A Carefully Constructed Li(f)e

Tim Brown seemed like a typical Florida retiree: He loved doting on his wife, fishing with friends, and flying his plane. But his life was built on a secret.

Photo of Howard Farley Jr. Courtesy of the The Atavist Magazine.

Greg Donahue |  The Atavist Magazine | May 2022 | 8 minutes (2,274 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist’s issue no. 127, “The Fugitive Next Door.”

 

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On the morning of December 2, 2020, Tim Brown got up early to start a fire. The night before, an unseasonable cold front had descended on Love’s Landing, Florida, where Brown lived with his wife, Duc Hanh Thi Vu. By 8 a.m., the mercury in the thermometer had yet to reach 40 degrees. At the bottom of the cul-de-sac where the couple lived, a thin layer of frost glistened on the long grass runways that extended through the quiet neighborhood: Love’s Landing is a private aviation community, home to pilots, plane engineers, and flying enthusiasts.

As heat from the fireplace warmed the house, Brown headed to the small hangar he’d built right outside. Nearly everyone in Love’s Landing owned a plane, and Brown was no exception. He’d just had the engine of his gleaming Tecnam P2008 replaced, and despite the chill in the air, the morning was shaping up to be calm and clear. Perfect weather to take the plane up.

A carpenter by trade, Brown had spent much of his life enjoying the outdoors. In his younger days, he was an expert scuba diver and deep-sea fisherman. But now, at 66, his age had finally caught up with him. His close-cropped hair had gone gray, and health issues had him in and out of the hospital. During the past year alone, he’d suffered two heart attacks. Flying offered the chance, as Brown put it, “to continue the fun.” He’d fallen in love with aviation years earlier, after taking a charter trip with friends in Alaska. Flying sure beat staring at the trees on either side of the road, he said. This was the kind of enthusiastic attitude that made Brown popular in Love’s Landing. Soon after moving there in 2017, he and Vu became, as a neighbor put it, “one of the best-liked couples in the airpark.”

Brown had just raised the hangar door when an unmarked Dodge Durango roared into the driveway, along with a Marion County police cruiser. As Brown turned toward the commotion, a law enforcement agent in a tactical vest leapt out of the SUV. He was pointing an MK18 short-barreled automatic rifle at Brown’s face. “Step back! Raise your hands!” the agent shouted.

Brown did as he was told. Officers from a half-dozen federal agencies were fanning out across the property. “Are you Tim Brown?” the lead officer demanded as he approached the hangar. Brown nodded. “I’ve got a warrant for your arrest,” the officer said. Agents moved in formation to clear the hangar and headed toward the main house to execute a search warrant.

Brown’s neighbors would later recount their confusion at the fleet of official vehicles facing every which way in the street. No one knew what Brown had done. But whatever they imagined, the truth was almost certainly stranger.

For the previous 35 years, Tim Brown had been living a carefully constructed lie. He wasn’t just an aging retiree with a passion for aviation. In fact, he wasn’t Tim Brown at all. His real name was Howard Farley Jr., and law enforcement alleged that he’d been the leader of one of the largest drug-trafficking rings in Nebraska history.

As he was placed under arrest, a wry grin spread across his face. “I had mentally prepared myself for being caught,” he would later say. “When it happened, with men pointing guns at me, the only thing to do was smile.”


PART ONE

Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Howard Farley was what you might call a gearhead: a blue-collar kid with a knack for the mechanical. He was born in 1948, the fourth of five children, and spent much of his youth honing his engineering skills. He built award-winning model cars and a playhouse for his hamsters dubbed the Sugar Shack. Later, he crafted an RV out of an old school bus.

Boyishly handsome, with a wide Leave It to Beaver grin and prominent ears, Farley was popular in school and had a roguish quality that endeared him to most everyone he met. He was also restless. Life at home was complicated. When he was in his early teens, his mother abandoned the family, and Farley’s father was stuck with a house full of kids. Farley was devastated. “It left a profound loss of motherly love and guidance during critical teenage and adult years,” his elder sister Beverly later wrote.

