“Venice was a quiet Mena,” says former drug pilot

boone111“Venice was a kind of quiet Mena (Arkansas)," stated a former drug pilot for The Company. "Jackson Stephens built this huge headquarters next to the airport. And he was in charge. But I do remember seeing Porter Goss around the airport a lot.”

The airport where three of the four terrorist pilots in the 9/11 attack learned to fly was a hub of operations in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s for “The Company,” an international drug smuggling organization headquartered  in Lexington, Kentucky and Mena, Arkansas.

Led by a mysterious Cuban exile, who used the alias “Frank Guzman,” The Company’s contingent at the Venice Airport numbered as many as a dozen pilots and associates. The Company began receiving national attention in the early 1980’s.  

“The Company,” whose name  is a commonly-used euphemism for the CIA, was profiled in Sally Denton’s  best-selling book “The Blue-Grass Conspiracy,” which raised pointed questions  about the involvement of the CIA with the group.

The 60-year secret history of covert CIA and military operations at the Venice Municipal Airport now coming to light goes well beyond anything previously known to have taken place there.  

A Cuban exile in the Warren Commission Report… at the Venice Airport

stephen ruthA report in the April 28, 1982 San Francisco Chronicle headlined "Story of Spies, Stolen Arms and Drugs," stated The Company consisted of "about 300 members, many of them former military men or ex-police officers with nearly $30 million worth of assets, including planes, ships and real estate."

Federal Agents testified that “The Company” smuggled billions of dollars worth of narcotics into the U.S. from Latin America, as well as being involved in gunrunning and mercenary operations.

At the Venice Airport, in addition 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 local attorney, who have been missing in action for more than 20 years.

Guzman first surfaced at the Venice Airport in 1974.  He became an instant celebrity, as well as something of a novelty, because he was the owner of the first jet to ever be based at the Venice Airport.

A now-defunct Sarasota newspaper called the Sarasota Journal did a profile of him soon after he arrived under the headline “Venice Jet Flier Creates a Stir.”

It was a prototype Navy jet fighter called the Super Pinto, one of only 14 ever made, which could climb from the ground to 10,000 feet in just 55 seconds.

He ingratiated himself with the local political establishment by volunteering to fly it as a stunt plane in local air shows for charity.  

Despite the reporter’s efforts, exactly how Guzman how come to possess a rare Navy jet fighter plane remained a little hazy. So, too, did Guzman’s former career. He was identified, without further explanation, as a “manufacturer.”

The story did reveal Guzman’s difficulty in obtaining spare parts for his jet, with necessitated trips to the planes’ manufacturer, Temco Co, in Dallas. 

"The guy's shoes cost more than my car."

Pinto3Strangely, Temco had a history in Venice which the reporter failed to note.

The founder of Temco (later LTV), was D.H. Byrd, who owned the Texas School  Book Depository where President Kennedy was killed. And as we’ve seen in previous stories like Big Safari, the Kennedy Assassination, & the war for control of the Venice Airport,  the airport was the site where Byrd's Regulus missiles for the Air Force were tested.

For the next five years Guzman ran a business at the Venice Airport.  

Then on May 3, 1979, disaster struck.  Former Venice Businessman, Pilot found shot to death” read next day’s headline in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

“A former Venice businessman and pilot was found shot to death in an East coast motel room in what police there theorize was a drug-related execution,” the paper reported.

“The Dania FL Police Dept identified the 49-year old dead man as Frank Guzman, the former owner ofSunair Enterprises, a flying service based at the Venice Municipal Airport.”

Guzman had been found by a maid on the floor of his fifth floor room at the Howard Johnson’s across from the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Someone (the killer was never identified) had put a 32 against the back of Guzman’s head and pulled the trigger.   

The motel would later achieve infamy during Iran contra as the site of meetings between Oliver North and mercenaries flying to Honduras to work with the contras. 

An “associate” of Guzman’s in Venice and Fort Lauderdale, Joseph Brea, was missing and presumed dead, police said.  

The story contained a  great quote  from a cop on the scene:  

“Guzman was definitely into the big bucks,” said Lt. James Serpe of the Dania Police Dept. “This guy’s shoes cost more than my car.”

The slaying bore all the earmarks of a professional hit, a later story  indicated,  in which police speculated that Guzman may have been associated with the “Black Tuna” smuggling group.

The truth would come out almost a year later, in a story in the April 30 1980 Sarasota Herald Tribune. 

