On the Edge: A Lowcountry legend opens up about his past … and his future – Part Two
(Editor's note: if you missed the first installment of the saga of Sidi Limehouse, click here to read part one.)
Sidi Limehouse. PHOTO BY LUIS BISSCHOPS
By Patra Taylor
Sidi Limehouse sat on the bed in his tiny cubical at Federal Prison Camp, Eglin, a minimum-security prison at Eglin Air Force Base located in the western panhandle of Florida. For him, mail call had become a favorite time of day in the long procession of seemingly endless days behind miles of gray barbed wire fencing. Mail call meant another letter from Louise.
“Every day Louise sent me a well-written, naturally beautiful letter,” recalls Limehouse, who was found guilty by a Columbia jury of conspiracy and of aiding and abetting in the smuggling of marijuana into the state. “She would write about the dog, about the garden and about what she’d done that day. Even though I was 500 miles away, her letters kept me connected to home.”
Once he’d finish absorbing the words that held him fast to his beloved Lowcountry, he’d hand the letter to one of the five or six other men who’d crowded into his cubical for a turn at reading the latest letter from Louise. “I got one every day, but the others rarely got any mail at all. Her letters made me very popular.”
While Limehouse had let go of his anger concerning his conviction and resigned himself to his fate, late at night he couldn’t help recalling the circumstances that had landed him in a federal prison camp. He’d think about Hutchinson Island, a veritable sportsman’s paradise he’d purchased as a private hunting club with Gov. James Edwards, George E. Campsen, Jr. and five other well-known Charleston doctors and lawyers — all Republicans. “Not a Democrat in the bunch,” quips Limehouse.
He’d think about that day when his life took an unexpected turn, and how a plant commanded center stage in the nation’s War on Drugs. Even though he was a farmer, he hadn’t given much thought to that plant … never saw it, never smelled it, never smoked it … until a boatload of “duck hunters” showed up at the dock at Hutchinson Island Gun Club on the Ashepoo River one cold day in January 1978. A few shots of booze-among-new-friends later, Limehouse knew more about illegal drug smuggling than he ever needed … or wanted … to know.
With the varnish on his “stupidity and naiveté” (his words) showing its first signs of cracking despite the alcohol-fueled conversation, Limehouse pointed the smugglers to a perfect spot to unload their illegal wares on the other side of the Ashepoo River, a site with easy access to the roads they’d need for the next phase of their operation — distribution. Hutchinson Island was only accessible by boat, making it a poor choice for offloading cargo.
What the Lowcountry farmer, skilled outdoorsman and former South Carolina state representative failed to recognize in the fog of war (on drugs) was that he was caught in a snare, one in which the only way out was located on the other side of a prison sentence.
Four and a half decades later, Limehouse’s notorious “great escape” from Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents that followed remains legendary in Lowcountry lore. Here are a few of the events in the sequence leading up to his escape, as Limehouse remembers them: A few days after his conversation with the smugglers in the clubhouse at Hutchinson Island Hunt Club, Limehouse receives a telephone call from the ringleader. He asks Limehouse to meet him at Bennett’s Point “to help check the radio transmission” to an old oil rig crew ship located somewhere offshore, its belly laden with pot.
The ringleader offers Limehouse $10,000. When Limehouse emphatically declines the offer, the man opens the purse strings further, saying they would make $100,000 on this one job … how much of the take did Limehouse want? Again, Limehouse declines any payment. Limehouse learns that the cargo was coming a day early, and that it was being off-loaded temporarily onto Hutchinson Island due to a problem at the other location. “Enough to roll a million marijuana cigarettes,” according to a bit of prosecutorial melodrama during Limehouse’s trial. Limehouse’s telephone calls to the Hutchinson Island’s caretaker all went unanswered. The caretaker was supposed to be away at his home in North Carolina, but was he?
The man’s hindsight regarding the odd series of events leading up to his arrest is 20/20: “I should have called the DEA and told them what was going on, and I should have stayed the hell away from Hutchinson Island that day,” he says. One thing drove him there despite his good sense — concern for the island’s caretaker.
Sidi Limehouse boarded his boat at Bennett’s Point, about a mile from the dock at Hutchinson Island. When Hutchinson Island was in view, he saw bales of marijuana being unloaded from the boat and placed under the limbs of a giant oak tree. “I was disturbed that they were unloading there,” states Limehouse, “so I started back to Bennett’s Point. As I approached, I could see the DEA was there … in force. Blue lights flashing, a helicopter overhead. I decided to get out of there.”
