Tuesday, December 20, 2011
The Mayor & the Dictator - John McCann, Jr. & Manuel Noriega
The Mayor & the Dictator – John McCann, Jr. & Manuel Noriega
The dictator is Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian strongman who was ousted by an American invasion and spent time in an American prison before being sent to France and home to stand trial for crimes committed there.
As his repatriation home brought Noriega back into the news, it also reminded me of his connection with former Somers Point, New Jersey mayor John McCann, Jr.
The son of John McCann, Sr., a bootlegger who became a legitimate North Philadelphia beer baron after prohibition, at the end of World War II McCann purchased the historic Bay Shores nightclub in Somers Point with his partner McClain, a builder who also owned the General Wayne Inn.
In tight competition with Tony Marts across Bay Avenue, Bay Shores had eight bars and two stages where bands performed continuously, until 2 am, when they had to close by municipal ordinance, so McCann and McLain built the Dunes nightclub out in on Longport Blvd. in Egg Harbor Twp., which could stay open all night and was promoted as “Dunes ‘Til Dawn.”
McCann’s son John Jr., helped manage Bay Shores and the Dunes, and with the support of the Somers Point Beverage Association, was elected Mayor of the strong Republican community.
Although he moved to Pittsburgh for business purposes, he commuted to Somers Point council meeting by helicopter and private plane until he resigned and relocated permanently.
Although his daughters were enrolled in a school and his wife was active in local civic and social circles, the McCanns suddenly disappeared, vacated their home in an exclusive neighborhood, and vanished.
Then it was discovered why, as McCann was being investigated for his role in a multi-million dollar drug smuggling operation that flew tons of cocaine to the United States from Columbia. When one of the planes crashed in Mexico, McCann knew his time was up and he and his family went into hiding.
A local Somers Point man said he ran into McCann in Canada, where he was stocking shelves at a Seven Eleven style store and eventually McCann was arrested crossing the border.
Tried and convicted with one of his in-laws, McCann admitted that he imported tons of cocaine from Columbia to the United States through Panama, where his planes stopped for fuel.
When called before a Congressional Hearing McCann testified that he personally met with Noriega on more than one occasion, including the time he gave him a suitcase with $250,000 in cash in order to allow his planes to refuel without having drug sniffing dogs inspect them.
Another time he visited Noriega in his office and Noriega showed McCann his – McCann’s CIA file, and the fact that McCann was the conservative mayor of a small town in New Jersey impressed Noriega.
McCann said he later learned that some of his pilots were also moonlighting for the CIA in running guns and drugs for the Contras in Nicaragua.
While he was from Somers Point, most of McCann’s drugs went to Detroit, where his brother-in-law supervised the distribution.
As a reporter covering Somers Point at the time I received a copy of McCann’s Congressional testimony and wrote a series of stories about his disappearance from Pittsburgh, surfacing in Canada, arrest, trial and Congressional testimony.
McCann took the rap for his wife, who later married his lawyer, and McCann died of cancer while serving time in a federal prison. We had exchanged letters and I attended a memorial service that was held for him at the balcony of the Waterfront, which had been built on the location of the former Bay Shores.
When it came time to write the history of Somers Point however, the story of McCann, as well as the story of another mayor, George Roberts, who also did time, were both left out of the book.
So now I’m telling the story, so it’s on the record.