COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It was an undercover FBI operation that went on for well over a year in the early 1980s. Dubbed “Colcor” by federal officials, the far reaching organized crime scandal shocked the community. Betweeen Colcor and Operation Gateway, a neighboring federal investigation in Brunswick County going on at the same time, about a dozen high profile government officials found themselves under arrest, along with dozens of other citizens caught up in the crime ring.
The FBI recently released portions of its Colcor file to WECT in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The WECT investigates team pored through hundreds of pages in that file, went through news footage and dozens of old newspaper clippings, and tracked down the lead undercover agent on the case to better understand what happened.
Most of the major players in Colcor have died since being arrested on charges that earned many of them prison time. Among those indicted in the case: Lt. Governor James C. Green, District Court Judge J. Wilton Hunt, Brunswick County Sheriff Herman Strong, Shallotte Police Chief Hoyal Varnum, Lake Waccamaw Police Chief Harold Lowery, State Representative Ronald Taylor, and State Senator R.C. Soles, who just passed away this month at the age of 86.
FBI Agent Bob Drdak spent a year and a half of his life undercover on this case. He has since retired from The Bureau, and WECT met with him at his home outside of Charlotte. Drdak said the FBI first got wind of the underhanded dealings going on with government officials in Southeastern North Carolina after one of their sources moved to Whiteville. That source was trying to open a business but kept getting shut down by local officials. A friend told him he just needed to “pay off the right people” and his problems would go away. The source tipped off the FBI about the suspected government corruption, and the case was born.
“You know, Columbus County back then had a reputation for being kind of - I don’t want to say lawless - but you know, having their own approach to things,” Drdak remembered. “From the minute we got there to the end, we knew that there was some serious problems there regarding respect for the law.”
Agents posed as mobsters
As part of their front, Drdak and another agent ran a high stakes poker game from a house in Lake Waccamaw. To bolster their cover as criminal operators, they told people that they were part of the Detroit mob. Before long, local politicians were showing up to play.
“Believe me, we weren’t trying to put on any kind of good face. Anybody that came to meet us or talk to us knew that we were bad guys. That’s the impression we gave them. We paid for everything in cash. We did a number of things that would fortify the belief that we were [mobsters],” Drdak said.
The sheer variety of criminal activity the agents discovered public officials were connected to is mind boggling. Auto theft and insurance fraud were some of the more pedestrian crimes uncovered during the sting. But agents also learned about large scale drug smuggling, arson for profit, and even claims of murder made by people they were investigating. Eventually, the sting led to indictments of bribery and racketeering against elected officials.
“The [Lake Waccamaw Police] Chief came up one day, and he and I talked and he said he would haul cocaine in his police car for me, from where we’d pick it up to where it needed to go. People would come in and say, ‘I have this farm, I’ve got plenty of acreage, we can grow anything you wanted,’ or ‘You could use our fields as an air strip.’ And they did, there were loads [of drugs] that came in,” Drdak recalled.
Arson for hire
Trying to snag bigger and bigger fish as the operation proceeded, Drdak and his partner made connections with local and state politicians tied up in the seedy dealings. One of them, State Representative Ronald Taylor, tried to hire the undercover agents to burn down warehouses which belonged to a fellow state lawmaker and business competitor.
“We told him we were going to do it for him for so much money, and we were going to have some guys come down from Detroit and case it and all that, but we could only do so much. We couldn’t set it on fire, and finally he got to the point he got someone else to do burn it, local,” Drdak said.
Taylor was later tried on state charges for conspiracy and unlawful burning of a warehouse. He entered a guilty plea on federal charges related to accepting a bribe, and agreed to testify on behalf of the feds in other cases.
Drdak remembered Columbus County Commission Chair Ed Walton Williamson was a particularly colorful character. The undercover agents paid him to grease the wheels for them on various local government issues, and Williamson helped them understand that in Southeastern North Carolina, elections could be bought.
“We were talking with Ed Williamson the commissioner, and we said, ‘You know, we need liquor by the drink down here. You’ve got to ride to Myrtle Beach or Wilmington if you want to drink.’ And he said something to the effect of, ‘Well if you want to do that, you can do it in a heart beat with a couple of people I know.’ So of course that’s – you ask yourself is that the way it’s supposed to be? Of course it’s not. So we started exploring it with him and at some point he said, ‘As long as RC goes along with it, everything’s fine.’ So he introduced us to RC Soles,” Drdak told WECT.
