The true story of Barry Seal – the man dubbed the ‘most important’ drugs informant in US history – is wowing cinema-goers worldwide in the Tom Cruise blockbuster American Made.
And with three Colombian hitmen jailed over his murder in 1986, it would seem that the narrative over the notorious airman’s life and death is complete.
But the one person who knew Seal best – his widow Debbie – has revealed she is still haunted by doubts over who ordered his death, which came in a hail of bullets in Louisiana in 1986.
The 280lb airman dubbed ‘El Gordo’ – Spanish for The Fat Man – had made millions of dollars flying almost 60 tons of cocaine into the US during the 1970s and 1980s before turning federal informant.
In the years that followed his fatal shooting, conspiracy theories and misinformation from the US government have prompted skepticism, despite life sentences for a trio of cartel members later caught in New Orleans.
Debbie, the wife of Barry Seal who was named the ‘most important’ drugs informant in US history, revealed she has doubts over who ordered the death of her husband. Pictured: Barry and Debbie in 1981 with their children. At the time he was smuggling drugs from Colombia for the Medellin cartel with US authorities in complete ignorance
Seal’s real-life story has recently been brought to the silver screen in American Made, with the 280lb pilot played by a slim Tom Cruise (pictured in a still from the film)
Seal was a professional pilot who had worked for TWA (he is pictured in their uniform in 1965) to fulfill his childhood dreams and been one of their youngest captains. He made a fortune drug-smuggling then turned federal informer
‘There are many avenues to go down,’ said Debbie, 65, who remains anguished and in search of answers decades later.
‘There are many people that Barry associated with who had means and motives to have him killed.
‘Although I know who pulled the trigger I’m not 100 percent sure I know who was behind it.
‘The movie has made no difference to me in terms of the questions I have over his death and about who was behind the assassination.’
Despite her ongoing torment, Seal’s widow had been eager for her chance to see the big budget crime thriller and went to watch it with the entire family on the first Friday of its US release.
She told how the film itself became a blur, as her mind was forced to recall a lifetime of memories, ranging from deliriously happy to devastatingly sad.
She said: ‘I went to watch it with my whole family and we all sat through it together. I had not seen the script so I knew I was going to be as surprised as anyone else.
‘Of course, the kids were asking me at different parts ‘Is that what happened mom?’
‘But honestly, I was watching but my mind just was going back in time, to my life with my husband.
‘The tears were falling down my face and I was particularly anxious to see how they would handle the murder itself.’
Debbie Seal pictured before her husband’s death on board a private plane with him. She remains anguished and in search of answers of her husband’s murder. Seal was gunned down by several Colombian hitmen in 1986
At 280lb Barry Seal (left) did not have an obvious resemblance to Tom Cruise (right, on set)
Debbie continued: ‘I didn’t know if I would see his head explode, because he did take a lot of bullets to the head and I was dreading that scene, but it was downplayed which was a relief.
‘That would have been the most difficult thing to watch. That really would have been hard.
‘Once I was out of the theater I actually didn’t remember anything about the movie, so I re-watched it later on to understand it a bit better.’
Most people would be thrilled if not honored to have their personal story brought to life by Cruise, who returns to his Top Gun-style antics in the movie.
But Debbie says her late husband had already handpicked a less prolific, although extremely accomplished, artist for the job – ‘Misery’ star James Caan.
Debbie said: ‘He’d be happy that there’s a movie of his life. In fact about a year before his death we talked about having a movie made about him and he had chosen the lead – James Caan. So I guess that tells you how he saw himself!’
However, the A-lister’s signing ultimately got a thumbs up from Debbie, as well as Kentucky-born blonde Sarah Wright, who plays her own role under the name Lucy.
‘I think Mr Cruise did a fine job of playing my husband,’ she added.
‘He was every bit as charming and charismatic. He had that same twinkle in his eyes, that same hundred-watt smile.’
Barry Seal with his son Dean on board a plane around 1985. He was nicknamed ‘El Gordo’, The Fat Man, by his drug contacts. But he was murdered after a price was put on his head for turning federal witness
Debbie Seal insists she knew nothing about what Barry was doing. ‘I trusted him so I didn’t ask questions. We lived in a nice upscale life but we weren’t billionaires,’ she says
She said: ‘I thought Sarah Wright was lovely, but on one of the scenes where she was yelling at Barry and swinging at him, I thought to myself “that’s not me”.
‘That would have never happened. I don’t think I was ever angry with my husband like that.
‘Barry was very good looking. He had a beautiful smile just as Tom Cruise does.
‘And Sarah is very beautiful. I had asked them if they could make her brunette like me, but I like that choice.’
The film based on Seal’s life has been lauded as a return to form for Cruise and has so far grossed $112.1 million worldwide.
A naturally gifted pilot and adventure-seeker, Seal gained his aviator’s license as a 16-year-old in Louisiana and initially made a living by towing advertising banners.
After stints in the National Guard and Army Reserve, he joined TWA in 1968 as a flight engineer, before becoming one of the youngest command pilots in the entire fleet, aged 26.
It was in the mid-1970s that Seal – apparently bored with his routine and in search of excitement – got involved in smuggling drugs and became entwined with the notorious Medellin Cartel led by gangster Pablo Escobar.
