Drug smuggler’s memoir makes waves in Cayman

Leigh Ritch in a screenshot from archive footage of his testimony to a US senate committee in 1988.

A Cayman drug smuggler who ran a cannabis-importation and money-laundering ring with links to Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega has published a book about his life.

Leigh Ritch’s biography, “In Too Deep: How an American Teen Became a Pioneer Boss of the International Drug Trade”, details his career from selling bags of cannabis in high school in Tampa to managing multi-million-dollar drug shipments from Colombia to the US.

He also tells how he initially laundered cartel money using Cayman’s banks – who charged a 1% ‘counting fee’ to process the transactions.

Ritch, who had family links in Grand Cayman, often used the island as a hideout when he was on the run from authorities in the US.

He was well known as owner of a couple of bars, including a nightspot named Le Club. His biography details a lavish playboy lifestyle of drugs, money and parties, sometimes involving celebrities like Beatles drummer Ringo Starr and actress Heather Locklear.

On one occasion he recalls having to move rocker Bon Jovi’s band out of the Holiday Inn and on to a boat offshore because they were “partying all day and all night”.

The broad strokes of his story are already well known to many in Cayman.

After being convicted of criminal conspiracy in 1986, Ritch testified in front of a US Senate committee about his organisation’s links with Noriega.

He was initially sentenced to 30 years in prison, though this was reduced on appeal to 14 years.

The biography adds some colourful details to the story.

Ritch writes about hiding out in Cayman and receiving tip-offs from a girlfriend in the police department if DEA or FBI agents were on island.

He describes how he escalated from using a sailing boat to bring in shipments of cannabis from Colombia, to moving thousands of pounds of marijuana, worth tens of millions of dollars, on shrimp boats.

The drugs required a fleet of trucks to transport them to distributors around the US.

Some of the details about the sheer amount of money his organisation was handling are staggering.

At one point, he writes, he invested in a fleet of Oldsmobiles to collect cash from all over the US.

“Because the weight of the money was so heavy, we had to have the cars outfitted with air shocks,” the book states.

Moving the money through the US was one challenge. Getting it out of the country was a different matter.

Eventually Ritch’s organisation bought their own plane – a cargo Learjet.

“We ended up tricking out this plane with 24 karat gold buckles, all the air vents were in gold and it had custom leather appointments. The exterior of the plane was all custom paint,” he writes in the book.

As Cayman’s banks began to clamp down, Ritch writes that the money-laundering operation moved to Panama where Noriega guaranteed their safety and security in return for a $300,000 bribe.

At one stage, he said, the cartel was swapping planes with the Panamanian dictator – allowing him to use their Learjet, while they used his plane to get in and out of Colombia without attracting attention from US authorities.

He admits the gang was conspicuous with their wealth.

“We were really spending way too much money on cars, buying Porsches two or three at a time… we were I guess you could say totally out of control with this money.”

The end came for Ritch with his dramatic rendition from Cayman, which he describes in the book as a ‘kidnapping’.

He said he had received word through political connections on the island that he was going to get picked up.

“Rumors were circulating through Cayman that a big, big indictment was coming down…. I knew time was running out.”

He was on a jaunt to Montego Bay with rocker Tommy Lee, from Motley Crue, and his wife Heather Locklear when he was arrested at the airport, driven to Kingston and put on a plane to the US.

“They physically pushed me onto the plane. I was forced in to the plane by what I call kidnapping,” he wrote.

Ritch was tried in the US and convicted in part because of the testimony of his former operative Steven Kalish.

Despite the large quantities of drugs and money involved, the story is notable for its lack of violence.

Ritch says this was deliberate.

“There was never any evidence that there was any violence in my entire organization. No-one carried a gun. Ever.”

The investigation into the organisation is the subject of a new podcast called Deep Cover.

  • The book makes occasional references to well-known figures in the Cayman Islands which we have been advised not to publish for legal reasons.

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