Sometimes people take the long way home. If Brian O’Dea, 61, hadn’t pursued his life of crime, then he probably would never have grown as close as he did to his parents, he says.
“Odd that, isn’t it? We were never so close as when they came to visit me in prison. Our relationship was completely repaired before they both died. In fact it got better and I’m grateful for that,” he told IrishCentral during a recent interview.
O’Dea’s parents were Irish on both sides of his family; his ancestors came to Newfoundland in the early 1800s before the Famine.
“They were generations of farmers. My grandfather started a soft drinks factory, which later became a brewery. My dad went on to run it. They’re a reputable, prosperous family in Newfoundland to this day.”
But O’Dea chose a different, darker path for himself. The trouble, he says, all began in school.
As the well-to-do son of one of the most prominent Irish families in Newfoundland (his uncle Jack was the governor, his father was the head of the United Newfoundland Party) O’Dea was set up for life before he even got started. But then something went wrong.
His parents sent him to Winterton School, a non-denominational school for girls and boys, but he pined to go to the Catholic St. Boniface’s. Eventually his father relented and he was enrolled. His first day, at 11 years of age, proved memorable, for the wrong reasons.
“What happened? How did I turn out like I did? That’s the question my parents wanted to ask me for years. I had to write “High” (his new autobiography, published this month) to tell them,” he says.
“I had an incident that happened to me in school that kind of took me off the rails. I’m not blaming the incident, I just know that after it – because of what I had been taught – my mind was a horrible place to be.”
Sitting at his desk on his first day, one of the Christian Brothers came in and announced to the class, “Boys we’ve got Little Lord Fauntleroy here with us this year.” O’Dea was then commanded to come to the bother’s desk, and asked to hold out his hands.
Immediately, for no reason, he was hit with 16 hard slaps of the brother’s leather strap. The shock of it made him urinate and he was sent out into the hall, where another brother, the schools’ principal, happened by.
“I had never been hit by an adult in my life. I was sobbing. I didn’t know where to go or what to do about it. I was completely a wreck,” he recalled.
“The principal asked me what happened and he put his arm around me. Immediately I felt a huge sense of relief. Then he took me to his office, got me out of my clothes, and that led to a year of sexual abuse.”
The circumstances are wearily familiar, but it was what didn’t happen, O’Dea says, that caused him the greatest problems.
“I told nobody. I kept it a secret. I was a Catholic and I thought that I had performed a mortal sin punishable by an eternity in hell,” he says.
“I just knew God was going to kill me and send me to hell forever. This internal thing secretly went on inside my head for years.”
When he discovered something that could take him out of his mind -- drugs -- he became a ripe candidate both as an addict and a supplier.
“At college in Nova Scotia I would buy pot and share it with other people -- because I became a people pleaser -- and I would spend my own tuition on it,” he says.
The transition from pot smoker to pot supplier was remarkably smooth, but O’Dea started out small time.
“My father was in the mind altering business selling booze and he was a good businessman. I used his business model to go from selling nickel bags of pot to selling 75 tons from South East Asia by the mid-eighties,” he says.
Orders kept expanding, which meant travel to other nations. In Jamaica he met many fellow Irishmen who had turned to the life of drug trafficking.
“These were all great guys on the lam. They brought it all in by the boatload to Newfoundland. They ended up living on the run in Jamaica and running operations from down there when they got popped and couldn’t return home.”
To build a nest egg to shore up his pot smuggling activities, O’Dea briefly got involved in the South American cocaine trade, where large amounts of money could be made shipping small amounts of the drug.
“In those days everyone who was doing it seemed to be having fun doing it. But cocaine abuse led to a complete and utter nightmare for me. It had a grip stronger than cigarettes and I couldn’t let go of it for years,” he said.
In the early eighties, after he had cleaned up his own act, O’Dea joined forces with another Irish Newfoundlander he refers to only by his last name, Murphy, who introduced O’Dea to the best drug smuggling operation he had ever seen.
“He introduced me to the very best offload situation imaginable for a pot smuggler, a fishing company in Newfoundland with a complete dry dock facility, everything you would need to make it look like you were a legitimate business,” he says.
“We used that as a beard to smuggle the pot. There were 110 guys working in our operation and all of them knew the real deal. It only came apart right at the end. We got away with it till then. But I ended up with too much money and not enough brains and back hooked on coke again.”
When he got sober, O’Dea went to work as a volunteer in a drug rehabilitation center, where he counseled addicts daily for two years. But then the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) showed up and arrested him for conspiracy to import more than 100 kilos of drugs.
Says O’Dea, laughing, “I got 10 years. What a great gift that was. It was one of my life’s greatest gifts outside of my beautiful family.
“It reinforced my understanding that no matter what had happened in my life I could still remain a reasonable and decent human being, which was really important to help me make it through the rest of my life. It also gave me the time to write my book, and develop a relationship with my parents.
“I finally got to know them, and they got to know me. It wouldn’t have happened without all this.”
It’s an unlikely happy ending to a life that seemed headed for tragedy. And in the process O’Dea, who now lives in Toronto with his wife and son, has learned about drugs, having spent years taking them and transporting them. He’s forthright about how to combat them now.
“Legalize them,” he says. “We’ve thrown a trillion dollars into the war on drugs that hasn’t worked. In fact it’s only gotten worse.
“We are giving criminal gangs the run of the neighborhoods in the U.S. and Mexico. Drugs are their only currency. If we take away their currency we’ll stop the gangland shootings in the U.S. and Mexico. Alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition -- same problem, same solution.”
“High”, by Brian O’Dea is published by Random House.