WECT still has the undercover video of a December 1981 meeting between the undercover agents and Soles. Soles talks about how he can help get legislation through so they can open a liquor by the drink establishment. When they offered to pay him, Soles said he had plenty of money and didn’t need any more, but does ask them to keep Ed [Walton Williamson] “happy,” as they were political allies. As referenced above, Williamson was already getting paid by the undercover agents.
″Nobody had ever bought an election before in the FBI undercover operations,” Drdak said of the new territory they were exploring trying to prove corruption in Columbus County. He said previous undercover efforts to buy elections elsewhere had always been shutdown before the votes were cast, but in this case, it was too far along to stop.
“The US attorney’s office called down and told [state lawmakers], ‘We have information that that vote is compromised and it’s being paid for by the Detroit mob.’ And they pretty much said, ‘We are tired of the government telling us what we’re gonna do, we want liquor by the drink and we’re going to get liquor by the drink. So they went ahead and voted it in,” Drdak said of the vote that was later invalidated by the Board of Elections because they determined the election was illegal and the votes had been paid for.
It wasn’t long after that the FBI started making arrests. Drdak said suspects were shocked to learn he and his partner were actually undercover agents and not Detroit mobsters.
Looking for bodies
During the court proceedings that followed, FBI agents testified about some of the darker claims they’d heard during the course of their investigation. They said a local farmer, Kenneth Coleman, had bragged about shooting three men while unloading planes full of drugs. He told the agents their bodies were buried in a slaughter pit at his farm.
When Coleman was arrested for drug trafficking, federal officials convinced local investigators to dredge the slaughter pit. While they found the carcasses of horses, cattle and hogs, investigators were unable to find human remains to match those claims.
Other parts of the FBI’s Colcor file also allude to murder. Agents tried to run down claims about a man involved in a drug deal who had been shot to death in a South Carolina hotel room, and another lead about a body found floating in Tampa Bay. Drdak also remembers a time a man offered to kill an informant for them when everyone still thought they worked for the mob.
Whether the suspects in this corruption scandal were simply talking a big game but never actually killed anyone, or whether they just did a good job hiding bodies and covering their tracks, we may never know. But no murder charges ever came out of the Colcor investigation.
Some convicted, some acquitted
While many of the suspects indicted pled guilty, not all of them did. A notable exception: State Senator RC Soles. Soles hired several prominent attorneys, including Joe Cheshire (who would go on to famously represent the Duke Lacrosse players facing fabricated rape charges). In 1983, Soles’ attorneys convinced a federal judge to dismiss three of the four charges brought against him in the Colcor sting, including vote buying, perjury and conspiracy.
US District Court Judge James Fox allowed a jury to decide the remaining charge: that Soles helped former Commissioner Ed Walton Williamson obtain payoffs from undercover agents. Soles was ultimately acquitted.
“He had a lot of money and he had good attorneys,” Drdak said when asked how he thought Soles escaped a conviction. “But when it comes to a trial and putting a politician on the stand, a lot of times the same charisma that they have that got them elected will help sway the jury on their behalf.”
Lt. Governor James C. Green was also acquitted on state charges for taking bribes, stemming from evidence collected in the FBI investigation. As witnessed in other FBI stings involving public corruption, politicians who were convicted following the Colcor sting managed to maintain support from their constituents.
“People that we convicted got reelected,” Drdak said. “They couldn’t take the position because they were felons, but people we convicted stayed on the ballot and won.”
According to published reports, Judge J. Wilton Hunt was convicted of accepting bribes, and using an interstate telephone call to facilitate an illegal gambling operation. He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. He was re-elected while under indictment but suspended from hearing cases, and later resigned.
Also convicted, Brunswick County Sheriff Herman Strong, for his role in a narcotics enterprise. A judge required him to resign from his post. He was also sentenced to 14 years in prison, but served less than four years.
The FBI also came under some scrutiny for the extent they went to to prove corruption of elected officials. While the liquor by the drink referendum that was pushed through by the undercover agents was ultimately invalidated, it did result in legislative action.
When asked if people in and around Columbus County showed appreciation for the work they did rooting out corruption there, Drdak said for the most part, no. But he does remember being thanked by members of law enforcement who were on the right side of the law. He said he thinks they were able to make a difference, at least in the short run, holding people accountable for their corruption.
As for the motive for so many local leaders to get wrapped up in such corruption, his answer was simple.
“It was greed,” Drdak said. “They saw... an easy way to make money.”