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Washington to Prosecute Owner of Derelict Freighter Sunken Near Tacoma

The ship responsible for the biggest NW Drug Bust in history- Helena Star
(US Coast Guard Photo- 3rd Class Petty Officer Scott Wingfield)

It’s being called the biggest case of environmental crime in Washington in over a decade — and the sunken boat in question was once part of the biggest drug sting in U.S. history! Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed formal charges against the owner of a derelict freighter that sank near Tacoma in Pierce County. The vessel took another ship to the bottom with it, and caused a major environmental cleanup of leaking oil.  But this isn’t the first time this vessel has been in the news. 36 years ago, it was part of a record-setting drug bust!

Ferguson stated Wednesday that Stephen G. Mason will be facing a variety of charges relating to the sinking of the 167-foot Helena Star.  The rusting freighter was moored in Hylebos Waterway in Pierce County near Tacoma, and sank last January, spilling hundreds of gallons of fuel oil and other chemicals into the water.

In February 2012, after receiving complaints about the condition of the ship, the U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Ecology boarded the vessel and found it in imminent danger of sinking. It was so bad there was a tree growing out of its cargo hold! After Mason was notified that March, nothing was done to move or salvage it prior to its sinking.

It was tied to another vessel, The Golden West, and it too capsized. Ferguson said Mason will be charged with ship abandonment (90 days in jail and $1,000 fine) and discharge polluting (up to a year in jail and $10,000 fine).

An investigation showed Mason, or someone on his behalf, allegedly removed anything of value from the ship, pumped out most of the diesel fuel, then just abandoned the freighter.  It was so bad the state legislature had to appropriate $4.5 million for water cleanup and dismantling and salvage of the two ships!

But the Helena Star has an even more checkered past. The old freighter, originally built in Holland in 1947, was once part of the biggest marijuana bust in U.S. history! The Star was intercepted off the Washington coast by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978, carrying 37 TONS of pot! The crew of 10 were convicted of drug smuggling, two of them after they fled to Bolivia. One of the leaders, a former champion freestyle skier named Mike Lund from Squim, eluded authorities for 23 years until he was finally caught in 2001. He had assumed a new identity as “Steven McCain” and his fingerprints in a child support case traced back to his original identity. He plead guilty and was given a three-year sentence at age 65!

The confiscated ship then sat for years in Salmon Bay near the Ballard Bridge, until it was sold to Mason. But it was neglected and became a rusting wreck. The Star and Golden West were tops on the state’s list of 226 abandoned ships that needed to be disposed of.

And finally, as for the 37 tons of marijuana taken from the Star after it was capture by the Coast Guard, reports it was sent up in flames in an industrial furnace…or so federal officials say!

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