When long-time companions Vera ‘Toddie’ Hays and Florice ‘Beezie’ Bessire were offered what a relative described as a ‘trip of a lifetime’ they jumped at the chance -the two small-town American retirees had never travelled overseas before.
Toddie, 59 and Beezie, 61 had met on the assembly line of the Douglas Aircraft Company in California in 1952.
Both had served their nation during World War II – Toddie in the Women’s Army Corps, and Beezie on the top-secret Manhattan atomic bomb project.
Vera ‘Toddie’ Hays, 59, (left) and Florice ‘Beezie’ Bessire, 61, (right) were best friends from La Pine, Oregon who were duped into driving a campervan from Germany to India and smuggling 1.9 tonnes of hashish into Australia in 1977. The ‘drug grannies’ were jailed for 14 years
Toddie (left) and Beezie (right) were promised an all-expenses paid driving holiday across Europe and Asia by Toddie’s nephew Vern Todd. They are pictured covering their faces with copies of Reader’s Digest while being escorted to court in Sydney in February 1978
Not long after the breakdown in Toddie’s marriage of 12 months, the two women went 50/50 on a mortgage and bought a house in Newbury Park in Ventura County.
Theirs was a companionship based on trust, friendship and a common interest in the outdoors.
When Toddie’s 34-year-old nephew Vern Todd offered an all-expenses paid trip through Europe and Asia in a campervan the pair couldn’t resist the proposal.
Neither could have imagined the journey would also include trafficking almost two tonnes of high-quality Afghan hashish and ultimately a 14-year jail sentence in Australian jails without any provision for parole.
They would also earn a new nickname: the Drug Grannies.
So how did two upstanding senior citizens from Oregon find themselves duped into becoming drug mules, set to make Vern Todd as much as $19million if the campervan made it through the journey untouched by law enforcement?
The ‘drug grannies’ began their journey in the German city Stuttgart where a custom fit-out of a 8m-long (26 foot) Mercedes Benz diesel campervan was completed. Pictured are secret compartments containing bags of hash found inside the van when it was seized in Australia
The 1.9tonne haul of hash comprised more than 4,000 one-pound individually wrapped packages secreted along the entire length of the campervan’s floor and inside its water tank. The huge drug seizure is pictured along with Toddie and Beezie’s van in the background
The good-looking and charismatic young Todd had fallen in love with both Australia and a woman while crewing on a yacht in 1966 which sailed from Santa Monica to Australia to compete in the annual Sydney-Hobart race.
He made Sydney home and soon established himself as an actor, model and enterprising businessman. He even secured a role in Harry M. Miller’s stage production of Boys in the Band in 1968 alongside Henri Szeps.
By the early 70s, Vern was also beginning to establish himself as a significant player in the domestic marijuana trade, moving large quantities of cannabis from Griffith and north-western NSW onto the ever-growing Sydney market.
Little did the Todd family in Los Angeles know the enterprising businessman’s ‘import/export’ activities included illegal drug shipments.
Toddie and Beezie drove this Mercedes-Benz about 10,000km from Germany through Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to Turkey. The van, pictured in Turkey, was then shipped to Australia carrying hash worth about $19million
In 1977 when he appeared unannounced on Toddie and Beezie’s doorstep in La Pine, Oregon – a small lumberjack community of about 2,000 residents – Todd was warmly welcomed as the favourite nephew he had long been for Toddie.
When he told his aunt of his offer – an overland holiday driving a custom-made campervan for him 10,000km from Stuttgart in Germany to Bombay (now Mumbai), as well as a $25,000 fee – they at first balked, asking for time to consider it.
Their first concern was Suzette, their ageing poodle.
Beezie was sceptical. ‘Nobody gets a free lunch,’ she told Toddie at the time. But after mulling over the proposition, and bedding down arrangements with neighbours to care for Suzette and watch over their home, they set off for Germany in late August.
Toddie did the driving while Beezie cooked meals, conducted minor repairs and navigated. The autobahns in Germany and Austria were smooth going but the freeways gave way to roads that were eventually little more than goat tracks. Pictured is a washing line strung from the van
The women had driven their own motorhome across the US, loved fishing and hunting, and especially enjoyed a beer in the evening over a game of cards. What might seem an impossible challenge for others their age was for them an exciting adventure.
Vern told them the purpose of delivering the campervan to Bombay was so he could ship it to Australia for a production company he had started, filming documentaries ‘in the Outback’. They’d fly home from Bombay before Christmas – in good time to get their tree decorated and lights strung through the pine trees on their property.
The pair spent a fortnight in Stuttgart while the custom fit-out of the 8m-long (26 foot) Mercedes-Benz diesel campervan was completed before setting off in early September.
The route the women took was popular with backpackers and adventure seekers attracted to the cannabis cafes and hashish shops along the way. This picture was taken from the campervan as Toddie and Beezie waited in line at a Pakistan border control post
Toddie did all of the driving while Beezie navigated, cooked meals and managed minor repairs. Though at first the autobahns in Germany and Austria were smooth going for the women, the highways soon gave way to thin bitumen, potholes and what could be best described as ‘goat tracks’ as they drove through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally, India.
They were in fact traversing the hippie trail, a popular route for backpackers and adventure seekers attracted to the cannabis cafes and hashish shops.
Bandits circled their vehicle one night and nearly killed them as they pounded on the van and tried to smash through the windscreen. Beezie assembled their knives, an axe and several screwdrivers, ready to take on the bandits should they enter the van as Toddie, numb from exhaustion and the effects of a sleeping pill, mostly slept through the attack.
