I was an MDMA manufacturer in the ’80s. Then fled the country as a fugitive for 20 years. | Part 3

By Rob Widdowson|June 28, 2017

This is part 3 of a 3-part series that follows the story of scientist, chemist, and fugitive, Robert Widdowson. During the 1980’s Widdowson manufactured the MDMA analogue MDHA in Santa Fe, New Mexico until he was arrested and charged under the Federal Analogues Act.

Read: Part 1 | Part 2

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Istayed with friends in Dallas and tried to figure out what to do next. In the genealogy section of a public library, I found information on a little baby who had died at a very young age. He would have been about my age if he had lived. His name was Bruce Jones. I sent away for a birth certificate.

A friend knew someone who had a print shop, and I made myself a Texas driver’s license in the name Bruce Jones. But I was running out of money; it was time to go.

I took my last $400 and got on a bus to Brownsville, the southernmost city on the tip of Texas. There I walked across the bridge into Metamoros, Mexico, showing my Bruce Jones ID to get a 60-day visa.

Then I took a two-day bus ride to Chetumal on the border of Belize. I went to the border crossing, and with a combination of luck and boldness, managed to cross without showing any ID.

It’s not possible to explain the exhilaration that I felt on the final leg of the journey to Dangriga. It didn’t even matter when I arrived and found out that Ron had lied and never been in touch with his friend John Zabaneh who wanted nothing to do with me.

I soon made plenty of friends. In Belize, most people have nicknames, and soon my pals noticed that I could get things done. They said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and my name is Will Jones to this day. It also added another layer of protection for me because my IDs still said Bruce Jones.

And as far as the authorities knew, Robert Widdowson was still in the U.S. All I had to do was not contact anyone in the States, and I was safe.

Belize turned out to be a strange little country. It had been a British colony that gained independence in 1981, just 10 years before. So it was a new country that was badly underdeveloped.

I had a lot of skills from my years of academic training. And because I was a fugitive, I had no ties and no responsibilities. I didn’t have to worry about making money to support others or plan for the future. As long as I could eat and have a place to sleep, I would be okay—it was very liberating.

So I decided to use my time to help Belize; it’s not often that you get a chance to help start a country. I also swore off all drugs (except ganja, which I used very discreetly) to keep myself safe. And I preached and lived by one principle:

Do the right thing.

I became a development specialist. I worked on projects all over the country. I helped start an organic farm at the prison. I taught agriculture to university students. I assisted on nature documentaries for Discovery and National Geographic.

Eventually I moved to the far south of Belize where most folks were Maya living by subsistence farming as they had for millennia. I began writing grant proposals and over the years brought millions into the south for development projects. I got involved in marine conservation. The Belize Barrier Reef had been declared a World Heritage Site on the basis of seven paper parks that had been drawn on a map. I was hired by the Belize government to prepare conservation management plans for five of them.

For nearly 20 years, I worked for the country. Sometimes I was paid, sometimes I was not.

I did have fantastic adventures. Belize was a bit like the old west. There was little infrastructure or bureaucracy, especially in the south. I lived deep in the jungle in a tent for three years where I met all kinds of wildlife: hundreds of snakes (many venomous), tapirs, wild boars, monkeys, ocelots.

I was attacked by a mountain lion and managed to walk away unhurt after spending 20 minutes with it. In another setting, I was shot at by a major figure in the drug world at close range. I grappled with and chased down a burglar who threatened me with a knife. I dove up and down the barrier reef, meeting sharks, turtles, manatee, and whale sharks. I even lived as a lobster fisherman for two years in a tiny isolated coastal community that you could only reach by boat. It was great fun.

But it was lonely being a fugitive.

Then in 2003, a young Belizean woman from a small village began flirting with me. I was much older, but she came from a terrible family situation and wanted to be taken care of. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, she moved in with me.

It was difficult. She had little life experience and behaved like a little girl. I was working pretty hard at the time, and she fell in with some older girls. It didn’t take long for a drinking problem to appear with the party mentality that went with it. But we persevered. I tried to remember her family background and what she’d been through as a child.

Then in 2006, she became pregnant by someone else. At first I was angry, but as time went on and her belly grew bigger and bigger, I was drawn to them. When her son was born, the father was nowhere to be found. I took him in my arms on his first day and realized that I was going to raise him as my son.

I’d never had children—I’d had a vasectomy in 1980—but now it was time. We became a family. My wife—we now qualified as common-law—settled down a little, and my consulting work began to bring in some money. She had no idea that I was a fugitive, but it was constantly on my mind.

I had broken the main rule of being a fugitive—no ties. What did my status mean for them? If I was caught, I would be gone for life. Even if I wasn’t, I didn’t have papers. I couldn’t take them traveling. I didn’t have credit cards, so I couldn’t purchase outside the limited shops in the south. I had no family ties and no explanation for that. Most importantly, what was the right thing to do?

Finally in 2010, at the age of 65 and facing 15 years, I presented myself at the U.S. Embassy and turned myself in.

I was taken to the U.S. in chains and eventually transported to New Mexico where the same federal prosecutor who’d pounded his shoe into the carpet was at the same desk waiting for me.

Luckily, I had a fantastic legal team. We decided to delay proceedings for about two years, so I would have served some time. Then we made a plea agreement with the prosecutor in which I pleaded guilty to nine years.

The Federal Sentencing Guidelines leave little room for modifying sentences, but judges are able to make changes in special circumstances and if they are willing to do the extensive paperwork. My sentencing judge had shown a willingness to adjust sentences in the past, so we focused on her.

We wrote a long legal document that covered much of the paperwork that she had to fill out to ease her burden. We made a presentation that I was a good person—I’d never been in trouble before, and I hadn’t been in trouble since. A letter-writing campaign by my sister and an old friend produced 46 letters of recommendation to the judge, the most she’d ever received. Many were from college buddies who were now doctors, lawyers, and professors. And folks in Belize put together a video of people that I’d worked with—mayors, executive directors, and teachers—speaking directly to the judge, telling her that I was a good guy and please send me back to Belize as soon as possible.

In other words, we argued that I didn’t need more jail time, that I’d been punished for two years, that I was already rehabilitated, and that I needed to return to Belize and continue raising my son. The judge agreed and let me go.

I returned to Belize in late 2012; he was waiting for me, but his mom was not. Now he lives with his grandmother a few hundred yards from me, and I see him every day. He stays with me two or three nights a week. My leaving was hard on him, but we’re working through it. He’s a good kid, and I’m a good dad.

I’m very proud of my life. I believe that manufacturing MDMA and Heaven was the right thing to do. Even though I have not taken any psychedelics since 1991, I feel that the insights I gained from my experiences with those substances have empowered me to live a righteous and courageous life.

It’s criminal that my government has made them a crime. My goal now is to participate in the conversation about the idiocy of the War on Drugs, which is, of course, actually a war on us.

We need to stop prohibition and legalize.

You can read Rob’s full story in his book Heaven’s Tale: From Scientist to Kingpin, from Fugitive to Father

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Rob Widdowson

Rob Widdowson has worn many hats—fugitive, scientist, jailbird, doctor, kingpin, and father. The adventures outlined here along with many more are detailed in his memoir, Heaven’s Tale.