Confessions of a drug smuggling CIA hit man

jpl7According to the FBI’s official story, repeated in the 9/11 Commission Report, the fact that three of the four terrorist pilots at the controls of hijacked airplanes in the 9/11 attack all attended flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport is little more than happenstance.

“In March 2000 Atta emailed 31 different U.S. flight schools on behalf of a small  group of Arab men studying in Germany who, while lacking prior training, were interested in learning to fly in the United States,” states the 9/11 Report.

“While Jarrah quickly settled into flight training at the Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Florida, Atta and Shehhi had not yet settled on where they would obtain their flight training, and kept searching for a flight school.”

“After visiting the Airman Flight School in Norman Oklahoma (where Zacharias Moussaoui would enroll several months later and where Al Qaeda operative Ihad Ali took lessons in the mid-90’s), Atta and Shehhi started flight instruction at Huffman Aviation in Venice Florida… while Jarrah continued training at Florida Flight Training Center.”

The clear implication is Mohamed Atta, Marwan Al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah might just as well have learned to fly at any of 30 other U.S. locations.

It's like suggesting movie classic “Casablanca” could just as easily have been set in Des Moines.

As the current war for control over the Venice Airport amply illustrates, nothing could be further from the truth.

The tip of a very bloody iceberg

Douglas_C-54_SkymasterStephen Louis Ruth got his start in business (as revealed by the first two stories in this series: here and here)  working for a corporate entity which those involved claim was the Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA.  

Active at the Venice Municipal Airport over several decades, as well as in nearby Sarasota and Charlotte County, Venice Florida native Ruth, a convicted drug trafficker and former friend of Pablo Escobar, was by the late 70's flying aLockheed Lodestar or his DC4 Globemaster to Colombia and back several times a week from Southwest Florida.

During odd hours when he was not busily engaged in  "goodwill missions" to our Southern neighbors, Ruth developed some very bad habits.

One was putting out serious-as-cancer murder contracts on numerous individuals who crossed him.   

Ruth offered 5-figure bounties on the lives of a variety of state and law enforcement officials,  whose numbers included a Judge in Polk County, a Florida Dept of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Agent, an Asst State’s Attorney, and a Sarasota Deputy Sheriff.  

These are just the murder contracts for which he was convicted, except in one case for which he was never charged, for which we heard compelling testimony from an eminently credible eyewitness and former law enforcement official. 

So they may just represent just the tip of a very bloody iceberg.

Thinking outside the box… as well as normal flight routes

Cloak_and_Dagger_(film)Just as he said he would, Ruth got rich after returning from Cuba, where  a report   from the Sheriff of Sarasota County to the Tampa office of the FBI said he took part in the assassination of one of “four or five” men involved in the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

How Stephen Ruth went from being a hired assassin for the CIA to owing back taxes of almost $1 million is the story of the uncontested and uncontrolled growth of the National Security State in the United States of America.

How Ruth made big bucks didn't take a genius, just someone connected,  and comes as no big  surprise. Like Barry Seal before him he merely applied military cargo-type aircraft to the logistical problem of transporting illegal narcotics from areas of production to areas of consumption. 

He provided, in other words, a service which no one but CIA-connected individuals was able to offer without the constant risk of discovery.

In other words, Gary Webb was right.

Gary Webb RIP

northprofileWe found a report about Ruth from the Nov 15, 1976 St. Petersburg Times, with the unpromising headline: “Pilot is detained at airport after his plane was detected outside normal flight routes.”

 Ruth and his plane were detained at the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport by Manatee and Sarasota Sheriff’s deputies until agents arrived from U.S. Customs. After being picked up on radar coming in over the Gulf from south of St. Petersburg without identification and following “no normal flight plan,” McDill Air Force Base scrambled two Air force jets to have a look.

The jets escorted Ruth to Sarasota-Bradenton, where Sheriff’s deputies took over until U.S. Customs Agents arrived from Tampa.

Ruth explained he had been flying in from Austin Texas, but swerved outside normal flight paths to avoid bad weather.

U.S. Customs Agent Richard Keating said there was sufficient bad weather in the area to “substantiate Ruth’s story,” and that no charges were being filed.

The last line of this rather anti-climatic report  identifies Ruth as a Sarasota resident, as well as “a former investigator with the Sarasota State’s Attorney’s office.”

Oh my. You don't say?

"Wet work:" a career path to the top?

moby-dickApparently, Stephen Ruth’s unique curriculum vitae… experience in successful CIA “wet work,” bolstered by a proven ability to fly low over the Gulf all the way from Colombia to Florida… qualified him for employment with the Florida State’s Attorney’s office.

One of Ruth’s two major Federal drug “beefs” was in Austin, Texas, the city Ruth's flight originated in the the St Pete news article from 1976.

 Unique other recent Sarasota Sheriff’s, about whom we will hear more next week, Sheriff Geoff Monge, who passed the memo on Stephen Ruth to the Tampa FBI,  is an honest law enforcement official who has never been indicted.

 When we tracked him down in retirement in Northwest Florida, he suggested that for an overview on Stephen Ruth, we could contact a retired Sarasota Sheriff’s Deputy named “Bud” Wheeler. 

Wheeler agreed to talk.  His relationship with Stephen Ruth, we learned, had much in common with Captain Ahab's with Moby Dick.

