Canadian Citizen Sentenced to Prison for Smuggling Meth on Sailboat

The Astoria-based cutter Alert (USCG file image)

Published May 22, 2020 7:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

A senior citizen from Canada has been sentenced to 40 months in an American federal prison for transporting commercial quantities of methamphetamine at sea. 

According to court documents, on April 9, 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alert detected a sailing vessel traveling north from Mexico to Canada, about 225 nautical miles off Newport, Oregon in international waters. The vessel, named the Mandalay, was U.S.-flagged and homeported in Seattle. When Coast Guard personnel attempted to communicate with the operator, he would only respond via VHF. The Alert's crew checked that the Mandalay was within American jurisdiction, then boarded the vessel for an inspection. 

The operator, 66-year-old Canadian citizen John Philip Stirling, told the Coast Guard that he did not have vessel documentation and refused to produce ID. Upon further questioning, his speech began to deteriorate and he displayed signs of a possible drug overdose, acccording to prosecutors. Shortly before Coast Guard personnel boarded the vessel, Stirling consumed a large amount of what he believed to be pure fentanyl - an action with a high probability of mortality. (It was later determined to be pentobarbital, a sedative). The Alert's crew gave Stirling medical assistance and evacuated him by helicopter to Astoria, Oregon. 

Stirling, who has a long record of criminal convictions, had recently been released from a U.S. federal prison after a 90-month term for smuggling. During medical treatment, he allegedly told a nurse that he was a drug smuggler and claimed to have consumed fentanyl. 

The Mandalay was towed to port and searched. Investigators discovered 28 seven-gallon jugs of liquid methamphetamine (about 200 gallons in total) and a duffel bag containing several plastic-wrapped bricks of pentobarbital. Investigators later learned the drugs had been loaded onto the Mandalay from another vessel in the Sea of Cortez for delivery to Canada.

In January, Stirling pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. In a videoconference appearance, he told the court that he had been persuaded to make the voyage by cartel members after he failed in an earlier smuggling attempt and lost millions of dollars of their cocaine. 

The case was investigated by the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service and Homeland Security Investigations with assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.