The plane is about to level off at 14,000 feet when the skydiver behind me tightens the straps holding us together. I’m feeling nervous—and not just because it’s my first-ever jump. It’s because the guy I’m skydiving with, “Jumpin’ Joe” Johnson, is one of the most prolific drug smugglers of the past decade.
I’d traveled from Colorado to Texas to skydive with Johnson as part of my investigation into a marijuana trafficking ring that operated out of Denver from 2010 to 2014. I initially heard about these college friends who became big-time pot smugglers when I worked as a staff writer at Westword, but it took me years to gain access to law enforcement records and to convince members of the criminal enterprise to talk to me. Eventually many did, and after interviewing enough drug mules, detectives, and black market operatives, I decided to turn the story into a serialized podcast called The Syndicate. It comes out today, August 11.
But for the moment, all of that is out of mind as I’m sitting in the back of a twin prop airplane, focused on the man I came to see. Johnson is a key interview. Perhaps the key interview. The skydiving legend became involved in drug trafficking when he volunteered his company’s planes to be used as flying shipping containers for weed, smuggling up to 900 pounds of pot per flight between Denver and Minneapolis, where the Colorado syndicate’s weed dominated the black market in the Twin Cities.
A whooshing sound takes over the plane’s cabin as another pair of skydivers disappears out of a doorway, hurtling down towards the Texas plains between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. That’s where Joe owns a jump zone called Skydive Lone Star.
Now it’s our turn. Joe, whose fit frame and bald head make him look like a skydiving Vin Diesel, scoots the both of us down a bench towards the empty doorway, the harness between us cinched tight. There’s no turning back. And it occurs to me that Joe and I haven’t sat down for an interview yet. He knows that I’m working on a story about his criminal past, but I’m still not sure why he’s cooperating with me—let alone taking me skydiving.
But even though I’ve just met him, part of this is about trust. I suspect he has a story to tell. One thing I’ve encountered over and over again as a journalist is people’s desire to be heard and understood. We all relate to the world through stories, and so there is an intrinsic storyteller within all of us, yearning to portray our own version of events. If I’m ever going to understand Joe’s past, what better way to place myself in his shoes than to place myself in his chute? Maybe by skydiving with him, I can get a taste of the adrenaline rush that’s coaxed Joe Johnson into such an unconventional life.
“Remember to tilt your head back!” he yells as we brace ourselves in the plane’s doorway.
I hardly have a moment to catch my breath before he flings us into the void, both our bodies twisting midair in a backflip before Joe straightens us out and we’re dropping through the sky with our limbs spread out like flying squirrels. I’ve jumped off tall things before—oceanside cliffs, Olympic high dives—but when you’ve got nothing around you, accelerating ad infinitum, you feel the exhilaration build like a needle nudging up a car’s speedometer. It grows until I feel like I’m about to reach the adrenaline junkie’s nirvana.
But right before I reach it, Joe deploys the parachute and suddenly all is…peaceful. He steers us into a cloud. Sunrays poke through the cloud’s wisps, and my heartrate finally catches up with me. Joe and I drift gracefully towards the earth, and I’m flooded with feelings of gratitude, not to mention relief.
It would occur to me later that this seesaw of emotions, the intense adrenaline rush of the jump followed by the relief of pulling the chute, is a peek into what it’s like running a high stakes smuggling operation. There’s the exhilaration of risking it all—flying 900 pounds of marijuana at a time, fending off rival criminals, playing cat and mouse with cops—followed by the relief of pulling off another smuggling operation without getting caught.
Whereas Joe had been an abstract curiosity to me before (How DOES someone become a drug smuggler, rolling the dice of fate with each and every operation?), skydiving with him gave me a glimpse into his world. I kind of get it now, the emotional allure of living on the fringe of the law.
“Ugh, you okay?” Joe asks as we hit the ground. “We lost our wind there.”
Despite the hard landing, both of us are grinning. We high-five, feeling more comfortable around each other than we’d been just 30 minutes before when we took off. That rapport ended up helping immensely in my interviews with Joe. When he told me about how he got in over his head little by little, he seemed relatable.
So did many other members of the criminal enterprise I met while flying around the country to interview former black market growers, dealers, and drug mules. Time and time again, I found that if I could suspend my worldview and stretch my imagination a little, I could begin to understand how each person got sucked into such a crazy, dangerous underworld.
As the story of The Syndicate emerged, I learned that the group of college friends who formed this marijuana smuggling operation had always intended to go legal. These days, with the cannabis industry going the way of suits and venture capitalists, it’s almost easy to forget that many of the industry’s founders had backgrounds in the illegal market. They were just like members of the syndicate; the only difference is that they made a transition into the legal market before getting caught. Joe Johnson wasn’t so lucky; law enforcement eventually caught up with him. But his experiences represent many tales that have been lost to the annuls of the marijuana underground. And it was a privilege for me to be allowed to jump into their world.
Chris Walker is a Denver-based journalist and host of the new podcast, “The Syndicate,” out on all podcast platforms—including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher—August 11.