On Dec. 6, 1977, a car pulled past the conspicuous “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” signs at the perimeter of Arthur Allen’s oceanside ranch, about 10 miles south of Bandon. Three men got out and approached the house.
Allen, who had obviously been watching them approach, promptly emerged from the house and ordered them off the property.
“We’re from the Bureau of Land Management,” one of them said. “We wanted to talk to you about negotiating to buy an easement across your land so visitors can access BLM property on the New River.”
Allen relented and let the men approach the house, where he demanded to see their identification. Two of them promptly whipped out their wallets and showed their badges; the third, whose name was Larry Gano, said he’d left his wallet at home.
It was a lucky break for Gano that Allen didn’t push it. Because he wasn’t with the BLM. He was with the United States Customs Service. And he was there because he was pretty sure Allen was running a smuggling operation.
Spoiler alert: Oh yes, he was.
Arthur Allen had been brought to Gano’s attention almost immediately after he had been assigned to the new Customs office in Coos Bay, a month or two before. Plenty of people wanted to talk about him. Allen, though a very recent arrival, had already made a ton of enemies.
The reason was simple enough. Allen was the latest in a long list of rich out-of-staters who’ve come to Oregon, bought shorefront property, and tried to exclude the public from the beach that fronted it.
This has always been a first-class ticket to pariah status.
Like most folks, South Coast Oregonians are generally happy to mind their own business — and if a real-estate developer from Southern California wanted to buy a 200-acre oceanside ranch at the end of Croft Lake Lane, why, that was great, and he was welcome to the neighborhood.
But when, as almost his first act as their new neighbor, he posted the property with “No Trespassing” signs and built a gate across the only access road to the New River, well, that was very unneighborly. More, they saw it as an overtly hostile act — as if someone had put a gate and “no trespassing” sign across the only road to their house.
Not only did they think it unneighborly, they were a bit suspicious of Allen’s motives as well. This now-barricaded road was the only automobile access to the New River, an eight-mile-long stream (not really big enough to be a river) connecting Floras Lake with the ocean. It was a grand place to fish — the previous owner had made a very nice sideline income charging local anglers $2 a trip for the use of the road. These toll fees had brought in hundreds of dollars every year. So Allen’s actions were not only unneighborly, they made no financial sense, and Allen’s claims that he was worried about insurance concerns and gun use and property damage seemed very thin.
There had to be some other reason he wanted to keep prying eyes away from the beachfront end of his property … or so these disappointed anglers told Customs Officer Gano, almost immediately upon his arrival.
Gano heard some other interesting things, too, about Allen. A police officer in Bandon reported he’d seen several military-surplus LARC-V amphibious landing craft being hauled through town on low-boy trailers in the direction of the Allen ranch. (The LARC-V — “Lighter, Amphibious Resupply, Cargo, 5-ton” — was an updated, more capable vehicle in the style of the DUKW “Duck” landing craft used in World War II).
Cutting off that road made the beachfront part of Allen’s ranch into the closest thing to a private beach that can exist in Oregon — there was no other access without literally swimming across the New River. Neither Gano nor the dozens of disappointed, suspicious anglers needed someone to draw them a picture of what sorts of things a guy like Allen might want to do with two or three three amphibious trucks on a secluded beach along the most remote section of shoreline on the West Coast.
The first thing Gano had done to look into the matter had been to take a ride on one of the Coast Guard helicopters that regularly patrolled up and down the beach. Scrupulously avoiding the airspace over Allen’s ranch, the pilot skimmed along the beach as Gano shot through a roll of film with a telephoto lens.
He definitely didn’t see anything that would allay his suspicions. Although he didn’t see the LARCs, he could see that something LARC-sized (that is, huge — they’re almost too big to fit on a public road) had recently driven down onto the beach and back up again.
It was after this overflight that Gano joined the BLM officers in the visit to the farm for a closer look, and what he saw up close convinced him he was on the right track — so he had a set of seismic sensors implanted at the entrance, which would tell him what kind of vehicular traffic was coming to the farm.
Gano, by now convinced he was looking at a very large-scale drug smuggling operation, next pulled local law enforcement into the picture. Coos County Sheriff’s deputies joined the U.S. Coast Guard and started a covert surveillance of the property on a 24-hour-a-day basis.
