The crash of a Cessna Citation business jet three weeks ago in mountainous terrain in Oregon raises questions—both immediate and going back twenty years—about the pilot who died when it nosedived into the ground at 400 miles per hour.
The pilot, Richard Boehlke, is no stranger to trouble. In 2000 and 2001 he was in a criminal conspiracy—pump-and-dump stock fraud that bankrupted two small airlines and related businesses—with Wallace J. Hilliard, the owner of the flight school in Venice Florida attended by Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, the 9/11 pilots who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center Towers.
The plane departed from Troutdale, Oregon, and was enroute to Boise, Idaho, carrying, according to the flight plan filed by the pilot, at least one passenger. When they reached the site, crews, which struggled to reach the remote location, “recovered the remains of at least two individuals.”
A week later the story had changed.
“Recovered the remains of at least two individuals” was now off the table. They found just one guy.
“Video evidence and DNA testing have confirmed that only one person – the pilot, a Portland businessman – was aboard a twin-engine business jet that crashed two weeks ago in the Mutton Mountains.”
And I thought there was only one Mutton Mountain. But apparently it’s like The Alps with sheep.
“Do what needs to be done.”
Richard (Rick)Boehlke, the dead pilot, lived aboard a houseboat in Portland. He had once been a fixture on the aviation scene in the Northwest. He owned an air carrier called Harbor Air, in Gig Harbor, Washington.
That’s how—almost twenty years ago—I first learned of Boehlke, while investigating the sleazy criminals at Huffman Aviation, where Mohamed Atta learned to fly.
About Boehlke, an aviation source in Tacoma once told me, cryptically, “Money was being provided by the Mafia to smaller operators willing to do what needs to be done.”
What happened to Rick Boehlke on Mutton Mountain?
Answering that question requires taking a brief look at two other pilots who had faced similar dangers: both were ‘connected’— with drug trafficking, the CIA, the Mob, or all three. All three met the same end.
Also, Boehlke probably knew them. More on Boehlke below. First, let’s meet the other two.
Meet Ken Burnstine.
The first to go was Kenneth Burnstine, a flamboyant “soldier of fortune”—like Barry Seal—who owned an airline almost as a sideline.
It happened on June 16, 1976, during a famous air race in the Mojave desert in California, where rich daredevil pilots flew souped-up versions of the P-51 fighter made famous in World War II, in a hobby that could easily cost more than a million a year.
It’s a hobby that attracts a self-selected cloud of pilots… like Kenneth Burnstine.
Ken Burnstine’s plane went into a high-speed stall and exploded upon impact with the ground. No toxicological tests were conducted. The National Transportation Safety Board commented: “It was not a survivable crash.”
As his aircraft fell, Burnstine called a pilot flying near him and said: “No (pause). Oh no!”
They were his last words.
Burnstine had a partner in Sarasota
Burnstine had apparently applied power in an attempt to pull out of a downward spin and found that he could not. Had someone tampered with the control surface of his aircraft?
My interest in Burnstine first was piqued when I discovered he had a business partner in Sarasota, William Randolph Klein, a stockbroker who incorporated a company in Sarasota for fraudster Jonathon Curshen, which he then used in a vain attempt to wrest a company in Pennsylvania back from the FBI, which had seized it, into the hands of its rightful owner, Russian Mob boss Semion Mogilevich, Mr. Bigski. (More on the the Russian Mob in Sarasota in other chapters.)
While awaiting sentencing for drug trafficking—with a certain prison sentence hanging over him— Burnstine crashed in spectacular fashion. He flew his heavily-customized P-51 into the ground at 400 miles per hour.
The timing of his death presented authorities with a bit of a sticky wicket.
Burnstine was scheduled to testify the next month— he was the key witness— in the drug trafficking trial in Miami of four of his key associates. One of them, Mitchell WerBell, was already famous for his various exploits with the CIA.
All of them, presumably, wanted Burnstine dead.
They got their wish.
Adding to the discomfort authorities were feeling was the fact that inside the smoking cockpit, rescuers found no body. It had disintegrated on impact. All they’d managed to find was a thumb print. That was later modified to a hand. They’d found a hand. They also found two guns.
For years afterwards stories were told of spotting a pilot looking like Kenneth Burnstine with only one hand at airports in South America.
