The Mystery in Medellin: Why was ‘American Made’ there?

This is a story about a plane crash.

Start here: Everybody in-country was tired, or sweaty, or both. “Swelter” is a word that acquires new meaning in a South American jungle.

It was the last day of filming. Tom Cruise has been in-country for 20 sweaty days in a row. Everyone was anxious to get out of Dodge.

Two of them won’t make it.




Two men died in a plane crash making a bad movie

Everybody in-country was either tired, or sweaty, or both.

Several people later tell the Hollywood Reporter they were “rushing” to get back to Medellin that night, so they could fly out the next day.

Delays plagued production. ‘Time-out” was the director’s middle name. He made good popcorn movies, but he was notorious for indulgence, indecision, and personal excess.  He was a widely-disliked maverick with no people skills and odd traits reportedly including a slight lisp and adult braces.

On “The Bourne Identity,” his big hit, he famously kept a tired crew working overtime so he could play Paintball in a well-lit forest. Although the movie was a smash, contrary to custom he wasn’t invited back to do the sequel.

The head of the studio was quoted as saying she wanted to run him out of Hollywood.

Now, curiously, Doug Liman’s new production , instead of filming in Louisiana and Arkansas where most of Barry Seal’s story took place, is spending  a month in Medellin, Colombia. Before anyone asks why, they should kn that, shortly thereafter, “American Made’s” release date was pushed back a year.

That’s what they call a “Mediocre Alert.”

The movie isn’t being released until the entire rest of the world has seen it. Scooping stray shekels from  an unwary audience before the stench spreads from the thing tanking domestically.

Which it’s already done  overseas.

The “bottom line” bottom line is:   Two men died  making a bad movie.


The Deathstar returns

Colombia’s jagged terrain, heavy rainfall and long, empty distances makes it one of the most dangerous places in the world for aviators. Medellin’s Olaya Herrera airport has been the site of numerous accidents. It closes at night and allows only domestic flights.

The three pilots were flying a plane, a twin-engine Piper Aerostar (N164HH) that’s  known to be unforgiving.  Piloting an Aerostar in the fog over mountains in a country not your own, apparently, is not for the uninitiated. “Pilots often call that plane the Death Star,” said Chris Palmer, a safety and risk assessment consultant, to the Hollywood Reporter.

“You had better be darn good in that craft if you’re going to fly it.”

While the three had flown the route at least a half-dozen times in recent days, they were now flying without assistance.  It’s easy to be disoriented by the heavy clouds that regularly form near the crest of the Andes.  While filming in other parts of the country, like the Amazon, the crew had a Colombian pilot on board.

Not this time.

After finishing a dubbing session in Santa Fe de Antioquia, production in Colombia wrapped, the Aerostar  prepared to fly the brief 10-minute flight over a spine of the Andes back to Medellin, following two helicopters that left a few minutes earlier, one of which was ferrying Cruise.

There either was—or was not—a cloud bank settling on the summits which circle  the valley where Medellin sits. But that wasn’t really the point.

“Although there were no reports of bad weather in Santa Fe de Antioquia when the plane took off, an aviation official described the normally 10-minute flight as a ‘bungee jump’ or ‘roller coaster, “reported the Associated Press.

“It requires a skilled pilot to quickly take the plane from near sea level to a height of 9,800 feet to clear the Andes before sharply descending into the steep valley surrounding Medellin.”

Cruise landed easily in Medellin when he arrived Aug. 20. His flight originated in Barranquilla along the country’s Caribbean coast. And he was accompanied by a Colombian co-pilot.

Not this time. The plane didn’t have one.


 Cowboys in Colombia

The Aerostar, or Deathstar, if you prefer, climbed to 8,500 feet over the lush mountains. That wasn’t high enough, and it crashed a hundred yards below the ridgeline,  outside a village called San Pedro de los Milagros.

Dairy farmer Jaime Muñoz was the first to find the destroyed aircraft, which appeared to have fallen through trees before slamming the ground  at 5:30 p.m. Friday evening. The plane’s tail sheared off, the fuselage and wings were warped and covered by fallen branches, and the cockpit was a mangled lump of glass and metal.

