Dan Fowlie was wearing a tropical shirt and a suntan when I met him in The Tico Times lobby close to 5 o’clock on Friday, looking good for 82 — or for anyone who has spent 18 years in prison.
“As long as you don’t twist my story around,” Fowlie said as we sat down in a third-floor conference room. “They always twist my story around.” He talked about a lady on Channel 7 who always introduced him as either “ex-convicto,” which he admits he is, or “narcotraficante,” which he insists he isn’t.
“They found a half an ounce at the ranch, that’s the only hard evidence they found,” Fowlie said almost as soon as he sat down with me, before any questions were asked. “They found that outside the window of my bedroom, and I hadn’t been there for three or four months. I was here in Costa Rica when they raided the ranch.”
Daniel “Danny Mack” Fowlie spent an hour and 40 minutes telling me his two primary stories — one about how he became a hero by building the Costa Rican surfing mecca of Pavones from the ground up, and one about how he lost everything when convicted on 15 drug-trafficking charges based on what he considers extremely flimsy evidence.
“They found nothing, basically,” is how he put it.
We’ll talk about what they found in a bit, and you can judge for yourself whether there’s an innocent explanation for the physical, circumstantial and eyewitness evidence against him. But regardless, Fowlie is entitled to the recognition that he paid his debt by serving his time — roughly one-fourth of his life.
Fowlie came back to visit Pavones, on the far southern Pacific coast, in January and February after 10 years in which he was barred from entering Costa Rica. And he says the chances are “90 percent” that he’s going to recover all the property that all the squatters and swindlers stole from him while he was gone.
Finding the wave
Fowlie was born in Minnesota but grew up in San Diego, Calif., where he became a surfer and abalone diver. His father was a millionaire who died young, and Dan said he inherited a few hundred thousand dollars that he stashed in offshore accounts and invested in real estate. Perpetually industrious (“Hate to sit, because I’m a worker”), he started several businesses that made good money.
A friend who once worked on the shores of Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce told him about an incredible surfing wave he had discovered — Fowlie calls it “the best left surf break in the world,” and surfers often call it the second-longest left on the planet.
Fowlie flew to Costa Rica looking for it in 1974, and as he flew over the coastline in his chartered plane, he spotted it. He immediately started buying all the property in front of it, and in the weeks and years that followed he employed all the families in the area to build the town of Pavones — schools, churches, homes, roads, bridges, a clinic, a cantina. Fowlie was a celebrated figure, sometimes called the “King of Pavones.” The wave he put on the map, and the town he built in front of it, remain a world-class surf destination today.
In 1985, thousands of miles from Pavones, a SWAT team raided Fowlie’s ranch in Southern California and found evidence that he was running a huge drug-smuggling operation, storing and trans-shipping tons of marijuana, apparently for the notorious Mexican drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero.
In 1991, Fowlie was convicted on 15 U.S. federal counts of possession with intent to distribute, conspiracy, illegal movement of money and operation of a continuing criminal enterprise. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, of which he served 18, three of them in Mexico.
So just ask Fowlie how he earned the millions of dollars he spent to build his private kingdom in Pavones.
“Got into ladies’ handbags, made millions of bucks a year,” he said, after telling me about former careers in wrought iron and leather clothing, both of which he was sourcing in northern Mexico (where the most lucrative export was drugs). “One size, not a lot of colors, had a special way I tooled them, because I’m an artist.”
He described his process, which involved lead, silk, fiberglass, a stamp and a cutter that made it look like all the bags were hand-tooled.
“I did about 6 or 8 million bucks a year, and half of it was profit,” he said. “I saved most of it right in Mexico, kept it in Banco Nacional de Mexico.”
Really? Minutes earlier, Fowlie told me he was a “waterman” who formerly specialized in diving for abalone, and he once got his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a surfer in Hawaii. Now he was making millions in purses.
I had read in Jeremy Evans’ excellent new book, “The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave,” that Fowlie sold his Leather Gypsy handbag business for $3 million.
I asked Fowlie if he sold his business for $3 million, and he said, “No, no” — and this was a typical answer to many questions — but despite several inquiries I couldn’t get him to tell me what was wrong with this figure.
I detected a pattern: Ask Fowlie any fact-based question, and his first instinct is to deny it – as if he knows that other people’s facts are not his friends.
