From convict to crusader
In 1982 Steve Arrington took the fall for John DeLorean in a failed $24 million cocaine smuggling deal. It was the best thing that happened to him, he says
On the night of Oct. 18, 1982, Stephen Arrington sat in his Cadillac in a gloomy parking lot at the Van Nuys airport. A dozen armed men suddenly appeared out of the darkness and surrounded the vehicle. They flung open Arrington’s door, and a man lunged at him, slamming the barrel of a pistol into his temple, breaking the skin.
As a rivulet of blood ran down Arrington’s face, the man screamed a threat: “Move, scumbag, and I’ll blow your head off!”
From the passenger side, another man jammed the barrel of a pump-action shotgun into Arrington’s ribcage. He heard the click-clack of a shell being chambered.
Convinced that the men were mafiosi intent on stealing the cocaine he was smuggling, Arrington thought it was all over, convinced beyond any doubt that he was going to die. His relief was overwhelming when he heard instead, “Federal agents—you’re under arrest!”
In his autobiography, Extreme: On Living in the Intensity of the Moment, Arrington, who lives in Paradise, recounts what happened next:
“They throw me up against a black-sided van. In the shiny distorted reflection of the dark paint, I see that there are more guns than I can count. The men jerk my arms behind my back and cuff me. Hands run up and down my body searching for weapons while I stare for a long moment at my face in the van’s shiny black paint.”
The men hustled Arrington into the back of a black sedan. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent in the front seat turned to look at Arrington and said, “Well, dirtbag, I guess this isn’t the best day of your life, is it?” The agent was puzzled when Arrington replied, “Actually, I think it is.”
Paradoxically, at the moment of his arrest Arrington felt free—freed from a nightmare, from living a life of deceit and doing things he was afraid not to do. By arresting him, the good guys had saved him from the dark underworld of drug smuggling, in which for many years he had been a coerced participant.
Later, as he was being led into federal court for arraignment on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine, a press photographer captured Arrington’s image, as well as that of celebrity co-conspirator John Z. DeLorean, creator of the DeLorean sports car, who had resorted to drug dealing to save his floundering firm. Pictures of DeLorean and Arrington appeared side by side on the front page of the Oct. 21, 1982, issue of the Los Angeles Times.
How did a man who had spent nearly 14 years in the Navy, where he’d had a distinguished career as a bomb-disposal frogman, served four tours in Vietnam, protected heads of state for the Secret Service, rescued downed pilots, participated in secret CIA operations and recovered re-entry vehicles for NASA, fall to these shameful depths?
It’s quite a story.
Steve Arrington was born Sept. 27, 1948, in Pasadena, but he didn’t stay there long. His family moved almost yearly because his alcoholic father kept changing jobs.
Terribly afraid of his father, Arrington learned to lie early on because it was always best to tell his dad only what he wanted to hear. Contact with his father ceased when his parents divorced shortly after Arrington turned 14.
With his mother and older brother rarely home, Arrington’s family life effectively ended. He says in his autobiography that it was a wonder he stayed with his mother long enough to earn his high-school diploma. Two weeks after the graduation ceremony, which Arrington attended alone, his mother drove him to the Naval Induction Center in Los Angeles, where she had to sign his enlistment papers because at 17 years old he was under age.
In the Navy, Arrington became proficient at bomb disposal. He learned how to defuse and disarm nuclear, biological and conventional weapons. In a recent interview, he said, “Explosive-ordnance-disposal school was a fascinating place. It was like every young person’s dream to be involved in all this complex learning about explosives and bombs and diving. I absolutely loved it. I thrived.”
Arrington was part of an elite team. Only a few EOD candidates can expect to become bomb-disposal frogmen. The failure rate is 70 to 80 percent. Arrington’s class began with more than 30 students, but only six graduated, including two Navy SEALs.