In high school, Farley fell in with a rebellious crowd. “Mine were more the fun-loving guys that rode their motorcycles to school, dated the cheerleaders, and had keg parties on the weekends,” he said. When friends came to visit him at the grocery store where he sometimes worked, he would bag up steak after steak without ringing them up. “He always had a bit of a hustle,” said one friend, intending it as a compliment.

In September 1965, Farley experienced his first brush with the law. Like a lot of Midwestern kids his age he liked cars, and in those days the best place for cruising was Dodge Street in Omaha. A generation of Nebraska youth spent their evenings making the loop between Tiner’s Drive-In on 44th and Todd’s on 77th, showing off their rides and gorging themselves on 65-cent burgers. Sometimes they staged drag races. When police arrived on one such occasion, Farley attempted to flee, driving at nearly 100 miles per hour. His date in the passenger seat begged him to stop. In the ensuing chase, police fired on Farley’s car, and a bullet hit the girl in the jaw. Farley was quickly arrested. His license was suspended, and he was sentenced to a year of probation. The girl survived, and later sued Farley for $25,000 dollars. He was 16 years old.

Farley got his act together enough to capitalize on his mechanical abilities—soon after he graduated high school, he was hired full-time at the sprawling Burlington Northern rail yards. In those days, rail work paid well. Engineers earned an annual salary of about $30,000, or $160,000 today. For Farley, the money must have felt like a dream. He quickly moved up the ladder at work. Before long he was driving trains from Lincoln to Sioux City and Creston, Iowa. The hours were long and tedious, but he was a natural. “He was built for it,” said Tyrone Baskin, a friend from high school who also worked the rails.

Farley fathered a child with Christine Schleis, a high school girlfriend, and married her. Their union was rocky from the beginning. “We were not a good match,” Schleis said. “It was just something that happened. You got pregnant, you got married. There was no question.” Schleis came from a cultured, well-traveled family. It was a world apart from Farley’s upbringing.

The couple named their daughter Amy—three letters in honor of her three-pound birth weight. While Schleis stayed home with the baby, Farley took up skydiving and partied hard. In 1969, he and another man were arrested for burglarizing a local carpeting business. It’s unclear what role Farley played in the crime; the charges were later reduced to accessory after the fact. Eventually, Farley became disillusioned with life in Lincoln. He took a job with a railroad company in Alaska, leaving behind his wife and daughter. By 1970, he and Schleis were ready to file for divorce.

Over the next 15 years, Farley divided his time between Alaska, Washington, and Florida, where he lived when he wasn’t working the rails up north. He married again, got another divorce. Occasionally, family drama drew him back to Nebraska, but he never stayed long. “He was an adrenaline junkie,” said an old friend. “I don’t think that changed.”

Perhaps he saw drug trafficking as an outlet for his restlessness. According to a source who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, Farley was introduced to a man who had experience in the drug trade. The man explained to Farley that someone who traveled as frequently as he did could make a fortune—all he had to do was bring drugs along on his trips. “That’s how Howard found out what to do and how to do it,” the source told me.

By the early 1980s, Farley had quit the railroad business and relocated to Lake Worth, Florida, a beach town about 60 miles north of Miami. He told Baskin, his high school friend, that he’d saved $30,000 dollars and was going to “go for it,” investing the money in a shipment of cocaine and flipping it for big bucks. There was no better place than Florida to put his new plan into action. It was the height of the Miami Vice–era drug boom, and Farley had little trouble finding himself a supplier. “I think an opportunity just presented itself, and he jumped on it and made the most out of it,” Baskin said.