Testimony at a federal trial in Indianapolis   has linked a murdered Venice businessman and a missing Sarasota aircraft dealer with an international drug trafficking ring.” 

“On Monday witnesses testified that Frank Guzman, the former owner of SunAir Enterprises of Venice, and Lee Crowell, owner of Lemac Inc of Sarasota, were members of the drug ring known as The Company.” 


Jeeps to Castro & the drug ring known as "The Company"

whitewashWe uncovered evidence indicating  that Guzman’s real name was Mario Silverio Villamia in testimony to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of JFK about the underworld ties of  Jack Ruby, the slayer of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Ruby had approached Texas gunrunner Robert McKeown about selling jeeps to Castro.

McKeown had been convicted of the same offense in 1958, said a Commission exhibit dated April 17, 1964. "the company AND "the bluegrass conspiracy"

Also convicted with McKeown  had been the former President of Cuba, Carlos Prio, and four other men, one of whom was one Mario Silverio Villamia, aged 34, also known as Frank Guzman.

We did the math. 

The Warren Commission “Frank Guzman” had been 34 in 1964.  Ten years later, in 1974, the Sarasota newspaper profile of “Frank Guzman” reported:  

“For the 44-year old Guzman, the jet is a partial answer to the search for finding excitement in life.” 

"Venice was a quiet Mena. And a sweet deal."

ConnectedLogoWe received further confirmation after we tracked down a  former drug pilot for The Company who spoke with us on  condition of anonymity.  

He  had flown with Guzman, he said, “at least a hundred” flights to Colombia from the Venice Airport.  We had no trouble believing him. His name and involvement with the group is  well-chronicled in news reports from the time.

After a conviction for drug trafficking 30 years ago, his life has returned to normal, he said. Today he is a respected businessman in a city not far from Venice.  

“Frank came from Cuba when Castro came to power,” he confirmed.  “He had ties to a former Cuban President Carlos Prio.  Along with other Cuban exiles he participated in the Bay of Pigs, then worked with the CIA during the 1960’s.”  

“Venice was a kind of quiet Mena (Arkansas)," said our pilot informant.

"Jackson Stephens had built this huge headquarters next to the airport. And he was in charge. But I do remember seeing Porter Goss around the airport a lot.”

At that time, Goss was a CIA Agent assigned to Latin America. He later became a Florida Congressman from Charlotte County, where he eventually became head of the House Intelligence Committee. In 2002 he was named Director of the CIA under George W. Bush.

“Venice was a sweet deal. The Coast Guard had radar sites in Tampa and Key West, but nothing in between. So we’d fly in and out totally unnoticed.”

"Nothing to see here, folks. Move along."

venicelogoThroughout the decade of the 1980's, while drug trafficking exploded, there were two completely different perceptions about its role at the Venice Airport.

Call them the minimalists and the  maximalists…

"Only a few late night flights use the uncontrolled airfield in Venice," Venice Police Sgt. Jim Hanks told local reporters.  “We’ve only caught two or three smugglers. But there have been several who keep their planes here and have been caught in other areas."

Local reporters, on the other hand, begged to disagree.

“In the past year the Venice Airport has been the scene of several drug raids,” the Herald Tribune  reported on Sept 29, 1983.  “In recent years the Venice Airport has been rocked by vandals  thieves and drug smugglers.”

“The airport is attractive to drug dealers and thieve because it is uncontrolled,” the paper reported. “Thieves use the uncontrolled airport to drop stolen airplanes, including stolen private jets.”

 The city’s response was to hire a private security guard to “protect the airport grounds during non- business hours.” Aviation executives at the Airport were unimpressed.

“We have planes come in here late at night, drop a load and leave,” said Harold  Haggen, owner of the Venice Flying Service.

“And nobody knows they’ve ever been here.” 

“Police protection?” asked Harold Haggen, rhetorically. “The police don’t hardly come around here.”

Even Sgt. Hanks was hedging his bet a little.

"Pointing to past drug smuggling incidents discovered at the airport, Hanks said unregulated plane usage there provides an opportunity for planes to come and go as they please, usually without scrutiny from anyone."

Almost two decades later, when Mohamed Atta first cast his malevolent eye down the runway in Venice, not much had changed.  For some people, that was just fine…

The official story of the 9/11 attack goes like this:

"The arrival of Atta’s terrorist cadre at the Venice Municipal Airport was happenstance, and the terrorist’s presence there an accident of history, unrelated to any pre-existing climate of crime or corruption."

Once again, and emphatically: Nothing could be further from the truth.  

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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.