Soon a second dairy farmer, José Ramiro Girando, joined Munoz. The two then stumbled down the ravine to the crash site, where they found two men dying. The farmers prayed over the two passengers as they died, to help them die well.

There was nothing else they could do.  Then there was what he described to reporters as “a cry of hope.”

An overlooked third passenger was still alive. He even flashed them a thumbs-up.  With almost non-existent Spanish, the man pleaded to be taken out of the plane.

“He didn’t understand anything (speak Spanish)” said Munoz.

The man couldn’t move. His legs were wedged underneath the controls. Despite their fear that they may have been doing more harm than good, the two farmers crawled into the wreckage.

“I ripped the wires and straightened his foot,” said Girando. “The others took his waist, we placed him on a blanket, and carried him from the plane.”

There was a badge hanging around his neck. I asked him, “Are you Jimmy Lee?”

He said, “I am.



Three men were on the Piper Aerostar. All of them pilots

Alan Purwin was modestly famous in Hollywood for his movie work— flying helicopters through train tunnels, etc.

Less visibly, but more lucratively, Purwin was also the owner-manager of a Los Angeles-based company that sells aerial surveillance packages, and black helicopters—real Blackhawk helicopters!—to urban police departments and military clients around the world.

Probably need a hellacious  export license to do that, one would think.

Also along for the ride was pilot and Southern good ‘ol boy Jimmy Lee Garland, the only one of the three who lived.

Jimmy Garland was allegedly, the pilot on the downed plane. Garland was working as Tom Cruise’s double in the film. He also supplied a twin-engine Cessna 414 transport that was the second plane on the shoot.

TThe “third” man, and in some ways the most interesting, was six-foot Venezuelan Carlos Berl, who lived in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Carlos was a man of many names. He was plain old “Carlos Berl,” “Carlos Eduardo Berl,” and in Venezuela, “Carlos Eduardo Berl Kohn.” 

In the 1980’s he owned retail eyeglass stores in Washington D.C.  The Washington Post once did a lifestyle piece about him.

Carlos liked “eye-wear that’s fun.”

At one time he also kept a residence in the dusty little town of Boerne, Texas, population 15,000. Boerne sits next door a CIA base that was so super-secret that—after existing for decades—it was only acknowledged publicly in 2012.  It’s called Camp Stanley,  and it’s the CIA’s largest domestic facility.

What makes Carlos Berl more interesting than his two fellow passengers on the American Made death flight? Just this:  no one has yet articulated a plausible reason for why Carlos Berg was was there.

Daniel Hopsicker

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

1 Response

  1. Totally sad for all. Two good men dead and another wonderful man injured for life. But now the blood suckers need their due. All about money. After spending over 30 years as a Aircraft Mechanic and over 25 years holding a Inspection authorization I think I know my way around airplanes from C5 aircraft to little J3’s. The hardest problem is why they cannot seem to figure out who was flying the thing. I have been at the scene of dozens of crashes and have been hired by many of insurance companies to determine if there was a fault with the aircraft. Make no mistake the NTSB has the tools and ability to determine the facts when it comes to pilot era. That is the first thing they want to blame. I usually find that it is a series of events that leads to crashes. There was a crash up in Ballground GA in around 84 when a cheerokee 6 went in. And I do mean straight in. It took a while but they came up with the answer after taking their time and doing it right. The pilot was drunk and had 4 people onboard flew into a thunderstorm. His license was not current as he did not have a medical. In the case of this very sad crash there were some pictures that somehow hit the net instantly showing the location of the two men who died in the crash. Today with DNA they can pin point exactly who was where. Most of the time people who are acting as the pilot in command fly from the left front. however that is not a regulation and the person in the right seat may act as the PIC and be legal as long as they have the proper license and medical for the type of flight they were engaged in. So what seems complex is not really and the NTSB if allowed by the government down there will find the truth there are no better people to do it.