“For ten years I worked to put Steve Ruth in prison,” former Sheriff’s Deputy Bud Wheeler told me. “I would drive by his house, and followed him around, sometimes for 16 hours a day.” 

“Steve Ruth is a local boy from Venice. He was well known to everyone at the Venice Airport. Some of the Deputies had gone to school with him, like Lynn Taylor. He and Taylor were good friends.” 

(Taylor was the Sheriff’s Deputy whose report of a conversation with Stephen Ruth had prompted Sheriff Monge to inform the FBI when he found out about it. At this time he has not returned several calls for comment.)

Wearing out a Lockheed Lodestar, one trip at a time

St. Petersburg Times - Google News Archive Search_1253705993060Wheeler’s biographical data on Ruth was in the same ballpark as what we'd already learned about him.

“Ruth was training to be an investigator at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It started when he went down to Cuba to work for the CIA."

"When he came back he got hooked up with Joe Duncan, who was arrested by the FBI for bank fraud, and on his way to prison till a judge dismissed the case,” Wheeler told us.

“Everybody in law enforcement in Venice and Englewood knew what Stephen Ruth was doing. He was flying back and forth to South America sometimes twice a week, using that little airport in Englewood (Buchan Field.) He was just wearing out a Lockheed Lodestar, and that DC4 he owned.” 

“He had a crash at the Englewood field, but he was gone by the time I got there. He used to land there, and at a little airport in Rotunda.

"He also used to land on the back roads in Northport, a town south of Venice. They had put in miles and miles of roads down there in anticipation of a real estate boom that didn’t happen, and at the time, in the 70’s, nobody lived there so drug pilots could land and take off all night long and nobody saw them.”

The “Northport International Drug Trafficking Terminal” is legendary in books about drug trafficking in Florida in the 70’s and 80’s. Aircraft taxiing down the long empty roads there were a not uncommon sight.

Bud Wheeler dropped a bombshell near  the end of our conversation. “Stephen Ruth and Sheriff Jim Hardcastle werevery good friends,” he told us matter-of-factly.

“That’s where Ruth got his protection from all through the 70’s."

"Un-arrest him and, uh, give him back his gun."

wwhhWhen I finally busted him," continued former Sheriff's Deputy Wheeler, "I took him to the little jail we had in the sheriff’s substation down in Englewood. And before I could finish the paperwork Sheriff Hardcastle walked in, and told me to un-arrest him.”

"To un-arrest him?" we asked in disbelief.

"I hadn’t even finished writing up my report, and there was  Sheriff Hardcastle. He told me to un-arrest him, let him out of jail, and give him back his gun.”

“After that is when I heard from Lynn Taylor that Ruth said he was going to put a hit on me. He offered Lynn Taylor $10,000 to kill me.” 

Although Taylor told Wheeler of the offer, nobody bothered trying to arrest Stephen Ruth.  

'Drug smuggling: A lucrative, recession-free profession

Casperson0709In early 2001 reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune, Ruth bought a 48-foot yacht with a storied past. It had once been used by John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

But the yacht's future was all behind it by the time Ruth got it. Shortly afterwards it broke up on the rocks off Casperson Beach, almost directly in front of the Venice Airport.  

“The storied yacht got stuck on a sandbar just 200 yards offshore, as waves of up to eight feet high crashed against the stranded vessel,” the paper reported. 

Ruth's boat remained on the sandbar at the mercy of powerful waves that pounded it relentlessly, until it was totally demolished. 

“Ruth, the owner of the Captain's Club Restaurant and Bar in Englewood, could not be reached for comment,” the paper reported.

“Ruth has an extensive criminal history, including prison time in the 1980s for drug smuggling and for violating Cuba's air space. During the 1980s he said he made his living buying surplus government airplanes and flying them to Florida for resale.” 

Buying surplus government airplanes?

Records available online for Ruth’s DC4 Globemaster, which he “donated” to the Colombian Government,” came from a man named William Kirkconnell. There is no way to tell, and we’re not suggesting it, but the only William or bill Kirkconnell we were able to find is the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge in Savanna GA.

Two planes seized at Venice Airport

Copy_of_AaaaA brief news article from the local Sarasota Herald Tribune was highly effective in conveying the right hint of covert intrigue that is often felt swirling just beneath the surface of events at the Venice Municipal Airport.

"Two planes were seized by customs officials at the Venice airport, suspected of being involved in a plot to overthrow the governments of Cuba or possibly some countries in Central or South America."

"The planes were seized by U.S. authorities, along with a cache of arms in New Orleans. A Honduras chicle grower announced that the equipment,  including tanks, planes and guns, had been designated for farm development in Honduras."

"The planes were held in Venice under orders from federal court in Tampa until the case was resolved."

The article was both bold and delightfully uncensoredtwo characteristics rarely in evidence in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. It ran in the paper's 50 years ago, on March 26,1947.

Modern life is often not all its cracked up to be.

Stay tuned.

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Daniel Hopsicker

Daniel Hopsicker is an investigative journalist and the author of two books on transnational crime, Welcome to Terrorland and Barry & the Boys.

2 Responses

  1. August 5, 2014

    […]  (See Confessions of a drug smuggling CIA hit man.) […]

  2. August 6, 2014

    […] to Frank Guzman their number included: Stephen Ruth, who we reported on earlier in  Confessions of a Drug Smuggling CIA Hit Man,"  Lee Crowell, Joseph Brea, Richard Curry, George Quarles, and several others, including a […]