John Hull, Once Oliver North's Man in Costa Rica, Is Now Accused of Running Guns and Drugs

updated 05/01/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/01/1989 01:00AM

Just before dawn breaks over his Costa Rican ranch 30 miles south of Nicaragua, John Hull loads the back of his pickup truck with workers, then drives past an armed sentry and an unleashed attack dog. "You don't want to be out here at night, not when that dog's patrolling," says the 68-year-old American. "He's already bit me, bit my wife, even bit my son." As the pickup rumbles out of the ranch's main compound toward the fields beyond, a woman and child appear, and Hull stops briefly to talk. "Her husband's sick, and she's come to get help," he says later. "I just told her to hang tight, I'd be right back—and to watch out for that damn dog. Believe me, I wish I didn't need him, but I do."

These are perilous times for Hull, a diehard foe of Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. His enemies in Managua have plotted to kill him, he claims, and he fears they may try again. Also, with the failure of the contra cause, he faces serious legal troubles in his adopted homeland. Prompted by accusations that his private airstrips were used to carry weapons to the contras and cocaine to the U.S., Hull was arrested by Costa Rican authorities in January and charged with drug trafficking and violating that country's security laws. He spent two months in jail—part of it in a hospital ward because of heart problems—before friends and neighbors raised $37,500 for his bail. Under Costa Rican law, his case is now undergoing further investigation before a final decision is made whether to try him.

Hull's chief American ally, former-National Security Council staff member Oliver North, has been of little help to the beleaguered rancher. The onetime White House champion of aid to the contras has spent the past three months in a U.S. court battling a 12-count indictment of his own. Earlier this month, while Hull awaited the outcome of North's trial, U.S. Sen. John Kerry dealt the crusty Evanston, Ill., native another blow. The Massachusetts Democrat, who chairs a subcommittee on narcotics, terrorism and international operations, released a report calling Hull "a central figure in contra operations" and citing a convicted drug smuggler who claimed Hull had been present when cocaine was loaded aboard a plane returning to the U.S.

"The newspapers have already hung me just by quoting some dope dealer in a Florida prison," says Hull angrily. "Bull. I've never seen cocaine in my life."

A veteran pilot who maintains six airstrips scattered over the 10 Costa Rican ranches he owns or manages, Hull admits aiding the contras but says he used his airstrips solely to retrieve injured rebels from battle zones in Nicaragua. "Everyone knew I was helping the contras," he says. "I took out their wounded, held bleeding children in my arms, fed the fighters and gave them shelter. I also briefed the CIA on everything I knew that was going on in the war zone, but that's all I did. I wasn't running drugs. If I were, I'd have bought myself a few new tractors instead of going on with some old wrecks that belong in a museum."

After dropping his workers at various spots around his 1,640-acre cattle and citrus ranch, Hull drives his pickup back along the gravel road, waving to the sentry. "The Communists have been out to get me for years," says the tanned, balding patriarch. "Three times people were sent to kill me. Once we chased them away with gunfire, and two other times I got tips about plots to do me in. I was lucky." While in jail last January, Hull decided to send his son, Johnny, 17, into hiding in the U.S. "I couldn't take a chance with my son," he says. "They might have gone after him the next time."

The threats didn't cause Hull any regrets for his pro-contra efforts, and "I'd do it again if had to," he says adamantly. "Only this time—speaking as an armchair general—I'd like to have some offshore naval guns break the Sandinistas' back by taking out all their refineries, bridges and ammo dumps first. Take about 30 minutes and save us a lot of lives. It's what we should have done a long time ago."

Hull is equally firm in his views about Oliver North, calling his trial a disgrace to the nation. Hull first met the former Marine lieutenant colonel in 1983, while in Washington visiting then Sen. Dan Quayle, another vocal contra supporter. Quayle helped arrange an introduction at the White House, Hull says, and North was pleased to meet such an avid fellow anti-Communist. Charges that North mishandled contra funds or acted unpatriotically cause Hull to bristle. "There's no way you'd get me to believe he took a penny for personal use," he says in North's defense. "Now this deal about his trying to get security for his house, well, who wouldn't try to protect himself? Hell, the CIA once paid for five of my bodyguards. And I'm certainly not in the same league as Ollie North."

