B.C. skipper pleads guilty in Florida over cocaine and heroin found on vessel

B.C. skipper John Philip Stirling has pleaded guilty to a drug conspiracy charge in Florida despite proclaiming his innocence since his capture in October 2011.

Stirling entered a guilty plea in a Miami courtroom Tuesday to a single count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute 500 or more grams of cocaine and heroin on board a vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

More serious charges that could have landed him in prison for life were dismissed. He received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence instead.

But that doesn’t mean he’s taking responsibility for the 381 kilos of cocaine and single kilo of heroin found on board the Atlantis V, when U.S. authorities boarded it off the coast of Colombia.

“They gave me an offer other than death. What can I say? I took it,” Stirling said in an email interview with The Sun. “I admit nothing other than I took a deal that was offered to me in the form it was offered, which had little or no input from me. I think any person – guilty or not – would have done the same.”

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Stirling, now 61, said he hopes to be transferred to a Canadian jail as soon as possible, where he believes he will be quickly paroled.

He was convicted on a series of drug conspiracy counts last year, but won an appeal for a second trial set for this spring. Stirling said that if he had been tried and convicted a second time, his sentence would have been for decades, not years.

“I changed my plea because I, to be truthful, am tired here,” Stirling said. “This is not like Canada and justice here is not justice there or anywhere else.”

Stirling said he wanted to get back home because “I have a few things left to finish, a few people I need to see and a few stories that need to be told.”

Stirling is well-known to the RCMP in B.C.

Back in 2001, his boat, the Western Wind, was stopped by the Americans in the Strait of Juan de Fuca with 2.5 tonnes of cocaine aboard, estimated to be worth $300 million at the time.

Because the boat was bound for B.C., the Americans handed Stirling and four others over to Canadian authorities. No one was ever charged.

In the agreed statement of facts read at his sentencing this week, Stirling admitted he was the “master of the vessel” when the U.S. Coast Guard boarded on Oct. 18, 2011 after getting Canada’s permission to do so.

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He admitted there were “354 packages secreted within the panelling of the vessel,” which later turned out to be the illicit cargo.