How Michael Deeds and Chris Delance From Long Beach Became the Last American Victims of the Khmer Rouge

How Michael Deeds and Chris Delance From Long Beach Became the Last American Victims of the Khmer Rouge
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames

Between 1975 and 1979, 2 million Cambodians died during their nation's four-year experiment in stone-age communism. In 1994, I began documenting atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge, the peasant army that took over Cambodia on April 17, 1975—just two weeks before the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War—for a number of nonprofit organizations. During my first trip to Cambodia, I visited Tuol Sleng Prison; of the approximately 15,000 to 20,000 men, women and children who entered, less than 20 survived. Included in the mountains of photographic and documentary evidence left behind were the "confessions" of American sailors Michael Deeds and Chris Delance. While some historians speculated they might have been working for U.S. intelligence, I suspected they were marijuana smugglers.

Although my long hair is gone now and my views are more conservative than they once were, there is a part of my past I will not sweep under the rug and disavow. I am old enough and honest enough to remember the Thai sticks that flooded my beachside town each summer—a surfer's equivalent of the Beaujolais nouveau. During the 1970s, Thai stick marijuana—so-called because the buds were tightly wrapped around hemp or bamboo sticks before being packed into watertight bundles for the long trans-Pacific trip—was one of the most valuable commodities in the world. At $2,000 per pound, a single load of Thai could and did make many a smuggler a small fortune. To us pot-smoking teenaged surfers, these scammers—the people who fetched these loads from afar—were heroic Robin Hood characters who trafficked only in pot and surfed more world-class waves than anyone else.

Like myself, Delance and Deeds grew up in the waters and on the beaches of Southern California. An expert sailor and skilled surfer, Delance was the well-liked son of a Long Beach yacht broker. A gifted guitar player, Deeds was the son of legendary Cal State Long Beach tennis coach and athletic director, Cameron "Scotty" Deeds. Deeds and Delance both grew up in the Naples section of Long Beach and moved to Maui after graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1969.

Jared Boggess
Maguire in Cambodia
Chris Riley
Maguire in Cambodia

Both men were feeling the pressure of Maui's high cost of living and its limited employment opportunities when Ron Jackson (not his real name) approached them about smuggling a load of Thai pot aboard his sailboat the Iwalani. The state-of-the-art, teak-decked Nicholson 45 was more than capable of a trans-Pacific crossing. According to Jackson, he had smuggled marijuana before, but Deeds and Delance had not.

Deeds told his family he was going to Molokai's remote Halawa Valley and would be out of touch for several months. After the Iwalani reached Singapore, Jackson traveled to Thailand to put together their load while Delance and Deeds lived aboard the sloop at the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club. Although the Americans told harbor acquaintances they were delivering the boat to an Australian buyer, after weeks of waiting turned into months, their expat friends began to suspect the two men were smugglers. Jackson had laid the groundwork for a deal a year earlier, but because he had arrived late, his source in Thailand was out of pot. He turned to Mike Ritter (a fellow marijuana smuggler and co-author of my 2013 book, Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers and the Untold History of the Marijuana Trade, with Columbia University Press) and Don Hagee (also not his real name). Both men agreed to help him arrange a load, but even with their collective efforts, they could not locate decent marijuana so late in the season.

Jackson grew frustrated waiting and found another longtime American scammer in Bangkok who could load the Iwalani immediately. He contacted Deeds and Delance and told them to set sail for Thailand while he left the port of Sattahip on a Thai Navy vessel with the pot on board. When the Thai ship reached the rally point, the Iwalani was nowhere to be found. After three days and nights of waiting, the ship returned to Thailand with the pot still on board.

"That was Nov. 23, 1978," Jackson told Ritter in a 2002 interview for our book. "I spent the last four days of November, all December and the first week of January going up and down the Malaysian coast in case they'd been blown off or shipwrecked. The only thing we couldn't do was get into Cambodia. They just disappeared into the void."

*     *      *

The Iwalani was within sight of Cambodia's offshore islands when Delance and Deeds spotted a boat heading toward them at high speed. The Khmer Rouge Navy consisted of eight Chinese escort boats, a dozen fast torpedo boats, and a number of armed fishing boats scattered between the port of Kompong Som and the Ream Naval Base. For smugglers such as Ritter, who regularly took boatloads of pot out into the Gulf of Thailand, their greatest fear was being captured by the Khmer Rouge.

"I'd look over there, and I would just get cold shivers," Ritter recalls. "My image of the country at that time was comparable to Tolkien's Mordor, a black hole where all regard for life and civilized behavior broke down. I choked at the thought of dying slowly in a Cambodian prison."

Next Page »