Podcast: Murder in Miami

By Marshall Hammond

When Oregon Department of Corrections administrator Michael Francke was murdered outside his office in Salem in 1989, Phil Stanford was one of a handful of journalists who thought there was more to the murder than state authorities claimed. His investigation of the case and the eventual exoneration of the wrongfully accused suspect was chronicled in the hit true crime podcast “Murder in Oregon,” which he produced and co-wrote with Lauren Bright Pacheco for iHeartRadio. 

Stanford wrote several true crime books about Portland, including Portland Confidential, Rose City Vice and the graphic novel City of Roses, all of which cover Portland’s past as a city once notorious for crime and corruption. Stanford and Pacheco’s latest podcast, “Murder in Miami,” takes the listener to another famously corrupt city and tells the story of what happened to Stanford before he moved to Oregon.

The year was 1980, international cocaine traffic was exploding and Miami, FL was the epicenter. When Stanford arrived after leaving his job as a political reporter in Washington, DC, the city was the murder capital of the US. On top of that, Miami was a hub for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to finance secret wars and ship arms throughout Central and South America. It was home to a volatile mix of narcotics and espionage and Stanford stepped right into the middle of it. 

Stanford worked in Miami as a journalist covering crime for a few years before a surprising string of coincidences led him to become a bit player in the underworld saga of an international drug smuggler named Lamar Chester. He came to know Chester after accepting a job at Intercept, a mysterious private detective agency staffed by former military intelligence and CIA officers. The agency had an opening for a new private detective because one of their previous employees, Clay Williams, had recently been murdered, his body left in The Everglades to be consumed by alligators. The circumstances surrounding that murder would be a focal point of the “Murder in Miami” podcast. 

Stanford began to suspect that something was not quite on the level with Intercept when he fumbled a few investigations and found that his employers, who always paid in cash, did not seem bothered. They were instead focused on serving the needs of their biggest client, flamboyant drug trafficker, Chester. Stanford’s responsibility was to take on the cases that came through the front door and nobody cared whether he did a good job. He began to suspect that the real purpose of Intercept was to protect Chester on the behalf of the CIA, who may have used Chester to fly guns to Nicaragua.

At the time, Chester was a target in a massive, multi-state federal investigation known as Operation Lonestar. The DEA, the IRS and other federal agencies were closing in on Chester, but the admitted drug trafficker had what he thought was an ace up his sleeve–he claimed on local television to be working for the federal government, importing drugs with the full knowledge of both the CIA and the DEA. If forced to go to trial, he threatened to divulge sensitive government secrets.

Stanford had a front row seat to Chester’s downfall, culminating in the trafficker’s suspicious death in 1985. At the time, he wasn’t fully aware of what he had wandered into. It would be decades before he could take another look at the events surrounding his time in Miami with the help of podcast co-creator and investigator Pacheco.

In the course of creating the “Murder in Miami” podcast, Stanford and Pacheco dug deeper into the murky waters of what transpired almost 40 years earlier. They interviewed a colorful group of witnesses, including Happy Miles, a freewheeling, unapologetic former drug smuggler, and Leslie Bickerton, Chester’s accountant who feared for her life after testifying during Operation Lonestar hearings.

The compelling story they uncovered is presented in cinematic detail over the course of 10 full length regular episodes, along with nine bonus episodes. A breezy, dreamy soundtrack befitting the story’s Caribbean setting is supplied by musicians Evan Tyor, Phillip Mayer, John Murchison and Taylor Chicoine. 

The final episode of “Murder in Miami” dropped at the end of March and the whole series is now available for streaming on most podcast platforms. 

Podcast: Murder in Miami

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