In the mid 90s, Shaun Attwood was a successful young stockbroker living in Arizona, US. He was also one of the guys who imported UK rave culture there – throwing massive parties, and trafficking drugs to fuel the all-night affairs. His illicit activities also embroiled him in the ruthless world of the New Mexican and Italian Mafias.
The police, who had been slowly accumulating over 10,000 recordings of him and his associates’ telephone conversations, dubbed his operation an ‘Evil Empire’, a ‘conspiracy’ of which he was at the very top. His decadent world came crashing down on May 16, 2002, when he was arrested in his then girlfriend’s apartment. Prosecutors told him he was facing 200 years, and he contemplated suicide before finding spirituality. After entering a plea bargain he was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years before being released and becoming an author, human rights campaigner, and public speaker.
We caught up with him to discuss exactly how his trafficking operation worked, how his life rapidly spiraled out of control, and how he uses yoga to deal with his cripplingly-addictive personality type.
UNILAD: How did you get involved in the Madchester scene and what made you want to bring a slice of that to the US?
Shaun: Back then, the general club scene was really snooty. You had to have a shirt and tie on. Then all of a sudden there were news headlines every weekend: ‘Wide-Eyed Ravers In Baggy Jeans Hold Rave In Aircraft Hangar’, and the like. The police were going mad, it was a huge threat. All the youths were rising up. I got swept right into that.
UNILAD: How did the drug dealing first come about?
I just wanted everyone to have a good time and then, due to my business degree, I started to see the money-making potential behind it. I was making a lot of money and I would usually buy pills for all my mates and hand them out for free. When you’re doing that, you rapidly accumulate more friends.
The first thing I noticed was that the local dealers could only get you 10, 20 or maybe 50 pills at most. So I was buying so many they didn’t have enough. So I set about trying to find out where they were getting their pills from. I used my knowledge to run this big criminal organisation that ended up smuggling in massive amounts of pills, and throwing raves of up to 10,000 people.
UNILAD: Where did it go from there?
I started going through these Los Angeles dealers. I went from buying between 10 and 50 pills locally to buying 1-5000 from Los Angeles. Then, because we were doing so much volume, it was discussed among my workers that the LA dealers’ source was in Amsterdam.
So I sent some of my guys out there on fact-finding missions and they would get some quotes and samples. There was actually a website back then, I think they’re still going now, that sold the testing kits. We used to buy the kits through them. I wanted my guys to make sure that the pills were 100-125mg of MDMA and nothing else. Because there was a lot of counterfeit pills going around and I wasn’t willing for anyone to get sick. We got a reputation for having a really good product because of that. Back then mitsubishi pills [no relevance to the car manufacturers] and dollar signs were big.
UNILAD: Can you describe the logistics of your trafficking operation?
Shaun: At first people would tape them to their bodies and just straight mule them on a plane – this was before 9/11 so security checks at airports weren’t very good – but we didn’t like that method after the volume picked up more. Then we would put them in FedEx [couriers] packages. Because I was a stockbroker I had loads and loads of annual reports in my house, so we’d hollow out annual reports and the guys in Holland would send them back to the US, with with pills inside. But, like taping them to people, you could only traffic so many pills using that method. We also had people put them in pillowcases and inside computers.
In America you can’t just jump on a plane to Holland and back because that’s going to red flag the authorities. So, my people would fly to somewhere like Germany or France and get the train over to Holland and back. Then they would fly from there to Mexico. From Mexico City I would have them transferred over to Puerto Peñasco which is just below Arizona. We’d transfer the pills through different smugglers and eventually they would all be driven across the border into Arizona. By this point we were onto 40-50,000 pills a time.
UNILAD: How many people would the pills go through?
Shaun: The price was $30 a pop back then, that is so much money. But you’ve got to understand how many levels it goes through. I had about 200 people working for me at the peak. Each faction had their own leader the head of each faction would take around 1-5,000 pills at about $8-10. He would front them out [provide on credit] to his underlings for around $15-20, they would go and sell them in the clubs for $25-30. There’s all these different layers it goes through until it gets to the end person.
My right hand man, he’s dead now (hung himself), rented a safehouse where he would store the pills. Then if anyone needed to be re-uped he would take them to those people. It got to the point where my hands never touched them.
UNILAD: What have you learnt from your life Shaun?
Shaun: I was on drugs and I’d seen Scarface and I’d seen Pulp Fiction. Because of the drugs I thought ‘yeah… you’re living large like the characters out of these films… you’re the man’. But in reality I was putting myself in extremely dangerous situations and I’m lucky to be alive. The Italian Mafia came after me and the new Mexico Mafia were protecting me. They were the most violent criminal organisation in Arizona at the time. I just don’t know how I got through it all looking back.
I have learnt to recognise my addictive personality and have acquired the tools to deal with it so I don’t go off the rails again. Now I channel my energy into positive addiction – there’s no problem with that if you do have that personality type. I now do Karate, body combat and yoga. Those activities release the same chemicals in the brain that the drugs do.
There was a point where I was going to kill myself in that jail. I was going to cut my wrists and bleed out, that’s when I was told I was facing 200 years. I stopped my girlfriend from visiting me and I was thinking ‘why would I want to spend the rest of my life in an environment like this?’ What changed my mind was the thoughts of my family and what that would put them through and also I started to meditate for hours and hours every night. That really got my stress level down. Yoga is really powerful, in a situation like that I’d highly recommend it.
UNILAD: So in the end how does the high from yoga compare to the high from MDMA?
Shaun: I found a type of yoga called Yin Yoga, it’s where you lie on the floor and stretch your joints for a long time. After doing Yin Yoga, and meditation, for two hours I felt like I was on MDMA. On my way home I actually got stuck at a traffic light, I was staring at these clouds, listening to Sasha [house DJ] and smiling. People were beeping at me because the traffic light had changed from red to green. Drugs are just a shortcut to that.
Shaun’s latest book Party Time tracks his rise from shy teenager to multimillionaire drug kingpin.