In 1979, Arrington’s EOD team was deployed to Truk Atoll in the Caroline Islands, where American warplanes sank almost a hundred Japanese ships during World War II. The team’s mission was to check the wrecks for hazardous ordnance in order to protect sport divers. But one boat at a depth of 144 feet, beyond the range of amateur divers, was irresistible to the Navy pros: an intact Japanese submarine.
As he swam deeper than a hundred feet, Arrington recognized the early symptoms of nitrogen narcosis, or “rapture of the deep,” as it’s called. It can affect a diver’s judgment and sometimes results in death.
After reaching the submarine, safety considerations limited the time on site. Arrington did pause, however, to consider the fate of the Japanese sailors, who all drowned or suffocated from lack of oxygen.
That evening Arrington walked to a deserted stretch of beach, reached in his pocket, and took out a marijuana joint. He’d been smoking pot regularly, and it had become important to him to the point of obsession, he would later write.
Using it eventually led to selling it, and in May 1979 at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Arrington and a fellow diver were busted by the Naval Investigative Service.
Arrington received unprecedented moral support at his court martial: Seven chief petty officers and commissioned officers showed up in dress-white uniforms and sat on the bench behind him. His attorney leaned over toward him and whispered, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is huge. They could not have made a more important or decisive statement regarding clemency. Whatever the judge rules, whatever your sentence, know that these men still believe in you.”
Arrington could have been punished with six months in the brig and a dishonorable discharge. Instead, he received only one month imprisonment and a bad-conduct discharge. Although his defense counsel was delighted, Arrington felt only shame and humiliation.
It seemed impossible at the time, but his life would spiral even further downward.
For two years Arrington worked at a surf shop and was an indifferent student at San Diego State. He was still smoking marijuana regularly. One day, while folding T-shirts at La Jolla Surf Systems, he received a phone call from multimillionaire Morgan Hetrick, who seven years earlier had sought out Arrington for private scuba instruction.
Hetrick asked Arrington to confirm that he was a licensed pilot, and arranged to meet with him the next day. Arrington was astonished when Hetrick offered to make him executive vice president of all his companies, with a starting salary of $50,000.
But over the next eight weeks Arrington discovered that his job was far from the promised executive-in-training. His chief duty was running errands—he was a glorified gofer. Nor did Hetrick come through with the promised salary.
Hetrick intended from the beginning to coerce Arrington into smuggling drugs, knowing that his weakness for marijuana was a character flaw that could be exploited.
The coercion began when one of Hetrick’s associates, a fellow named Max Mermelstein, who was the No. 1 man in the United States for Colombia’s largest drug cartel, threatened to have Arrington killed if he didn’t agree to make a cocaine run to Colombia as co-pilot in a specially modified twin-engine Aztec.
Arrington managed to survive the harrowing adventure, but his career in drug running wasn’t over. Months later, in Florida, he again was approached by Hetrick, who said he needed Arrington to drive a car to California.
Arrington: “Is there anything you want to tell me about this car?”
Hetrick: “Don’t ask. This way what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
But Arrington knew what he was doing. When he picked up the car from half a dozen Colombians, the one in charge informed him of the cocaine under the back seat and the pineapples in the trunk meant to mask the scent.
Arrington believed he would finally be free if he made this last drug run. But with his arrest at the Van Nuys airport, his figurative imprisonment in the drug underworld ended, and a literal imprisonment began.
What Arrington didn’t realize, however, was that he was no common criminal. Because of a connection with John DeLorean that he knew nothing about, he was a full-fledged celebrity inmate.
Shortly after his arrest, Arrington was told that DeLorean was in an adjacent holding cell at the Los Angeles County Jail. “Who?” Arrington asked. He knew about the futuristic, stainless-steel, gull-winged DeLorean automobile that later was featured in the Back to the Future movies, but he was unaware that the $24 million worth of cocaine he had been smuggling was intended for DeLorean, a former vice president of General Motors and multimillionaire jetsetter married to supermodel Cristina Ferrari.
Despite video evidence replayed over and over on national TV news programs of him in a hotel room referring to a suitcase full of cocaine “as good as gold,” DeLorean spent only 10 days in jail and was acquitted on all charges. Hetrick pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Arrington pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison (later reduced to three) and served 31 months.
