. It was as if they’d dropped off the face of the planet.
After a few days of silence, I began calling Jung’s acquaintances and associates, trying to figure out what had happened. It turned out Tiderington hadn’t given up on George the Motivational Speaker, and he had recommended Jung for the Broward County Crime Commission conference in Florida. The idea was for Jung to tell audience members how he had eluded law enforcement during much of the 1970s. It wasn’t the same as booking a spot in front of a Nike or General Electric corporate soiree, but it would be a place to start.
As with the Young Presidents’, however, the reception was icy. Or, as they say in show business, it was a tough room. “Some people involved with the event said they would not participate in anything in which George was talking,” Tiderington told me. “There are still people who feel that George has received some celebrity status from committing crimes, and that doesn’t sit too well.” A member of the crime commission, speaking on background, went even further, saying the idea of putting Jung at the podium “would be an insult.”
Jung’s dream of inspiring millions as the next Zig Ziglar seemed to have died before it ever got started. But why wasn’t he talking? Wouldn’t he be even more desperate for publicity now that his plans were tanking?
Finally, after another round of calls and emails, I began to piece together the answer: The word from mutual acquaintances was that he got a better deal.
After agreeing to a story in Boston magazine, Jung and Cimino apparently started working with a television production company. I’d asked that Jung not speak to other print outlets until our interview was published, but now it appeared that the TV producers had trumped me with their own media blackout until their documentary—said to revolve around Jung’s 1985 cocaine bust in Fort Lauderdale—aired. At one point in November, Tiderington was in talks to be part of the production as well, but as of January, he hadn’t heard anything. He didn’t think Jung was going to be paid, but “if he were paid, it would not be millions of dollars.” (Boston did not offer Jung any compensation in exchange for an interview.)
It’s impossible to confirm exactly what deal was offered to Jung. But the production company’s blackout seemed to be working: When High Times magazine sent a reporter to California to talk to Jung, it promised to hold its profile on him until June, which presumably means the documentary will be out by then.
Shame on me, right? For all his Tinseltown aspirations, Jung has no representation save for Cimino, and it has to be hard to market a man who, in some eyes, is partly responsible for the cracked-out neighborhoods that plagued every urban area in the United States. Jung was a transport man who made his living on the backs of countless individuals who couldn’t stop the party. For the elite, there were Betty Ford and Hazelden, and Jung should be collecting some royalties from them. But for many, there was bottomless addiction, whoring, and any street crime imaginable, just to get a bindle of something white and powdery. Who would’ve thunk it: George Jung, an unreliable guy.
Turned out the unplanned blackout was no surprise to McGreal, the former under- cover agent for the Massachusetts State Police who busted Jung in Eastham. “If it doesn’t turn to shit,” he said, “then it wouldn’t be George.”