Those bodyguards were armed sentries posted at Hull's main ranch near Muelle de San Carlos, says Hull, and he insists that their salaries were all the money he received from the CIA. The Kerry report offers a different account, stating that for two years Hull received $10,000 a month from contra leader Adolfo Calero, all at North's direction.

Heart troubles or not, by late morning Hull is on horseback riding among a herd of cattle. Although down on his luck, he is still clearly the patrón of his domain and proud of his image as last of a breed—the rugged frontier landowner. He often calls his ranch hands peons, but over the years he has saved lives and relieved suffering, he says, by flying many sick or pregnant villagers for medical treatment to the nearby city of Quesada or to the country's capital, San José.

Hull first arrived here 20 years ago, after several failed attempts to start enterprises in other Latin American countries. "It was raw paradise—miles of trees, no roads and a lot of rivers to ford. I first came with my father, who was an agronomist, and what we found was some of the richest volcanic soil in the world. So I decided to stay. In 15 years we were turning virgin forest into the country's breadbasket."

Hull's enterprises eventually did well enough for him to buy and develop more property. He later attracted other U.S. investors, who also bought land and allowed Hull to manage their interests. "Then the Sandinistas took over next door, and the devil slipped into paradise," he says. "All I was doing in helping the contras was just protecting my land and my investments."

Hull still owns a 700-acre grain farm outside Patoka, Ind., and he's still legally married to Mariella, 70, now a retired schoolteacher who manages the spread. "What can I say?—he's the Great White Hunter," says Mariella without bitterness, adding that she had to remain in Indiana to raise their daughter, Mary Ana, now in her 40s, and care for Hull's and her own aging parents. "The marriage just didn't work out with so many separations. Now it looks like John's world is coming to a screeching halt. But he's still the father of my daughter. He knows he's always got a home here."

For the time being, though, Hull's home remains the spacious, airy house overlooking his main ranch. It is there that he lives with Margarita Acosta, 36, a former servant who has been his livein companion for the past 19 years and who is the mother of their absent son, Johnny. Hull's troubles have not only cost him his son's company but have drained him of cash as well. He says his business is suffering because of his two-month absence in jail, and he has laid off half of his 100 or so workers. Local banks have closed off credit to him ("for obvious political reasons," he says), and the government has forbidden him to use his single-engine Cessna or any of his airstrips. "I feel trapped and persecuted, but at least lots of folks still come by. You see, at heart I'm just an old country boy, just wanting to live my simple life."

Not that Hull's life is simple these days. Though his trial is still an uncertainty, if convicted he will face an eight-to 20-year prison sentence. "I'd dearly like to go to the U.S.," he says. "If they let me leave, my doctor wants me to check into a clinic in North Carolina to have my heart looked after." Hull, in fact, does have friends abroad. Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana and Republican Congressman David Dreier of California recently led a bipartisan effort of 19 U.S. Congressmen urging President Oscar Arias to free him.

By late afternoon, the house is quiet, and the distant shrieking of wild monkeys carries clearly through the shuttered windows. Servants have finished cleaning up after a weekend fiesta and the wedding of Hull's stepdaughter, Sandra, 19. Of the 200 visitors who came, the few still left on the veranda include several foreign reporters, some neighbors and a taciturn, graying emissary from retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub, a longtime pro-contra fund-raiser. The emissary and Hull confer in hushed voices out of hearing of the other guests. Later, as they part, Hull hands the man an envelope with the name ROB OWEN written on it. Owen, a former aide to Senator Quayle, had later served Oliver North as a courier delivering money and messages to the contras.

A short while later, an unabashed Hull admirer arrives from Florida for a visit. He approaches his hero with a smart salute and announces, "Commander Hull, Joe Cortina, Special Forces, demolitions—reporting for duty!" Hull smiles at the bluster of the former Vietnam Green Beret who has come armed this day with only a video camera and a gift bottle of champagne. Although Hull never served in the U.S. military, he joined Britain's Royal Air Force before the U.S. entered World War II and rose to a captain's rank. "At ease," says Hull in a tired voice. "Welcome to the fight. I need all the help I can get."

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