The foreign tourists were told by a policeman that the light in the van had saved their lives as the bandits would have been spooked by its magical and mysterious power.
Sandi Logan writes that Beezie’s natural warmth meant she made friends wherever she and Toddie drove. Beezie is pictured in the campervan with an Indian mechanic who got the pair back on the road after another breakdown in Jaipur
On another occasion the women broke down in the middle of a flooded river during the Indian monsoon season, relying on villagers, a bicycle and a rusty jeep to save them from near drowning.
By the time the women reached Bombay in mid-October, they were ready to fly home. Toddie was sick, suffering from high blood pressure, sciatic nerve pain and a cataract getting worse by the day, and Beezie had had enough.
But nephew Vern had other plans: he used an associate to threaten the women that if they didn’t continue to Australia and collect the van, they’d be hounded for the rest of their lives. The campervan was in Toddie’s name, and he said government authorities would track them down for failing to accompany the vehicle abroad.
Toddie (right) and Beezie (left) were arrested in 1978 when the massive hashish haul was landed in Melbourne. They were sentenced to 14 years in prison but let out in 1983. The pair is pictured celebrating their freedom after returning to their mobile home in La Pine, Oregon
Notwithstanding an uneasy feeling Beezie had about Todd’s real intentions, the women flew onto Australia to await the campervan’s arrival by sea in mid-December.
Unbeknownst to them, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was also waiting for the campervan, having assembled more than a dozen undercover agents and numerous surveillance teams under the code name Operation Genius.
Betrayed by Sandi Logan is published by Hachette Australia and available here in paperback, e-book and audiobook
As the women signed the campervan into Australia with Customs officers at the Melbourne docks their fate was now sealed; it was only a matter of time before they’d be arrested.
Inspector Bob Drane and Agent Michele Khoury went undercover to befriend the Americans, posing as a holidaying couple who kept bumping into the women at various caravan parks, clubs and even a laundromat once during the six-week Australian ‘vacation’.
They were surprised by how cool and seemingly unaware the Americans were of their valuable load. It was hoped a dragnet involving unmarked cars, motorcycles, an Army chopper, and listening and tracking devices would eventually lead them to their number one target: Vern Todd.
By mid-January as the narcs were ready to pounce on Todd, he suddenly vanished from his John Street, Woollahra business. Many narcotics agents believe Todd was tipped off, such were his connections and the extensive corruption at the time in Sydney’s political, law enforcement and legal circles.
That left Toddie and Beezie as the only suspects the narcotics agents could arrest for the massive hashish importation which weighed in at 1.9tonnes. The haul comprised more than 4,000 one-pound individually wrapped packages secreted along the entire length of the campervan’s floor and inside its water tank.
Beezie (left) and Toddie (right) retreated into themselves and their Christian faith while in custody, serving time at three NSW jails: Mulawa, Tomago and the Norma Parker Centre in Parramatta. The pair welcomed a chance to ‘dress up’ for their weekend evening meals
On publicly funded legal advice, the pair pleaded guilty, expecting – but not promised nor negotiated – that as American foreigners and first time offenders their sentence would be shortly followed by a deportation order.
They had also given the Narcotics Bureau enough information for them to issue arrest warrants for Todd and his associates.
Instead, Judge Staunton threw the book at Toddie and Beezie, sentencing them to 14 years’ imprisonment with no non-parole period whatsoever: a death sentence in any other language.
At Mulawa women’s prison the women witnessed bashings, drug overdoses and rapes. A knife was thrown at Toddie by prisoners who believed she had snitched on them. She is pictured at Christmas during one of her frequent trips to hospital for eye surgery
Shocked and traumatised by the unexpectedly harsh sentence, they retreated into themselves and their Christian faith, serving their sentence at three NSW prisons: Mulawa, Tomago and the Norma Parker Centre in Parramatta.
Mulawa was their worst experience where they witnessed bashings, drug overdoses, rapes, scalding water attacks and even a knife once thrown at Toddie by prisoners who believed she had snitched on them.
They were the oldest female prisoners in the NSW system, and quickly gained the respect of prison officers who relied on them to mentor young prisoners, protect first-timers from attacks by hardened crims and act as canaries in the coalmine when trouble was brewing.
The change of government in March 1983, which brought Bob Hawke to power and a new Attorney-General in Senator Gareth Evans, gave life to the prospect of an early release from jail.
Beezie (second from left) and Toddie (second from right) are pictured enjoying a break at the Norma Parker Centre in Parramatta with three of the officers who guarded them including Deputy Superintendent Shirley Goodfellow (far right)
After more than five years’ incarceration, Toddie and Beezie returned to the US to live out the remainder of their lives. They never set eyes on Vern, nor spoke to him ever again. They never received their ‘fee’ for driving the campervan from Stuttgart to Bombay.
Hash kingpin Vern Todd vanished into thin air – likely escaping first to Europe and then to South America for several years, before adopting an alias, and returning to his birthplace of Los Angeles.
The wife and two children Vern Todd abandoned in Australia when he fled remain down under to this day.
Betrayed: The incredible untold inside story of the two most unlikely drug-running grannies in Australian history, by Sandi Logan, is published by Hachette Australia and available in paperback, e-book and audiobook from here now.
Toddie (left) is pictured with Beezie and the man who has written their story Sandi Logan at the pair’s mobile home shortly after their return to La Pine, Oregon