From international drug smuggler to prime-time star, St. John’s native Brian O’Dea has turned his life around, and is now helping others to do the same.
By Linda Browne
The voice on the other end of the line is gravelly, yet kind (sounding like a man who has smoked too many cigarettes) as it shares wisdom that can only come from being a long-time student at the school of hard knocks. The conversation, peppered with the occasional curse word, is sometimes interrupted with a sigh as he searches for just the right thing to say. Those who have walked the road to redemption know it is not straight and narrow, but a long, winding road with many bumps and bruises along the way. And while there is often light at the end, only a lucky few manage to reach it. One of those people is Brian O’Dea.
Speaking over the phone from his office in Toronto, the St. John’s, Newfoundland native doesn’t shy away from all the nitty-gritty details of his former life. If anyone knows anything about redemption, it is him. And now he’s helping pave the way for others so their journeys may be a little smoother than his.
Living the High Life
Brian grew up on a farm on Cherry Hill Road in a good, prominent family. His father, John, owned the Newfoundland Brewery before entering politics; his mother, Maddy, was a strong, hardworking woman. Brian got along well with his two brothers and two sisters. His idyllic childhood, however, came to a screeching halt when, at 11 years old, he was sexually abused by a Christian Brother on his first day of school at St. Bonaventure’s College.
“When I tell a story I don’t tell it to affix blame, but I try and find the tracks upon which I walked to find myself,” Brian says.
“Had I found the words to tell what was going on, I think it might have been different. But I understand today that I’m as sick as the secrets that I keep, and that was a gigantic secret. And I was a Catholic. I was constantly in fear then of God striking me dead and putting me in hell for all eternity.”
Drugs, he says, became his means to escape. He started off as a small-time dealer in St. John’s in his late teens and, from there, graduated to bigger, more lucrative assignments. After serving a brief prison sentence, he moved to Jamaica, where he coordinated the movement of marijuana and cocaine from Colombia into Canada and the U.S. It was when he moved to California, however, that things really started to spin out of control. At the height of his career, in the early 1980s, he brought marijuana by the boatloads (literally) from Southeast Asia into Washington with the help of two, 100-foot fishing vessels and 120 people from around the world. Eventually, the threat from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) proved to be too much, and he walked away from the business in 1986. It was two years after that, Brian says, that his journey to redemption began.
“August 31, 1988, I had a heart attack from a coke overdose. I had recently finished what they call the biggest pot deal in the history of American pot smuggling. We just brought in 75 tonnes of pot, under the noses of the DEA, and pulled it off. And I just ended up with too much money and not enough brains, got myself a big bag of coke and proceeded to push myself into the threshold that I needed to cross to get out of that life,” he says.
“You know, eight days of no sleep and shovelling as much of that garbage into me as I could, I blew up. And so I got sober. My first sober day was my 40th birthday, September 1, 1988.”
About three years later, Brian was working as a counsellor in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Santa Barbara when the law caught up with him again.
“I was working with people who were getting and trying to get sober, and I had been doing it for no pay for almost three years. And that’s what my life was about when the cops showed up. So I wouldn’t cooperate with them...I said that I would plead guilty and accept responsibility for my own behaviour. But they told me I’d get 30 to life if I didn’t talk. And I didn’t – I got 10. What a relief.”
Seeing the Light
Even though his journey has taken him to the darkest of places, Brian says he never lost the love of his family along the way. One of his biggest supporters is his wife Susannah, a knitwear designer.
“I met her in Santa Barbara before I went to prison. We got married after I got out,” Brian says.
Once he completed his sentence, Brian’s job prospects were looking dim, so in 2001 (with Susannah’s encouragement) he decided to take fate into his own hands.
“She said to me one day, ‘You have got to go get a job.’” Brian asked her who she thought would ever hire him. “And she said, ‘You mean to tell me that you did a quarter of a billion dollar deal in secret that you were one of the principals in, and you don’t have any transferable skills? I can’t believe that...Why don’t you just sit down and write a resume as it relates to that...”
Brian’s “resume” became a classified ad in the National Post titled “Former Marijuana Smuggler,” under which he detailed his extensive business experience “in a successful pot smuggling venture with revenues in excess of US$100 million annually.” Among his references was the U.S. district attorney, who was responsible for his arrest.
In addition to 600 job offers from all over the world, Brian’s ad also garnered international media attention. As a result of his appearance on “The Mike Bullard Show,” he became producer, and later the host, of the series “Creepy Canada.” He also wrote a book, High: Confessions of an International Drug Smuggler (which won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime in 2007), and has spoken to countless young people about his experiences.
“I just got back from Flower’s Cove (on the Northern Peninsula) where the teachers that booked me in there to speak at this youth conference were students the last time I spoke there...it was awesome,” Brian says.
“When I was in school, people would come and tell us what to do and give us advice. Well, I never paid attention to any of that. I had one or two teachers, though, who were great at telling us their stories and encapsulating lessons of life inside the story...and so that’s what I do. I don’t advise them, I don’t tell them not to do drugs. I tell them what happens when you do. I tell them what happened to me when I did.”
Lost and Found
Now, at age 63, Brian is setting out on a new adventure. Premiering this month on CBC TV is the nine-part series “Redemption Inc.” Produced by Proper Television and hosted by multi-millionaire businessman Kevin O’Leary (“Dragon’s Den”), the show will see 10 ex-cons take on a series of business-related challenges for a shot at winning $100,000 to get his/her own business off the ground. Viewers will meet people like Joseph, a 52-year-old former fraudster/cocaine trafficker who wants to open an antique store; and Nicole, a 29-year-old former drug addict and car thief who hopes to start an eco-friendly cleaning company. The show is all about second chances as it helps the enterprising ex-cons move away from their illegal pasts and closer towards their own legal businesses. And who knows more about second chances than Brian? He will appear in each episode to help Kevin assess the participants and, by the end, determine the winner.
Hear a clip from our interview with Brian:
“This was made for me. You know, my past as a con, my present as an ex-con and my experience producing television – well, that comes together beautifully. I understand television...and I understand character. And I understand these characters particularly, because I am one,” Brian says.
“The people on the show are absolutely incredible people. They are so talented and capable...they’re brilliant. And it’s indicative of who’s behind bars. We gotta pay attention to that now. We’ve gotta find another way of dealing with broken people other than punishing them for being broken.”
These days, Brian counts his blessings, four of which are his kids – two sons and two daughters ranging in age from 15 to 33.
“They were all here for the last three days of shooting...They are so happy. They get to see their dad finally having some sort of success,” he says.
While Brian’s walk down the road to redemption was long and hard, he has reached the end and it was well worth the effort. To those on their own journeys, he says, don’t lose heart – or hope.
“I was considered to be someone who was irredeemable and excludable. So if you know somebody like that in your life, know that what you know is not true. Everybody is redeemable. Nobody is excludable. There’s a way back for everyone, and I’m living proof.”
Catch “Redemption Inc.” on CBC, premiering January 9 at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT).