Tampa Tribune (Florida)
May 4, 2006 Thursday
HEADLINE: Mystery Surrounds Plane Filled With 5.5 Tons Of Cocaine
BYLINE: HOWARD ALTMAN and KAREN BRANCH-BRIOSO, The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA – Just after noon April 5, a DC-9 twin-engine jet registered to a Clearwater company took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport bound for Caracas, Venezuela. Five days later, the plane landed at an airport in Mexico near the Gulf Coast.
The Mexican army was waiting.
Mexican officials seized the plane and its contents – 128 black briefcases marked "private," containing 5.5 tons of cocaine worth about $100 million on the street, according to the Mexican attorney general's office.
Beyond the seizure and the arrest of the airplane's co-pilot – the pilot escaped – much about the journey is shrouded in mystery.
Federal Aviation Administration records indicate that when it was captured, the plane was registered to Royal Sons Inc., a Clearwater-based aircraft dealer. The records also indicate that April 11, the day after the plane was seized, the FAA received a request from Royal Sons to cancel the registration. FAA records indicate the plane was being exported to Venezuela, but they did not indicate when.
Company officials did not return phone calls from The Tampa Tribune.
FAA officials on Wednesday said they could not comment on the plane's ownership or its flight plans.
The Flight To Mexico
The plane was tracked from Clearwater on April 5 by FlightAware.com, a company that uses FAA data, according to Dave McNett, chief information officer for the Web site.
On April 10, the plane roused suspicions with Mexican officials almost immediately after takeoff from Maiquetia Simon Bolivar Airport, outside Caracas, Gen. Carlos Gaytan, operations subchief of the Mexican Army, said during an April 11 news conference.
About 90 minutes after it took off en route to Mexico, the plane returned to Venezuela without an explanation to Mexican air-traffic controllers. The pilots acted as if they were going to land in Guatemala, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, an assistant Mexican attorney general, said during a radio interview April 11.
The plane suddenly veered toward Mexico and landed at Ciudad del Carmen airport about 6:30 p.m., Santiago Vasconcelos said.
Once the plane was on the ground, airport workers acted suspiciously, Gaytan said.
"Upon the airplane's landing, there appeared to be an effort to block the troops' work, where several airport officials began to make hand signals to indicate it would be dangerous for them to approach the airplane because it had an oil leak, and we all know that oil doesn't explode," Gaytan said at the news conference.
"They also mentioned that it wasn't necessary to search the airplane, since it was only going to check its flight plan and then make a return flight. There was a lot of resistance, and it appeared that they were trying to block a search of the plane."
Another plane, a Falcon corporate jet with two Mexican pilots aboard, had also landed at the airport and aroused more suspicions by arranging to pay the exit fees for the DC-9, Santiago Vasconcelos said. A search of the DC-9 ensued. Mexican officials found the suitcases, filled with 1-kilogram packages of cocaine.
The pilot, who had left the plane to file a new flight plan, ran off. The co-pilot, Miguel Vazquez Guerra, of Venezuela, was arrested. So were the pilots of the Falcon – Fernando Poot Perez and Marco Perez DeGracia. Several airport officials are under investigation as well.
According to the pilots' flight plans, they were heading to Toluca, in the state of Mexico, just outside Mexico City, but Santiago Vasconcelos said officials think the cocaine was destined for points farther north: "We feel that most of these drugs were heading to the United States, and another part would stay behind for internal consumption."
Gaytan said Mexican officials were in contact with U.S. officials about the bust. The Drug Enforcement Administration would not comment.
The DC-9 was well-known to officials at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
It had a logo that appeared similar to the symbol of the Transportation Security Administration, said Tom Jewsbury, deputy airport director.
TSA spokesman Christopher White said the TSA "does not own or operate aircraft."
SkyWay Communications Holding Corp., whose logo is similar to the TSA's, planned to purchase the plane in November 2004, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
According to the company's Web site, SkyWay's main focus is to provide in-flight broadband communications and entertainment systems as well as "a variety of high-speed broadband wireless applications" supporting "the United States government homeland security and combating terrorism issues."
SkyWay is embroiled in a suit filed by investors claiming that the company misrepresented its technological capabilities and that it misspent money, including $300,000 for Hummer sport utility vehicles and about $100,000 for a box at Raymond James Stadium.
Efforts to reach SkyWay officials were unsuccessful. Their telephone numbers in Clearwater and Miami are out of service. Murray Silverstein, the attorney representing company President Brent Kovar in the lawsuit, did not return a phone call.
According to FAA records, Royal Sons registered the DC-9 in August.
1. 12:17 p.m., April 5: DC-9, tail number N900SA, takes off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport, bound for Caracas.
2. 7:13 p.m., April 5: The flight was scheduled to land in Caracas. Flightaware.com could not confirm when or whether the plane landed.
3. 6:30 p.m., April 10: The plane landed at Ciudad del Carmen in Campeche state. Mexican authorities seized the aircraft, along with 5.5 tons of cocaine, carried in 128 black briefcases marked "private."
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