Can the popularity of women’s leather purses in the 1970s possibly explain how a former abalone diver showed up in Costa Rica one day and spent, by his own estimation, $6.5 million to buy and build on all the beachfront property in the region?
“I had millions left over in Mexico from the handbags,” he said.
VIDEO: Coming to Pavones
A friend of Fowlie’s named Kenny Easton had once worked in southwest Costa Rica. He’s the one who discovered that incredible left break and told Fowlie about it. In this video Fowlie talks about how he came here in 1974, found the wave and started buying all the property in front of it.
And so I came down here and flew it, and there happened to be pretty good waves, and I saw the spot that he was talking about, and I went into town and asked everybody, “Where’s this guy that owns this ranch?” “Oh, that’s Cullo’s ranch.” I found this Cullo Lobo and I wrote him on lined paper a contract, one page, and gave him a $10,000 deposit on his ranch.
Did you just have $10,000 in cash?
Had it in my pocket.
Like 100 $100 bills?
In $100 bills.
Why did you bring that much cash?
Oh, I had more cash than that, but prior to 1992, there were no restrictions on how much cash could come into this country. In ’92 they changed the law.
Fowlie said he had “quite a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank.”
My colleague Michael Krumholtz asked him, “How much did you have? Five to 10 million?”
“I had about 6 and a half million dollars that I invested in Costa Rica,” Fowlie said.
He confirmed that he bought Cullo Lobo’s 250-acre beachfront property for $30,000. Then he went on to name two other properties for which he paid $500,000 each.
“I had the original title on 14 farms that cover about 80 percent of Pavones, from Río Manzanillo all the way around to the end of the road,” he said.
I said, “I’m having a hard time understanding why you dropped your life so suddenly and went to a place you’d never been before, and then suddenly bought everything in sight.”
“It happens to be the best left surf break in the world,” he said. “There isn’t a left that’s better than that in the world.”
VIDEO: What was found at the ranch?
In this video, Fowlie talks about the evidence that was discovered when a SWAT team raided his Southern California ranch.
So all that you built you lost when in 1985 the authorities raided your ranch and they found, I believe, 50 rifles and shotguns, three automatic weapons, a bunch of shipping and packaging boxes…
No, that’s a little exaggeration. They found two automatic weapons, and they probably had — we shot a lot of skeet there, right off the back porch of the house — and I had high-base and low-base shotguns, 12-gauges, and maybe a 20-gauge, two 20-gauges and a .410. But I don’t know where you got that. The newspapers, of course … they want to thrill everyone, and they put a lot of sensationalism in there. [Note: My information on weapons seized from Fowlie’s ranch comes from Jeremy Evans’ book, “The Battle for Paradise.”]
I believe your manager was busted in South Laguna when he fired a gun inside his house and they found 20 pounds of marijuana and $73,000 in cash.
That’s a guy named Hank Westmoreland. And the reason they said he’s the manager is because I had a Mexican family that worked there, and he [the Mexican] rolled my backhoe on the hill grading a piece and went to the hospital. And then an attorney went to the hospital where he was and said, “You don’t have workman’s comp or anything like that? Well, how you going to pay for this?” “Oh, well, Dan Fowlie, I’m hoping will pay for it.” And he said, “You should have had health insurance.”
Anyway, to make a long story short I told Hank Westmoreland to go over and give that attorney 500 bucks and tell him you’re the ranch manager, and we’re going to pay all the bills, sir.
Where did he get 20 pounds of marijuana and $73,000 in cash?
I don’t know. That’s Laguna Beach, and it was at his house, it wasn’t anything I had.
VIDEO: Fowlie’s Mexican connections and refusal to cooperate
Fowlie tells an amusing story about an exchange between a judge and a prosecutor on how much marijuana was found on his ranch:
“[The prosecution] said, ‘We found a substantial amount of marijuana.’ [Judge:] ‘Where did you find it?’ ‘Just outside Danny’s window in his house on the ranch.’ ‘Outside the window, on the window ledge?’ ‘No, in the grass.’ ‘In the grass, on the outside. And how much was there?’ ‘Just less than an ounce.’ ‘Is that a normal place to store grass when you’re out of the country, I mean pot?’ … They found nothing, basically.”