Things were relatively quiet for a week or two. But that changed on the night of Dec. 18. On that night, the seismic sensors reported a torrent of traffic in and out of the ranch, and the cops on watch saw many lights moving in and out of the place. The watching cops and Coasties also saw that Allen now had vehicles driving up and down the beach all night, obviously patrolling it. No doubt about it, something was going to happen soon.
Another week went by.
Then, late on the evening of Dec. 29, the watchers saw something flashing from the gloaming blackness of the winter sea. It was an unlighted ship, as close on shore as it could safely come, signaling to someone on shore.
Signal flashes came in response; but then, nothing.
Looking at the weather, though, it wasn’t hard to see why all remained quiet. It was a raw, blustery night, and the sea was high and rough. The show was being put on hold for a night.
Sure enough, the next evening — New Year’s Eve’s eve, if you will — the unlighted ship was back. This time, the sea was calmer … calm enough, it seemed.
Things got started at 12:30 a.m., when one of the LARCs rolled out of the barn and down to the beach. It stayed there for some time, as signals flashed back and forth from the darkened ship. Then, at 1:18 a.m., it rolled down to the ocean, plunged into the water, forged through the breakers, and made its way out to the ship.
It came back an hour and a half later. When it rolled up onto the beach, the watching agents could hear the sounds of jubilant whoops and other celebratory noises from the crew on the beach — then it rolled over to the semi-truck, which had been parked on the beach near at hand, and shadowy figures started transferring large boxes into it.
A second LARC now pulled out and, after the first one was fully unloaded, the two truck-boats plunged back into the breakers together for the second run out to the ship — from which they returned at 4:40 a.m., again loaded with boxes.
And it was about this time that the authorities decided they’d waited long enough.
From a nearby dune, a signal flare shot up into the sky, bathing the beach in what must have seemed like broad daylight. At the same time, a Coast Guard helicopter swooped down and pinned the ship in its spotlight. By its light, frantic-looking figures on the deck could be seen heaving boxes overboard.
Meanwhile, on the beach, police officers and Coast Guardsmen moved in. “Freeze!” someone shouted.
The smugglers, of course, did not freeze. As soon as the flare went out, plunging the beach back into darkness, they scattered. But officers were able to round up most of them, and of course the LARC-Vs and semi-trailer weren’t going anywhere.
After that, it was just a case of mopping things up. The ship managed to elude the Coast Guard helicopter in the darkness, but when dawn broke they soon spotted it again — the crew had tried to scuttle it, but had succeeded only in waterlogging it (they were subsequently found pulling for shore in a lifeboat, and taken into custody).
It was the 147-foot freighter Cigale, of Panamanian registry; one of the gang had bought it in Europe the previous year for around $300,000. It had, they later learned, come straight across the sea from Thailand with seven and a half tons of “Thai stick” marijuana to be unloaded on the beach.
It was the largest drug bust in the history of the West Coast at that time.
And it all came about because a newcomer from another state underestimated the depth of the average Oregonian’s proprietary feelings toward the state’s beaches.
In California or Washington, blocking off that road would have been no big deal. “Oh, the old owner let you use the beach, did he? Well, sorry, I won’t be doing that.” And, because the beach can be private property in those states, a disappointed shrug would have been the only logical response.
But in Oregon, the locals reacted to Allen’s closure of the road as if he were denying them access to their own property — which, in effect, he was.
This sentiment must have taken Allen by surprise. This massive operation was obviously was not, as they say, his first rodeo — with its millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and (ahem) inventory, not to mention payroll. He cannot have been ignorant of the increased danger that would befall his operation if he made enemies of all the neighbors for miles around. Yet that is exactly what he did.
Allen and his colleagues were tried and sentenced to relatively mild prison terms — in the five- to seven-year range. What became of them after their release I have not been able to learn (although I will freely confess that I didn’t try very hard).
As for their ranch — it was bought by Ann and Nancy Wilson, the guitar-slinging sisters who front the rock band Heart, in 1980. They set up a thoroughbred horse training facility there, and ran it till 1987, when they sold it to the Bureau of Land Management.
Today, it’s part of the BLM’s 1,000-acre New River Area of Critical Environmental Concern — called the Storm Ranch Unit — and boasts miles of walking trails and a visitor center/museum.
(Sources: “U.S. vs. Arthur Allen & al,” a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1981, via justia.com; “The Fascinating History of New River,” an illustrated article on the Coastal Sotheby’s Realty Website; Portland Oregonian archives from January 1978)