William Plummer
December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

The three helicopters—two Army Blackhawks and a Coast Guard H3—circle the skies above Cat Island like impatient birds of prey. At the radio in one of the Army choppers sits Pat Shea, 45-year-old head of Operation BAT, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s interdiction operation in the Bahamas. One hundred feet below, a red Chevy Blazer, bundles of cocaine visible in its window, speeds down an island road toward a small village. “Okay,” Shea shouts into his radio above the engine’s roar. “Come to a hover. Let’s land and get ’em.”

As the choppers swoop in, the car barrels to a halt, its three occupants quickly fleeing into some nearby shanties. Shea’s squad of agents and Bahamian police leap from the hovering helicopters and begin a shack-to-shack search for the smugglers.

For Shea, a thick-muscled ex-Marine and former New York City-street drug agent, the operation brings another 900-pound cocaine seizure and three more arrests, including that of a cartel drug lieutenant. For the Colombian drug lords who had sent the smugglers here en route to the U.S. mainland, the price of travel goes up another notch.

Pat Shea has headed Op-BAT (an acronym referring to Operation Bahamas and Turks-Caicos Islands) since 1987, working out of third-floor offices at the pink-washed U.S. Embassy in Nassau. Launched by the DEA in 1982 to intercept drug smugglers headed for airstrips on the 700 Bahamian islands, Op-BAT forces include members of the Royal Bahamian Police (who make the arrests), the U.S. Customs Agency, Coast Guard, Army and Navy. Last year the operation accounted for 91 arrests plus the confiscation of more than 12 tons of cocaine and a score of aircraft.

This year the coke seizures are down (to 15,300 pounds over the first 10 months), but DEA officials credit Shea for scaring the U.S.-bound couriers into using other routes. “We’re making them do things they don’t want to do,” says John Pulley, head DEA attaché in Nassau and Shea’s boss. “Like drop the coke out of planes [into the ocean] or else bring it up through Mexico, which is a logistical nightmare for them. We’re putting a crimp in their style.”

Shea is less certain of reasons for the downturn, suggesting that Colombia’s crackdown on the drug lords and “Castro’s threatening to shoot down drug planes that overfly Cuba” may be helping. But he does say that military hardware, together with old-fashioned, street-style police tactics, must share some of the credit. Along with the high-tech radar, weapons and communications systems, “It’s a matter of working with stoolies—informants,” he says bluntly. “It’s the same as New York. Only instead of a street, you got an ocean.”

The fifth of seven children born to a State Department secretary and a building contractor, Shea grew up in Washington, D.C., majored in recreation administration at the University of North Carolina and did his first fieldwork as a 6′, 230-lb. plug in the football team’s line. In 1967 he joined the Marines and went to Vietnam as a platoon commander. Still looking for “excitement” when he left the service three years later, he enlisted in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (soon to become the DEA) and spent the next 14 years as a New York City agent.

Much of the work was mind-numbing—cold, all-night stakeouts on rooftops, monitoring the doings of drug dealers—but there was also “the sheer rush of working undercover,” says Shea. “My partner and I would go into the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn, and this blue-eyed Irishman would wear shades, open my shirt, put on some gold and presto! we were [like minor mafiosi] up from Atlantic City ready to do business.”

While the street work schooled Shea in tactics, it also taught him about his own vulnerability. He recalls one case when he was working with a prostitute informant to set up a drug dealer, and to make the arrest, he had to break through a door to get to his man. Trouble was, the door was a tougher foe than he imagined, and it took him five or six whacks. Once inside, he yelled, “Freeze!” then dived for the dealer and slapped on the cuffs.

Afterward, he says, “I’m feeling pretty good. Then we lock him up, and I’m talking to the informant, and she tells me the guy wasn’t reaching for his gun. He was putting it away. In those few seconds it’d taken me to get in, she’d talked him out of killing me, pointing out that he’d buy it too. See, I was cocky. But you’ve got to be smart. The job’s dangerous.”

Shea, who moved to his present $50,000-per-year post after a three-year stint in the DEA’s busy Miami office, now takes novice Bahamian cops aside to share that wisdom in the ways of drug-fighting. “I want them to know they don’t have to chase bad guys into the brush and maybe get shot up,” says Shea. “They’ve got helicopters to do that for them.”

Away from the choppers and his agency office, Shea retires to the rented three-bedroom Nassau home he shares with his second wife, Mary Ann Fernandez, 32. The two met while Mary Ann was a DEA secretary in New York and married three years ago. Shea has a son and two daughters (ages 16 to 20) from his first marriage, and with Mary Ann, a son named Ryan born two years ago. Their home is in a nice Nassau neighborhood, and apart from the wrought-iron bars protecting its windows—and other “precautions” from danger he refuses to divulge—it is a homey family dwelling complete with a pool in the backyard. Still, thanks to the beeper constantly on his belt, Shea is never far from another airborne assault. “He thinks he’s back in the Marines again,” says Mary Ann with a sigh. “He puts on camouflage, jumps out of helicopters. He thinks he’s young again.”

Shea, the aging, uncaped crusader, only laughs. But then he admits, “She’s right. It does light some fires.”

—William Plummer in the Bahamas

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