In November 1982, Arrington was transferred to a new section of Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in San Pedro. When he introduced himself to his cellmate, a man named Morris, Morris said, “Hey! You’re the fall guy! You’re going to take the fall for DeLorean. It’s the little people, like you and me, who always take the hit. The rich guys get off because they got the big-time lawyers. So, is DeLorean guilty?”
Arrington: “I don’t have a clue.”
One night the following month Arrington was in his cell, wide awake at 2 a.m., depressed and dead tired. An idea came: There has to be more than just trying to survive in prison. His thoughts then turned to God, and Arrington realized that throughout his life his relationship with God had been solely for his own convenience. All his choices were predetermined by his quest for self-fulfillment on his own terms. He was a Christian in name only; he did not live his life as one. He realized he was completely self-absorbed.
He climbed down from his bunk and got on his knees on the cold concrete floor. Arrington wasn’t sure he was going to pray, but then the prayer began spontaneously: “Father, I am so very sorry. I have thrown my life away. My friends and family have turned their backs on me and society has locked me away, but what about You? Are You there for a sinner like me, a felon in a prison cell?”
Arrington writes that he did not expect an answer, but he got one anyway: “It is not a spoken word heard, rather it is an overpowering feeling that flashes through my whole being like a lightning bolt exploding in my heart—and it has a name: Always!” Arrington’s despair lifted; his life took on new meaning.
After a year and a half at Terminal Island, he was sent to Boron Prison Camp in the Mojave Desert. There he requested to be an inmate fireman.
When asked why he wanted to be a firefighter, Arrington replied, “Firemen help people. They might even get to save lives.”
After only three months on the fire crew he was designated chief engineer.
On Aug. 29, 1984, Arrington and his firefighters were first on the scene of a crashed B-1 stealth bomber prototype. The airplane’s entire crew of three had ejected in a single pod, which was pried open by the first responders. Two badly injured airmen were carried to safety, but the pilot was dead.
Arrington’s 17th and final emergency response outside the gates of the Boron Prison Camp was fateful. Not far from the camp a Toyota pickup had collided head-on at high speed with an 18-wheeler. The big-rig driver had a broken arm, but the driver of the pickup was beyond help. It took over an hour to cut his mangled body out of a mass of twisted metal.
As Arrington was flushing blood, oil and gasoline from the road with a fire hose, a highway patrolman approached, engaged him in conversation and learned his life story. As they were taking leave of one another, the trooper asked the name of Arrington’s unit manager at the prison camp.
Soon after this incident Arrington was released early and sent to a halfway house in Anaheim. Arrington’s first meeting with his probation officer resulted in his being told to go to the College of Oceaneering in Los Angeles Harbor. A supervisor at the school hired him on the spot as a diving instructor, saying that the college’s president and owner had told him to hire Arrington immediately when he dropped in.
Arrington asked, “Why me?” and was told that the president had gotten a call the previous week from a highway patrolman, the same officer who had talked to Arrington at the collision site in the Mojave Desert. The trooper had followed up his phone call with a letter of recommendation, along with letters from the safety officer and unit manager at Boron Prison Camp.
Two months later Arrington got word that his sentence had been commuted from five years to three, which meant that he was no longer on probation and no longer an inmate.
Another turning point came during a class Arrington was teaching at the College of Oceaneering. Suddenly a student burst through the classroom door yelling, “Mr. Arrington, they need you down at the harbor—hurry, Chris [a student] is drowning!”
Chris, it turned out, was pinned underwater. The project that he had been working on had fallen on him. When Arrington reached the diving barge, Chris had been without air for almost seven minutes.
Arrington knew that irreversible brain damage begins after four minutes.
Rescue divers finally managed to bring Chris to the surface. Here’s how Arrington describes what happened next: “Kneeling at the edge of the barge, I reach down and grab Chris’s chest harness. My face is just inches from those lifeless eyes as I remember the exact same look in the eyes of the teenage driver we lost in the desert when I was on the fire crew. Not this time, I promise myself.”
