North Carolina

NC couple sold a ton of pot, spent 20 years as fugitives on the run, hiding in Mexico

Gavel Photo by Getty Images This is a stock image downloaded from Getty Images. It is a Royalty Free image.
Gavel Photo by Getty Images This is a stock image downloaded from Getty Images. It is a Royalty Free image. Getty Images

For 20 years, Robert and Wendy Freer lived as exotic fugitives, hiding in Mexico to avoid drug charges in North Carolina — surfing, starting a resort hotel, adding children to their hidden family.

In 1999, a federal indictment accused Robert Freer of conspiracy to sell more than 1,000 kilograms, or just over a ton, of marijuana, using a condominium on the Outer Banks as a tool for a business that generated $500,000 in five years.

But the couple fled to San Diego, crossing the border at Tijuana and moving down the Baja Peninsula to the town of San Pedrito famous for its surf break, where they stayed hidden until last year, when U.S. marshals found them through social media, court records say.

And on Thursday, the gray-haired couple appeared in Raleigh’s federal courthouse to enter guilty pleas, where U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle had a question:

“Did you know this day was going to come some day?”

“I didn’t think so,” said Wendy Freer, now 53. “It was quite a shock.”

Robert Freer, 61, smiled and waved to his family in the gallery, blowing them a kiss before pleading guilty to money laundering.

Robert M. Duncan, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, says concealment of money and promotion of criminal activities are two types of money laundering. His office prosecutes money laundering in Central and Eastern Kentucky.

He will be sentenced in November. His wife Wendy followed shortly after, pleading guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession and going free after 11 months.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Lemmon described Robert Freer as the “ringleader” and a “significant marijuana dealer” in North Carolina and Virginia in the 1990s, supplying the drug by the bale and charging $1,400 a pound.

But while he spoke little and answered Boyle’s questions with a polite “Yes, your honor,” his wife spun a two-decade saga.

They got involved in the drug trade around 1994 when they lived in and around Dare County, she said, and her husband would travel to Chicago or Arizona to pick up marijuana coming in from Mexico.

“There are established lines of trade,” Boyle said. “It’s not like Walmart. ... It’s like a milk run. You’ve got to go pick it up and bring it back.”

Under Boyle’s questioning, Freer said her husband dealt mainly with three people in Chicago, none of them Hispanic. But in roughly 1996, she said, they had separated while preparing to divorce, and she thought he had gotten out of the business.

‘Lives to the Lord’

Around Christmas of 1998, she said he came to her and said, “’You have to leave with me. I’ve been arrested. I’m in trouble, ‘” Freer recalled. “I was worried, honestly, for the safety of our children.”

They needed no papers to cross into Mexico, she explained. When the family arrived, they met a bunch of Americans who stayed for the surfing and moved into a Southwind travel trailer.

“We surfed,” she said. “We gave our lives to the Lord the first year we were there. My husband is a deacon in our church.”

“It’s all in Spanish, right?” Boyle asked.

“No, no,” Freer said. “These are Americans.”

The family began meeting Mexican ranchers and farmers who wanted to sell land, so they acted as go-betweens and eventually put together a construction crew. Freer said she owns a hotel there still.

Lemmon said marshals were looking over their cold cases and were able to find traces of the Freers through a small social media presence, then confirmed fugitive identities in the aging couple who had been using aliases in Mexico.

Of her four children, Freer said, two were born in Mexico and all have U.S. citizenship. She and her husband have not seen them since Mexican police arrested the couple last year and extradited them to a detention center in Los Angeles.

“I’m ashamed of the hurt I’ve caused,” Freer said. “They didn’t deserve this. I’m truly sorry.”

After his guilty plea, Robert Freer asked through his attorney if he could be released into his sister’s custody until sentencing in November.

“Everybody’s entitled to ask,” Boyle said, rejecting the request. “It would be as big a stretch as anyone had ever seen if he had a 20-year skip and had another shot at it. It’s not going to happen.”

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.