To avoid the DEA, Limehouse edged his boat along the marsh and into Bear Island, an undeveloped ehouse edged his boat along the marsh and into Bear Island, an undeveloped 12,021-acre sea island in Colleton County, which is part of the ACE Basin estuarine reserve area and a Wildlife Management Area for wintering waterfowl and other wetlands wildlife. “Bear Island is totally water, but it’s shallow,” he continues. “I had to cross several marshes and a few streams to get to the edge of the bridge to Bennett’s Point.” Cold and wet, he slipped under the bridge and waited until dark. “It was one of those still nights when you could hear somebody coming up on you at two miles, an automobile at one,” he continues. “When I didn’t hear anything, I ran across the bridge to the other side.”
Limehouse recalls that later that night he ran to a nearby plantation where he knew the caretaker who let him in. “When I was running, if I heard a car coming, I’d just step into the edge of the woods … just like a fugitive.” His last words make him laugh heartily. No, Sidi Limehouse did not swim the fast-moving Ashepoo River in the middle of winter. (Sorry, Lowcountry.)
In the morning, he made his way home. There he received a telephone call from a local DEA agent encouraging him to turn himself in so that he didn’t get injured or killed by one of the “hotshot” agents. He complied.
Limehouse soon learned that all of the smugglers (minus the ringleader) were taken into custody prior to his own arrest. “What the DEA didn’t know at the time was the smugglers weren’t going to Bennett’s Point. After they unloaded the marijuana at Hutchinson Island, they got into their boat and slowly drifted up the Edisto River. They thought they were off scot-free as they headed to Charleston City Marina. I think that’s where all but one was arrested. I believe the ringleader was finally arrested just prior to my trial in Charleston. They all pleaded guilty, but every one of the men who were in the drug smuggling business got a better deal than I got, just for turning me in.”
In Limehouse’s retelling of events surrounding has trial and conviction, the word “kangaroo” often slips into his description. It was a trial that began in Charleston, but later moved to Columbia “because the prosecutors didn’t like the jury pool ... After the trial, the head of the DEA, a man from Charleston, came to me,” recalls Limehouse. “He said, ‘You know you got railroaded, but we can’t do anything about it. You got five years, and you’ve got to serve it. You were convicted, but you were only guilty of one thing … knowing what was going to happen.’”
Then the agent said something Limehouse will never forget: “The agent told me flat out that the local agents had nothing to do with this and — that it was all politics … I didn’t mind going to jail for my role, but I did mind going to jail for things I didn’t do.” The slippery slope he’d unexpectedly found himself on in January 1978 ended with a hard landing in the federal prison.
Elgin was once considered so cushy that it earned the moniker “Club Fed.” Limehouse disagrees with that description. Those incarcerated there were required to work, so Limehouse spent much of his day in the metal shop. “I learned how to weld,” he says. “I also learned ceramics. More importantly, I made several life-long friends.” Twenty months in, the parole board offered him his ticket out — provided he confess to all his crimes. Limehouse refused. Four months after that, a prison guard escorted him to a Greyhound bus and sent him packing. “I don’t think two years in prison turned me into a bad boy,” states Limehouse. “But I certainly wasn’t Mr. Goody Two Shoes anymore.
High stakes: Cran Ohlandt, Sidi Limehouse and Avram Kronsberg (left to right, facing camera) at a card game.
Being a farmer was in his blood, but making a profit in agriculture is a process. Limehouse needed to figure out how to earn a living. After the death of his father in 1977, Mullet Hall Plantation was just sitting there, with Limehouse owning one-eighth of the property including the plantation house and ten acres. One day, an old friend of his father, a banker, asked Limehouse to take him quail hunting. After the hunt, Limehouse told the man he was trying to figure out how to make money with the plantation. That’s when the banker suggested he do what he’d just done with him — take people hunting. That sparked the creation of the legendary Jack Island Gun Club, a decade long adventure in the wilds of John’s Island for Limehouse.
His friend, Cran Ohlandt, has many vivid memories of working alongside Limehouse during the glory days of the Jack Island Gun Club, whether it be releasing quail for the next hunt, picking oysters at Schiller’s Creek for supper or any of the numerous other tasks required to ensure a successful day (or week) at the gun club. Stories about the club soon spread, drawing hunters from across the Lowcountry, the South and all the way to the board rooms of corporate America.
Stay tuned for tales from Jack Island Gun Club, the dissolution of Mullet Hall Plantation, Sidi Limehouse’s greatest accomplishment and what’s next for our Lowcountry legend.
A decades-long contributor and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury, Patra Taylor is the author of One Christmas, a novel set during the Great Depression. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.