Barry Seal performs a wheelie on a motorbike near home as his two sons watch. The film based on Seal’s life has been lauded as a return to form for Cruise and has so far grossed $112.1 million worldwide, as of late October
It was in the mid-1970s that Seal – apparently bored with his routine and in search of excitement – got involved in smuggling drugs and became entwined with the notorious Medellin Cartel led by gangster Pablo Escobar (left) and with Jorga Luis Ochoa (right in hat), the two leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel
Then vice-president George H W Bush was in charge of the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. Barry Seal became the best informer they ever had, telling them of the Medellin cartel, of which the DEA was completely ignorant
Seal became the first American to see the inner workings of the powerful operation, and in an effort to – literally – fly under the radar, Seal uprooted his own set-up from his home state to an anonymous airstrip in Mena, rural Arkansas.
Rumors suggest he was also using this as a base from which to fly guns to Nicaraguan rebels for the CIA.
For the next few years, he ferried shipments of between 600 – 1,200lbs of cocaine each worth billions of dollars into the US during hundreds of flights.
He would flirt with bold techniques like flying at night with night-vision goggles, swamp airdrops and bribing officials.
‘Barry was a complete adrenaline junkie,’ recalled Debbie, who was a wide-eyed 21-year-old restaurant worker when she first met the handsome Seal, then 33.
She added: ‘He loved the thrill of the chase and outsmarting the authorities.’
But he wasn’t invincible.
In 1983, Seal was busted trying to smuggle 200,000 units of recreational drug Quaalude – notoriously used, according to a string of women, by Bill Cosby before sex assaults – into the US through Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and faced decades behind bars.
Desperate to avoid prison, he cut a deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which was battling the cocaine explosion of the 1980s.
He agreed to help incriminate bigger players and was soon involved in a sting operation to fly his plane – equipped with CIA cameras on board – into an airstrip in Nicaragua.
The surveillance gear captured Escobar and his gang loading cocaine onto his plane, called the ‘The Fat Lady’, alongside Nicaraguan soldiers.
At the time, President Ronald Reagan was keen for a local militia – the Contras – to overthrow the revolutionary government running the Central American country.
Seal had claimed the Sandinistas had made a deal with the cartel, which, if proven, could pave the way for the US to support the Contras.
Seal’s undercover work was crucial in solving several pivotal cases for the DEA, but his risk-laden mission in Nicaragua would eventually lead to his downfall.
When Seal turned informer, the DEA had no idea of the scale of Colombian activity or the existence of the Medellin cartel, run by gangster Pablo Escobar (pictured)
Seal’s undercover work was crucial in solving several pivotal cases for the DEA, but his risk-laden mission in Nicaragua would eventually lead to his downfall. Pictured: Cruise in the film
When a leak led to his identity as a government agent being revealed in a local newspaper, Seal was cut loose by the DEA and left extremely vulnerable – and never afforded the witness protection many believed he deserved.
He was soon arrested on another drug smuggling indictment and given six months probation, during which time he was ordered to spend nights at a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge.
It was here that an 11-strong gang of Colombian assassins lay in wait for him, shortly before 6pm on February 19, 1986.
A witness sitting in a coffee shop across the road described how Seal slumped with his head at the wheel of his car after the gang opened fire when he pulled up. Seven of the .45-caliber bullets hit Seal in the chest, neck and head.
Surprisingly, Debbie’s doubts over the true identity of her husband’s killer center on claims made by one of the gunmen himself after she reached out to him behind bars.
After establishing an unlikely bond in a series of telephone calls, the hitman implied Debbie may be surprised by who really issued the order – a claim she suspects could be a genuine ‘deathbed confession’.
Just as their chats got interesting – with Debbie believing there may be some truth to the conspiracy theories – prison officials abruptly cut off their contact.
A court order had forced Barry Seal to work at this Salvation Army halfway house every day for six months. It meant that when a price was put on his head, hitmen knew exactly where and when to find him
Barry Seal’s final resting place says that he was ‘A rebel adventurer the likes of whom in previous days made American great’. But his widow says she still does not know the full truth of his death
To this day, she remains bitter over the US government’s treatment of her husband, who officials preciously described as the ‘most important’ witness in the DEA’s history.
‘He didn’t stand a chance,’ recalled Debbie. ‘He was a sitting duck – the hitmen knew exactly where and when to find him.’
She added: ‘It would have been more merciful to have killed us all that day. But I still want to know the truth.’
Life for Debbie and her three grown up children Aaron, 41, Dean, 40 and 39-year-old Christina, is firmly away from the spotlight these days, and that’s how she wants it to stay.
Although the millions of dollars her husband made from his dealings are believed to be gone, rumors keep swirling that the family may have access to it. Debbie, who leads a modest life, denies this.
Hollywood executives paid an undisclosed sum for Barry’s life story rights.
Inevitably, the film’s release puts the family back in the headlines – a prospect Debbie does not relish.
‘I’m worried that people might come out of the woodwork, I don’t like attention on me,’ she said. ‘But I’m not on social media, so I don’t expose myself a lot. I’m very private.
‘I’m frankly not too excited about it. I don’t like my life out there in public. I live a pretty secluded life.’