Wednesday 8 February 2012

Investigators found shotguns and machine guns, inch-wide metal bars guarding doors and windows, the secret room under the floor, and a hidden elevator that led to an underground bunker and an unfinished tunnel.

Eugene Paull heard the beep.

In his three-story home east of Brooksville, Paull was lying on his bed that morning last March when the security system sounded. He rolled over and glanced at two nearby TVs wired to a dozen videocameras. Law enforcement officers swarmed across his property.

Seconds before the 66-year-old could slip into a secret room he had nicknamed the "worm hole," the SWAT team caught him.

Investigators found shotguns and machine guns, inch-wide metal bars guarding doors and windows, the secret room under the floor, and a hidden elevator that led to an underground bunker and an unfinished tunnel.

On Tuesday, Hernando County investigators released details of their stunning investigation for the first time. Paull, an international criminal on the run since 1973, had lived under a false identity for 33 years. He would later tell investigators he had come to Hernando because he felt safe and hidden and free to build his fortress.

Authorities believe he had amassed a fortune from trafficking drugs in Jamaica. But they could only prove that he and his girlfriend stole a pair of dead people's identities, the original tip from federal authorities that led to the raid. The couple avoided prison time because they forfeited most of their assets: two Hernando homes, three vehicles, two campers, a pair of custom motorcycles, a 47-foot yacht and nearly $20,000 in cash.

His girlfriend, Subrena Spence, was deported to her native Jamaica. Paull received two years of probation. He moved to Miami, but federal authorities say they recently caught him with explosives and about $90,000 in cash that was found stashed inside gas cans with false bottoms.

Tuesday morning, Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft, who helped lead the investigation, stood at the escape tunnel's exit, shook his head and smiled.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen in all my years of law enforcement," Kraft said. "Ever."

• • •

Paull's career in crime began in 1968. Five years later, he was convicted on a drug charge, then released. He never showed up for the sentencing.

He fled to Jamaica, where investigators say the drug trafficking began. In 1978, he obtained a passport under the name of Robert Harris.

On the Caribbean island, he owned a hotel and supported youth boxing. He fell in love with a teenager, Subrena Spence. In 2000, she obtained a fake passport. Six years later, the couple moved to Hernando and bought the home near Brooksville for $350,000. They purchased another house in Brooksville for $114,900 four months later.

Detectives, who for 11 months have continued to investigate Paull's activities, believe he brought his drug fortune with him, and he needed a way to explain it. Spence bought a yacht, named Veteran, and claimed that he chartered trips on it. The boat still sits on stilts in his back yard. It never left the property.

He also created a charity that he claimed supported veterans. Paull, who served in Vietnam, was a patriot, or at least he wanted people to think so. His walls were covered in American flags and POW posters.

To support the charity, he bought a customized motorcycle, adorned with images of war, fake weapons and a sidecar that looked like the nose of a fighter jet.

He traveled to events around the country and asked for money. Signs in his garage indicated what he charged: $1 to photograph the bike, $5 to take a picture with it, $10 to take one sitting on it. "To help homeless veterans," the sign said, "with thanks."

In one year, Kraft said, Paull and Spence raised more than $100,000. Investigators could only confirm that the couple gave $1,300 to veterans.

After being arrested and forced to take on his real identity, Paull became eligible to receive veterans benefits.

• • •

Paull, detectives say, knew law enforcement would come for him one day. To prepare, he bought a home at the end of a single-lane dirt road in one of the most remote areas of Hernando. The house, from the outside, looked normal. It had a gate with a call box. A brick driveway surrounded a 6-foot-tall fountain. He housed Rottweilers and built an aviary for his birds.

Clues of Paull's intended seclusion appeared in the back yard. He had stacks of firewood, the makings of a garden and a pond that held catfish and tilapia.

Inside the home, guns were hidden everywhere: an antique Vickers machine gun in the garage, a shotgun in a living room cabinet, a revolver in an empty can of Bon Ami cleanser.

He put in an intricate security system and sealed off the bottom of a spiral staircase to create a secret room the size of a closet. In his bedroom, Paull installed a mechanical elevator that could lower him into a concrete bunker equipped with lights, electrical outlets and a pair of heavy metal doors with dead bolts, presumably to lock behind him as he fled.

The bunker led to a 4-foot-wide plastic tube that extended into the back yard. He didn't like the small tunnels in Vietnam, so he made the pipes spacious. When finished, investigators say, the tunnel would have extended about 200 yards into the woods.

Last fall, soon after Paull received probation and sheriff's officials prepared to seize the home, Kraft met him in his front driveway as he prepared to leave. Paull talked about writing a book and said his life would be made into a movie one day.