I remarked that several people who worked with Fowlie or were his friends or associates rolled on him and said he was smuggling large amounts of marijuana from Mexico.
“No, no, not friends,” he said. He named a Mexican “professional” who he said had killed two people and was in the Witness Protection Program, who “testified in 17 different trials, and what they do is they send him to two weeks of indoctrination into my case and what to say and what to do.”
Haven’t you acknowledged that you knew Mexican drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero, head of the Guadalajara cartel?
You know, they hang that on me, but my pilot flew him, the reason they say I know him is because my pilot that flew my airplane also flew the president around, and he also brought Rafael Caro Quintero from Mexico to Costa Rica.
And the DEA came in to me when I was in [the U.S. prison] Terminal Island, and said, “What do you know about —” First, I said, “Look, you came in here as attorneys. What’s up?” “Well, we want you to cooperate with us.” I said, “Well, I don’t cooperate.”
“Well, we want you to just tell us about a few things.” I said, “Let’s talk about fishing. I’m pretty well versed in that.” “We want to know how well you knew Caro Quintero.” “I don’t know him.”
“Well, he was caught in your car and got a ticket in it, in the car you bought from [fugitive financier Robert] Vesco.” “No, he wasn’t.” I says, “Show it to me. Why you bullshitting me like this? What do you think I am, a fool?”
And so I opened the door up and said, “I want all you guys to look at these undercover agents from the DEA,” and the cops in the prison came and cuffed me up and put me in the hole for a week….
But I just don’t like to, uh — when I was young I could never tell on my sister, I could never, my parents never wanted me to talk, especially my pop, don’t ever talk about your friends.
Fowlie’s choice of words is interesting, suggesting that he had “friends” he chose not to “tell on.” Notice he doesn’t say he didn’t know anything. What he says is he’s not a rat.
An honorable code, no doubt.
But this is not the way innocent people normally talk.
Shortly after the 1985 raid, when Fowlie was lying low in Mexico, armed squatters invaded his property in Pavones and started cutting down trees and building shacks. In the years that followed, much of his property was carved up and sold off by people who did not legitimately own it. This was allowed to happen because of Costa Rica’s liberal homesteading laws, because Fowlie was not there to defend his land and because of the perception that he was a drug trafficker.
Released from prison in 2005, Fowlie came back to Pavones to survey his former domain, and his return struck fear into the hearts of those who stole, sold or were living on land that used to be his.
He had a special beef with Chico Gómez, whom he had left in charge of the cantina in 1985, but who sold the beach concession to someone else. Reports from an encounter between the two accused Fowlie of threatening Chico’s son, and Fowlie was subsequently declared persona non grata and barred from entering Costa Rica.
That ruling was overturned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, allowing Fowlie to return to Pavones last month. This time there were no reports of confrontations or threats. The most ridiculous thing that happened was the Costa Rican daily La Nación quoting government officials as saying Fowlie had entered the country illegally (“Immigration seeking Daniel Fowlie for illegal entry”). It retracted the story the next day (“Immigration: Daniel Fowlie entered legally, but with a ‘new passport’”).
“I don’t want to fight with the people,” said Fowlie, who was flying to the United States on Saturday but plans to return to Pavones in March. “Most of them are my family.” Fowlie said three times that he wasn’t looking for a fight.
Still, he was told that his second return to Pavones rekindled some fears.
“They said, ‘A lot of people are afraid.’ I said, ‘Well, what are they afraid of?’ ‘Well, they’re afraid of losing their property.’ ‘How can they do that? How can they lose their property?’ ‘They’re living on land that once used to be yours.’”
Fowlie said he told the town fathers that he is going to donate multiple homes, parcels and commercial sites to the people who once worked for him.
“I said, ‘Anyone that worked for me or any of their children, they can have a home site, and I’ll give them a title on it,’” he declared.
“These people that are scared, they know how I am. They knew I’d be back and they knew I wouldn’t leave them in the dust.
“But there’s a lot of people that have ranches and stuff in different places, and a lot of them are just plain squatters and they’re not — they claim to be campesinos [peasants], but they’re really inversionistas [investors] — they’re looking to get a ranch and build something and sell it to a rich Gringo.”
Coming Thursday: A book review of Jeremy Evans’ book about Pavones, “The Battle for Paradise: Surfing, Tuna, and One Town’s Quest to Save a Wave.”