Ed. Note: As the Helena Star is being broken up for scrap as part of Washington State’s Derelict Vessel Program, she’s prompted memories to bubble up for many nwyachting.com readers. Our friend Al Johnson has dug into his memory banks and other sources to tell us the whole story. By the way, if you happen to have one of those Helena Star tee shirts from that year’s Swiftsure, it would be wonderful if you could snap a picture and send it our way.
By Al Johnson
News reports in late July of the derelict freighter Helena Star being towed to Seattle to be scrapped brought back memories from the 1970s of a famous Seattle race boat, and how it became involved in the then biggest drug bust in US history.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In the mid 1970’s, one of the big boats racing on Puget Sound was Joli, a dark blue C&C 61. She was owned by Bill Niemi (president of Eddie Bauer). Niemi raced her in local races plus a couple of Vic Maui races, including a first to finish in 1974 when he set a new elapsed time record.
He put Joli up for sale a few years later, but no one wanted to buy her for the asking price in a conventional deal. Enter a local ski champion named Mike Lund. Lund was willing to pay the price and was able to make a large down payment, but needed Niemi to finance the sale. Niemi agreed to take a $55,000 down payment, and to finance the $230,000 balance.
Joli was moored in San Diego, so buyer and seller met there in summer of 1977. Imagine Niemi’s surprise when Lund’s down payment came in the form of a brief case containing $55,000 in used $20 bills. Oh well – sometimes it’s best not to ask too many questions. Lund sailed Joli back to his home in Sequim, and waited for the next chapter in the adventure.
The next chapter happened in spring 1978. Enter the Helena Star, an aging freighter that was too small to be economically viable. However, with the right cargo, she could still turn a profit. The cargo turned out to be 37 tons of marijuana from Colombia, with a street value of $75 million in 1978 dollars.
The plan was for the Helena Star to “park” off the Washington coast, and for Lund and friends to use Joli to carry the marijuana into Neah Bay. It isn’t clear how many trips (or weeks) this was going to take, or how they were going to transfer 37 tons of pot from the freighter to Joli. However, they didn’t have to actually work through that, since the Coast Guard intercepted the Star 130 miles off the coast on April 17, 1978.
Mike Lund and his girlfriend Patricia Karnick heard about the Coast Guard bust on the radio and started driving south. She “dumped him out somewhere in Oregon” and then continued to California, where she was eventually captured. However, Lund appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth. The speculation in the Seattle sailing community was that the drug cartel that fronted the money for this misadventure had killed him for screwing up, and that he was swimming with the fishes.
The next month at the Swiftsure Race, there were a number of guys wearing a T-shirt with a giant iridescent marijuana leaf on it and the words “Helena Star Crew”.
The feds seized the Helena Star and later the Joli. I don’t know how Niemi got Joli back, but I believe that he did since he was owed $230,000 for the sale of the boat. Meanwhile, the Helena Star was now property of the federal government, and sat for decades just inside the Ballard locks at Salmon Bay. Eventually she was sold and moved to Tacoma where she languished for years before finally sinking in 2013. She was raised earlier this summer and is now being broken up for scrap in Lake Union.
But what happened to Mike Lund? Did the mob rub him out?
As it turns out, shortly after being dumped out in Oregon, he resurfaced with a new identity – Steven “Lance” McCain. He went to Santa Barbara, and got married in 1980 to a woman who knew nothing about his earlier identity. They had a son in 1982 and named him “Mike” (get it – his father’s real name), and then moved to Jackson Hole. They had another son in 1987. Mike (Lance) worked as a handyman and hotel clerk in Wyoming. However, his wife filed for divorce in 1989. She got the kids, the car, the furniture and the charge cards. And what did Mike (or Lance) get? He got an order to pay $380 a month child support.
He moved back to California, worked at various jobs, and apparently didn’t pay the child support. Another decade passed, and in September 2000, his ex-wife filed suit for nonpayment. A Colorado court found him in contempt. He drove to Colorado to answer the charges and was jailed in May 2001. His fingerprints were taken and sent to the national fingerprint database. Out popped Mike Lund, indicted 23 years earlier for his part of the Helena Star drug bust and on the lam ever since.
If you’ve got something big to hide (like you part in a $75 million drug bust), you had better keep your nose clean, and make sure that you pay your child support.
The drug laws were much more lenient in 1978 than current laws, and he was sentenced under those 1978 laws. According to 2001 newspaper articles he was sentenced to only a year in prison. With credit for time served and time off for good behavior he was out by Christmas 2001.