Arrington locked his hands over Chris’ sternum and began full CPR. He continued the chest compressions for 20 minutes, until the fire department arrived. After a lifeless Chris was taken away in an ambulance, a fireman holding up a radio yelled, “They got a heart beat!” And then, “Spontaneous breathing!”
But Arrington and the other instructors knew the odds were that brain damage had already occurred.
The next day a supervisor barged into Arrington’s classroom, yelling, “Chris is going to live! He woke up and he’s talking. No sign yet of brain damage. The doc thinks it’s a miracle. He doesn’t know of anyone who’s recovered after over eight minutes without oxygen.”
The Los Angeles Fire Department and the Red Cross credited Arrington with saving Chris’ life. At a ceremony Arrington received a Red Cross Certificate of Merit, its highest award for lifesaving, signed by President Ronald Reagan. Arrington realized that he could step into a new future and put prison and its awful memories behind him. The world had indeed taken on the golden glow that he had envisioned from his prison cell.
The golden glow was soon shining even brighter. When Don Santee, expedition leader and chief diver for the Cousteau Society, sat in on Arrington’s diving medicine class, Arrington offered his services, never really expecting a call. But Santee did eventually call, opening the conversation with 11 mind-jarring words: “Steve, how would you like to come and work for us?”
What followed was a dream job: high adventure all over the world as chief diver and expedition leader, diving with great white sharks, whales and dolphins.
After his first expedition to Costa Rica to explore an underwater cavern, Arrington returned to Cousteau headquarters in West Hollywood and spent a frantic month readying equipment for the next expedition to Maui to film humpback whales. His preparations were interrupted late one Sunday night when one of the society’s researchers introduced Arrington to his sister, Cindy. For Arrington it was love at first sight.
For their fourth date, Arrington visited Cindy in Paradise, where she lived with her parents. This was his first visit to Paradise. Cindy asked Arrington if he would like to go for a hike in the Feather River Canyon behind her parents’ house.
From Arrington’s autobiography: “I gladly accepted her offer, having no idea I am about to undergo a test that has become a family tradition, much to the amusement of everyone involved. As a young girl, Cindy determined that she would not be stuck with any guy who could not keep up with her in the canyon. No one has ever passed Cindy’s canyon test. …
“I am a little lightheaded when we break out of the brush at the base of her parents’ house. We are almost side-by-side when her stepfather yells from the back porch, ‘How did he do?’ Cindy looks up into the bright afternoon sunlight and announces, ‘I think I am going to keep this one.’”
Arrington left the Cousteau Society after 5 1/2 years and began his lay youth ministry and, with wife Cindy, founded the Dream Machine Foundation, a nonprofit interdenominational Christian organization seeking to promote aid to the world’s children through medical, dental and educational opportunities.
He also began giving motivational speeches at schools, and now has addressed more than 1,700 school assemblies.
In 1998 the Arringtons opened a free clinic at Vatuvonu School in the South Pacific, the first endeavor of Project Fiji of the Dream Machine Foundation. And in 2006 they began sending mobile medical and dental teams into remote villages. To date they have treated approximately 25,000 patients for free and saved considerably more than 100 lives.
Last week Arrington participated in Red Ribbon Week in Ketchikan, Alaska. Detective Mike Purcell of the Ketchikan Police Department reported that Arrington was masterful in keeping kids engaged by interspersing his theme of how bad choices bring bad consequences with adventure stories from his days with the Cousteau Society.
Arrington is a fit, distinguished, youthful-looking 63-year-old who lives in Paradise with Cindy and their three children. In my conversations with him, I was immediately won over by his enthusiasm, intensity and sincerity.
In addition to his speaking engagements and foundation work, he writes books and magazine articles and produces videos to encourage young people to strive for their dreams.
Stephen Arrington learned recently that he is on the short list for a presidential pardon. That would be a fitting capstone for his life of redemption.