Farley started ferrying drugs to contacts in Nebraska and Alaska. In the beginning it was a largely insular affair; he was mostly supplying former coworkers and friends— “single railroaders making a lot of money,” as one of Farley’s Nebraska customers put it. Sometimes, Farley asked friends to mail packages of coke using FedEx and kept his fingers crossed that they’d reach their destination undetected. Other times he brought the drugs with him on a plane—he booked super-saver flights to keep costs down. At least twice, according to Baskin, Farley drove his Saab from Florida to Alaska and back again, stopping in Lincoln along the way north. “He probably left some [drugs] with people to distribute here,” Baskin said. “Then he’d take what was left and transport it on to Alaska.”

Before long, Farley was laying over in Lincoln with larger and larger amounts of blow. It was the tail end of the disco era, and demand was high. But Farley wasn’t dealing grams to strangers in the bar. He sought out distribution partners among friends and family, people he could trust. His sister Mary, who at one time sold lingerie and sex toys, and her husband, Gerry Machado, got involved. According to prosecutors, Farley used their house in Lincoln for storage and sales. High school friends joined in. Among them were Baskin, Robert Frame, and John Kahler, all Vietnam War veterans who had returned from combat with varying degrees of drug addiction. Farley taught them how to cut the high-grade coke he brought from Florida with inositol, a type of sugar, to increase the volume and make more money selling it. His friends gave Farley his cut of sales whenever he was in town “He didn’t take chances,” said Baskin. “He made sure he knew the people he dealt with or they had been friends a long time.”

Farley wasn’t the only person supplying drugs in Lincoln. Coke dealing had become a cottage industry among hard-partying railroaders. Clyde Meyer, a Burlington Northern engineer, ran an operation out of his house on the city’s west side. Like Farley, Meyer had started small. “I think he slowly got into it and then got too deep,” said Colleen Nuss, whose boyfriend once lived in a spare room at Meyer’s house. Nuss was a teenager at the time. “I remember going there one night just to get a little bit of pot and there were drugs and women,” Nuss recalled. Unlike Farley’s supply, Meyer’s coke came from Colorado, but users didn’t care about a product’s origin once it hit the street.

By 1984, Farley’s efforts had paid off in a big way. An acquaintance who asked not to be named remembered going to Farley’s mother’s house and seeing bricks of cocaine piled high in a closet. “He was definitely worth seven figures by that time, easily,” the person said. Another friend remembered Farley stashing wads of cash in safe-deposit boxes across south Florida. Court records have him receiving payments of $80,000 or $100,000 in a single go.

Still in his early thirties, Farley had found a quick way to fund the adventurous life he’d always dreamed of, and he had done it on his own terms. He wasn’t flashy or aggressive. In fact, he appeared to take a generally relaxed approach to the drug trade. “There was no viciousness there,” Nuss said. Farley and his crew “were just super mellow, like hippies.”

In Florida, Farley took up watersports; he turned out to be a talented diver and fisherman. He partied at Harry’s Banana Farm, a legendary dive in Lake Worth. He talked about going legit. He wanted to buy a boat and start a business chartering passengers around Florida and the Caribbean.

But Farley also began planning for a different kind of future. In 1982, he filed an application for a Social Security number in the name of Timothy Terry Brown, a three-month-old child who had died after a short illness in January 1955. Farley found the name while looking through microfilm of old newspapers at the library. The idea of taking a dead child’s identity was less risky than it sounds. People born in the 1950s often waited until they were in their teens or early twenties before applying for a Social Security number. Farley’s fraudulent application was submitted nearly 30 years after Brown’s birth, but that didn’t seem to bother a likely overworked civil servant. After the Social Security card arrived in the mail, Farley acquired a Florida driver’s license, a birth certificate, and a passport in Brown’s name.

It’s unclear whether Farley sensed trouble ahead or was just being prudent. Either way, he was attuned to the risks that his line of work entailed. In a few years, he had become one of Lincoln’s major drug suppliers. It was only a matter of time before law enforcement took notice.

Read the full story at The Atavist.