This story was first published in The Southampton Press and 27east.com.
It was a legendary North Fork story that Grant Parpan had heard about for years — a tale of intrigue involving a pillar of the community who left town one day with a boat-load of cash and a major secret.
William LaMorte, aka “Bunky,” was an upstanding Southold citizen known for his generosity to others. A millionaire who owned a chain of Key Food grocery stores across Long Island, everyone knew who he was on the North Fork in the 1970s and ’80s.
“He was a gregarious guy with a big lifestyle — a Rolls Royce, helicopter, a yacht — he threw his money around a lot in Southold,” explained Parpan, who is the content director for Times-Review Media Group on the North Fork. “When a cop got shot in the face outside one of his stores, he held a lavish fundraiser with Grucci fireworks.”
Then, in 1986, LaMorte quietly sold his house and his business and moved his family to Greenwich, Connecticut. It was there, two years later, that DEA agents finally caught up to LaMorte and arrested him.
It turns out that LaMorte was one of America’s most prolific pot smugglers. Between 1970 and 1985, it’s estimated that he brought some 120 tons of marijuana and hash into the U.S. Much of it came through the North Fork, unloaded from small boats that ferried it across Gardiners Bay after connecting with larger ships offshore — just like the bootleggers had transported booze a generation earlier.
In 1990, LaMorte received a prison sentence of 50 years for his drug crimes. Though he died in prison in 2007 at the age of 60, Parpan feels there’s a lot more of the story to tell. Now, he is in the process of doing just that by turning the tale of William LaMorte’s North Fork drug crimes into “Suburban Smuggler,” a multi-part podcast series he plans to launch this winter.
Though LaMorte himself has died, Parpan notes there are still other players out there to fill in the details, and, he hopes, with time, that his podcast will encourage them to step forward and share their side of the story.
“Over the years, I heard a lot about this guy,” said Parpan who has been compiling components of the LaMorte story on and off for the last several years. “But things happened to put it on the front burner. Three of LaMorte’s co-defendants fled the country. Two years ago, one of them, Jake Moritz, was found crossing the border back into the U.S. from Canada, and he was busted after 29 years.
“I went into the city and covered the outcome of his case, he was given time served and walked,” said Parpan. “I thought this is interesting, but they were smuggling pot, it’s not that big a deal now. And as I’m making this podcast, it’s been legalized in New York.
“So I’m doing the research, doing interviews here or there. But how do I package it?” he wondered.
“I thought, this would be a good story in audio form.”
Parpan has produced podcasts for Suffolk Times in recent years, and he had heard about the Audio Podcast Fellows Program which was developed by Stony Brook Southampton Graduate Arts and launched in 2018. So he decided to enroll in the Southampton program in the fall of 2020 in order to take the story of William LaMorte to the next level and turn it into a multi-part, true-crime podcast series.
“I felt like I had abilities, but this gave me the forum and forced me to sit down and do things a certain way,” said Parpan, one of 16 fellows in the Stony Brook program last year. “I did every assignment to the best of my ability and the feedback from [the instructors] and the other fellows — whether it was good, or bad, or questioning things — was helpful.”
Stony Brook University’s podcasting program runs a full academic year and is typically offered in-person at both the Southampton campus and the Manhattan campus on 8th Avenue. But COVID-19 changed all that and in fall 2020, the program went fully virtual with students meeting each other, instructors and special guests by Zoom.
But even though in-person interaction was impossible, the program allowed Parpan to find exposure with a wide audience thanks to the other podcast fellows with whom he could share his ideas and test recordings.
“The program is particularly diverse. In an industry filled with middle-aged white men, I was the only middle-aged white man there,” Parpan said. “Some of the younger fellows questioned that early on and addressed that. An African American woman in one class asked right away ‘Is this guy white?’ Because a lot of criminal justice shows are about Black defendants.”
The input encouraged Parpan to explore the addition of an element to the podcast which covers LaMorte’s trial, drawing a parallel between drug cases involving Black vs. white defendants.
“It’s like having a built-in focus group of people who see the world different than me. They give me feedback before anyone else hears it,” Parpan said. “In today’s world, you can’t get away with much. You’ve got to check these boxes and not be blind to something in the story.”
In the coming months, Parpan’s plan is to launch “Suburban Smuggler” with possibly six episodes. The first is 45-minutes long and it sets up the story of LaMorte, revealing what has long been known of the case.
“The second episode is how the money was laundered and where the drugs came from and the people who lived that life with him,” Parpan explained. “A lot of these guys testified against him.”
One of the key elements that has made it possible for Parpan to tell William LaMorte’s story is the fact that prior to his death, LaMorte sat down and recorded an interview with Troy Gustavson, former publisher of the Times-Review Media Group.
“Troy always had a fascination with LaMorte and interviewed him in prison in 1997, after he had been there for five years,” Parpan recalled. “One day, Troy called me and said he found the tapes of the interview.”
If they want to find out exactly what LaMorte had to say in those tapes, listeners will just have to tune in to Parpan’s podcast once it launches in the coming months.
Sag Harbor’s Kathie Russo is the co-director of the Stony Brook Audio Podcast Fellows Program. She knows quite a bit about the business and is the producer of several high-profile podcasts herself, including Hillary Clinton’s “You and Me Both” and Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing.” After taking part in the program, she feels that Parpan is well on his way to launching a successful true-crime podcast.
“It’s so well written and he made great use of sound effects. He’s really adept at it and he’s got it down,” Russo said of Parpan. “The feedback they get from the fellow students is so helpful and really constructive. This is a guy with a job and two kids, he’s got a lot on his plate and he did it and was really driven.
“We’ve got a lot of talented students, they’re really making good podcasts,” Russo added. “I’d say a quarter of them have what it takes. We had a close knit group. Our Zoom meetings gave them something to look forward to twice a week. Some of them are getting jobs now, which is fantastic.”
Russo admits that given the uncertainty of COVID-19, 2020 was a time of pivoting, both for the podcast fellows and the Stony Brook staff. In the past year and a half, Russo, along with her co-director Tony Dec, technical advisor Frank Imperiale and a slate of professors and special guests who round out the instruction staff in the city, have had to figure out how to maneuver with their students in a complicated and ever-changing environment.
“I commend ourselves for doing the program online for the last year,” said Russo. “Technical stuff is hard to do remote.”
With students now having taken part from as far away as Nigeria, Alaska and France, Russo and her team have gained a new understanding of just how far the podcast program can reach. For that reason, the fall 2021 podcast fellows session, which recently got underway, is being presented with a new plan in place. This time around, Russo notes the program is being offered in-person at the both Manhattan and Southampton campuses largely with remote guest speakers. But students can also opt to be fully remote at half the program cost, and among the new fellows taking part are two living overseas — one in England, another in Australia.
For his part, now that he’s completed the podcast program, in the coming months Parpan will be working to finish the first episodes of “Suburban Smuggler,” packaging them and launching the series. Rather than dropping all the episodes in rapid succession, his current plan is to release episodes over several months, with the hope that, as the story gains traction, more sources will come forward to take part.
“I love the freedom of podcasting. I’m expecting it to be six episodes, but I’m not totally married to the number,” said Parpan. “It could be five or seven or eight — I may find more material.
“I love that about podcasts. Why does a podcast need to end?” he added. “I hope the people who knew [LaMorte] or hear the podcast will want to talk. I know this is fair to him. I want to share a complete picture, so I’m hoping they will talk.”
To learn more about Stony Brook University’s Audio Podcast Fellows Program, visit podcastfellows.org.