Randy Dyer learned last week that President Obama had granted him a pardon 35 years after Dyer was locked up for his role in a smuggling ring that brought hashish from The Netherlands to Seattle. The 63-year-old Burien man, who says he found Jesus in jail and has spent the last 30 years ministering to...

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Randy Dyer, owner of Christian Brothers Flooring, pulled up to a job on Ballard Avenue at 8 a.m. last Friday. Before he could jump from his van and begin work installing hardwood floors, his cellphone rang.

On the line was a woman from Washington, D.C., who told Dyer that President Obama had granted him a pardon 35 years after Dyer was locked up for his role in a smuggling ring that brought hashish from The Netherlands to Seattle.

“I became emotional. This is something that happened almost 40 years ago,” Dyer said Wednesday, seated in the living room of the Burien home he shares with his wife, Karla, and their daughters, Hilary, 26, and Meridith, 23.

Dyer, a wiry 63-year-old with graying cropped hair and intense blue eyes, said Jesus forgave him for his crimes decades ago. Still, he choked up when he learned Obama had, in essence, forgiven him, too.

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“The president represents the United States of America and millions of people and he is saying, ‘We see what you’ve done with your life and we feel you are worthy of being forgiven,’ ” Dyer said. “The president of the United States has acknowledged my life is not just chatter.”

While the president’s pardon does not erase Dyer’s criminal record, it recognizes that Dyer has taken responsibility and atoned for his crimes and has demonstrated that he has led a responsible, productive life over the past three decades.

The White House does not comment on pardons or explain why they are granted or denied.

The fact Dyer was in Ballard when he heard news of his pardon could be considered divinely fitting: Long before he started preaching to inmates in jails and prisons across the state, Dyer was “a wannabe gangster” roaming the rough and tumble streets of blue-collar Ballard in the 1960s.

Crime at an early age

He started drinking and smoking “rum-soaked crooks” — or cigars — at age 12. When he was 15, he was arrested by the FBI for stealing a car and driving it to Idaho.

By 18, he’d been arrested six times for alcohol-related offenses and was classified by police as an “ACD — a common drunk,” he said. “I had three federal felonies by the time I got out of high school.”

In those days, Dyer’s heroes were Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, sometimes considered the father of organized crime in America.

In his early 20s, Dyer began bringing kilos of marijuana from Nogales, Mexico, to Seattle — sometimes packed in suitcases and loaded onto airplanes, other times hidden in secret compartments built beneath the floorboards of trucks.

A drug dealer in Nogales, who had a connection in Amsterdam, approached Dyer about a plan to smuggle hashish, which Dyer and his pals bankrolled.

In 1971, Dyer made his first trip to Amsterdam. Once there, he took a suitcase full of hash to the airport for the return trip to Seattle.

“In those days, you could ship your bag” without boarding a plane or even attaching a name tag to luggage, he said. The bag arrived in Seattle and one of three skycaps involved in the conspiracy picked it up.

In August 1972, one of Dyer’s cohorts phoned in a bomb threat against a United Airlines flight, creating a diversion to lure Customs officials to another airline while the hashish was taken from a storage area at Sea-Tac Airport. Two other men then took two suitcases filled with hashish from Customs officials at gunpoint.

Dyer was ultimately convicted in May 1975 of conspiracy to import marijuana (hashish), conspiracy to remove baggage from the custody and control of the U.S. Customs Service and conveying false information concerning an attempt to damage a civil aircraft.

While awaiting trial in federal court, Dyer was locked up in the King County Jail. He’d been there only a couple of days when he noticed a man carrying a book.

“I see this person that to me, he was different. He was at peace. He was placid,” Dyer recalled. “It’s real easy to recognize that when all the other guys weren’t. They’re anxious, they’re gaming on one another, telling you how bad they are.”

The man’s name was Bill Salsinger. He told Dyer he’d fled Florida, where he faced a marijuana-possession charge. But the FBI had caught him in Seattle and he was headed back to Florida to do his time.

“He told me about Jesus and said that Jesus was the way to God. It was like a light went on,” Dyer said. “I asked if I could read his book and he gave me his Bible.

“I got what they call ‘jailhouse religion,’ ” said Dyer, who credits Salsinger with introducing him to the faith.

Reached Thursday at his home in Gulfport, Fla., Salsinger, 67, initially didn’t remember Dyer.

But hearing the story about his Bible sparked his memory: “I remember he was just kind of a lost-soul kid. I just shared what I knew of the word and he really took it to heart.

“I often wondered what happened to that kid,” he said of Dyer. “… Give him my best regards.”

Dyer served three years of a five-year sentence and was released from the former federal prison on McNeil Island in 1978.

The following year, Dyer returned to McNeil Island, not as a prisoner but as part of a ministry group. He’s spent 30 years preaching to inmates at state prisons in Monroe, Walla Walla and Aberdeen.

He now visits the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent every Thursday to share the gospel with inmates there.

Time to revisit

Years ago, Dyer petitioned the state and regained his right to vote. Sometime in the 1990s, he said, his wife broached the subject of a presidential pardon.

The couple began compiling the paperwork needed to apply “but we were so embarrassed by (President) Clinton that we decided not to send in the paperwork,” Karla said, referring to Clinton’s controversial decision to pardon 140 people the day before he left office in January 2001, including his half-brother, Roger Clinton.

Life got busy after that, so they put it aside for a time. But in 2004, Dyer and his wife decided to revisit the issue and filed the necessary paperwork.

Seeking a pardon is a grueling process and requires an applicant to document “every place you’ve worked, every place you’ve lived, all your personal activities” and the people who surround you, including friends and business contacts, Karla said.

More than 100 people signed affidavits on Dyer’s behalf, attesting to his character. The FBI interviewed the couple, along with several of their relatives, friends and work associates.

In August 2008, Karla said, they received a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle saying their petition had been approved locally and was being sent to Washington, D.C. They didn’t hear anything more about it until last Friday.

“I think because I’m involved in prison ministry, it will mean something to other people that God has given me this gift from the president of the United States,” Dyer said. “… Not everybody gets a pardon from the president. He’ll be glad he signed it. I’ll make him proud.”

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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