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CHARLESTON -- A former Hilton Head Islander who lived the good life for years was sentenced for running a marijuana smuggling operation in which he sank tons of pot to the ocean floor and later brought it to the surface using smaller boats, global-positioning units and scuba gear.
It was the biggest marijuana importation scheme in coastal South Carolina since the late 1970s, when "Operation Jackpot" caught people smuggling drugs to barrier islands throughout the state, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
Garry C. Chupurdy, 58, of Thunderbolt, Ga., pleaded guilty to four federal charges related to drug smuggling and money laundering and was sentenced Tuesday to more than 18 years in prison.
Two of his Savannah cohorts also pleaded guilty and were sentenced. Chupurdy's former fiancee, Qing Hong Xiang, 33, received more than six years, and Aaron Lee Browne, 36, was sentenced to more than four.
The case against a fourth alleged conspirator, Bluffton golf professional Mike Mlay, is still pending, said Edmund A. Booth Jr., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
Aside from the source, Chupurdy was at the pinnacle of the marijuana smuggling pyramid, according to Tanner. He made yearly stops in Jamaica with his 78-foot catamaran the "Cat's Meow," authorities said. On the return voyage, the marijuana was packaged in air tight, vacuum-sealed plastic bags and sunk in shallow waters up to 30 miles off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
Chupurdy would return to retrieve it in small motor boats and store it in a Savannah warehouse, where he would ship it north, said Lt. Joey "JoJo" Woodward, commander of the Beaufort/Jasper Multi Agency Drug Task Force.
Chupurdy and the others pleaded guilty to importing about 1,500 pounds in May 2006 and 2,000 pounds in June 2007.
"Of course we suspect he's been doing it a lot longer," said Tanner, "but we can prove these two (trips)."
For years, Chupurdy seemed to live up to the name of his primary vessel. He owned six boats and drove a 2003 Ferrari 360 Spider worth about $160,000 and a 2004 Aston Martin Vanquish worth $180,000.
His $600,000 waterfront condo in Thunderbolt was filled with jewelry, paintings and sculptures. He had four-wheelers and motorcycles. Despite the wealth, "in the long run, I'd say it definitely wasn't worth it," said Tanner.
By mid-2006, the task force had caught wind of his operation through confidential informants. For about a year, they investigated and spent hours watching him, keeping all of the information under wraps, said Woodward. Toward the conclusion of the investigation, they brought in 13 other local, state and federal agencies to make the arrests in last June.
"It was an interesting case," said Woodward. "We worked on it for over a year, and it was one of those cases where no one knows anything about it outside the (the sheriff's office)."
During searches in Charleston, Beaufort, Thunderbolt and Savannah, officers seized 2,216 pounds of marijuana, 221,000 pounds of hash oil, about $200,000 in cash and a dozen guns.
Now all of Chupurdy's "ill-gotten gains" will become the property of law enforcement agencies for use in pursuing other drug dealers, said Tanner.
"These types of cases do take a long time and they also require a lot of coordination among law enforcement agencies," the sheriff said. "We worked well together as a team and, at the end of the day, we got the suspects, the drugs and the assets."