A mil-intel pilot who knew Ken Burnstine— an ex-marine pilot and counterintelligence officer at Atsugi Air Base in Japan– wrote a book called “The Missing Chapter: Lee Harvey Oswald in the Far East.”
“I’m in the credits of the Frontline story about Lee Harvey Oswald,” he told me. “Burnstine and Oswald were both stationed in Atsugi. So was I.”
While it was true that the secret US base at Atsugi in Japan was on Lee Harvey Oswald’s service jacket, no one seemed to have paid it much attention.
But this guy, Jack Swike, was there.
Who else was there? Kenny Burnstine. Unlike rumors about Oswald, he said, Burnstine was a spook.
“In Japan, Bernstine walked around the base with a shoulder holster and a .45. I didn’t know what he was up to until he left… He was working on counterfeiting military currency.”
“The Office of Naval intelligence told him to keep them informed on what he was doing. He told them to go to hell. Who does something like that?”
“He owned an airline in Miami,” he told me. “Did you know that? Used for drug smuggling.”
By that point, I did. I also knew this was not going to be an easy story.
Gary Levitz… and Martha Stewart
There’s one other pilot to take a look at, before getting back to Rick Boehlke.
Gary Levitz was a race car driver, an air racer, and a drug pilot from Fort Lauderdale, along with legends like the Whittington Brothers and Kenny Burnstine.
His profile fit theirs. It was too close for comfort.
Also, Gary Levitz died the same way Ken Burnstine and Richard Boehlke did. All three flew into the ground at high speed.
Gary Levitz, 61, was killed in 1999 when his heavily-modified P-51 Mustang crashed during the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.
Levitz was an avid pilot, member of the Confederate Air Force, and sometimes other things as well. “Gary was a pretty amazing man,” one of his managers told reporters. “He was a larger-than-life character.”
He was also the grandson of the founder of Levitz Furniture Corp.
And therein hangs a tale. If you were a kid in the 60’s or 70’s, you probably heard the inane jingle “You’ll love it at Levitz” a million million times.
At one time the NY Post had the world’s best business writer, Chris Byron, until he skewered one too many fraudsters for comfort. One he nailed was Martha Stewart, who first got rich in the early 70’s while working for a mobbed-up brokerage firm.
She was selling shares of Levitz Furniture to her clients like there was no tomorrow, even though she knew the company was about to go out of business.
Too Close For Comfort
On a pilot forum where Warbird aficionados hang out, one wrote:
“I’ve always been fascinated by the Burnstine/Whittington/Levitz connection. I remember all the rumors in the 70’s.”
Another pilot responded.
“Wow. I was aware of the drug story but not of any connection with the Whittington Brothers. And Gary Levitz?
Presumably, heads began turning in Washington. At that point, a moderator breaks in, suggesting they take the topic to a more appropriate venue. A storm of controversy ensued, The mod backs down, but noted:
“The only connection is that Gary Levitz befriended Burnstine and bought Miss Foxy Lady from him as a favor to help him out. And shortly afterwards Levitz sold his race Mustang to the Whittington brothers…who ultimately happened to be from the same part of Florida, in the same business as Burnstine. But it was purely coincidental.”
Then the moderators tried to rope the area off. Needless to say, it didn’t work; big questions remained unanswered.
Back to Boehlke
Instead they were distracted with missiles hitting the Pentagon, or the idea that the 9/11 attack was a hologram. Americans are easy to distract. One of those charged with distracting them was Adnan Khashoggi, who will be covered in later chapters.
In addition to three flight schools, Hilliard had a remarkable number of irons in the fire, business-wise, for someone who had supposedly come to Florida from Wisconsin to retire. They all too briefly became germane to the 9/11 investigation.
The airline was cover.
One was a short-lived airline, Florida Air, or FLAIR. He got together with Rick Boehlke, who owned Harbor Air out on the West Coast, and had the only scheduled flights out of the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island.
Hilliard’s new airline began using Rick Boehlke’s Harbor Air’s license to fly. Boehlke also ended up supplying the pilots for the new airline, which was also using Harbor Air’s 19-passenger Jetstreams.
What Wally Hilliard was bringing to the party is anyone’s guess. But Mohamed Atta was still at Huffman Aviation, doing no one knows quite what.
When their actions came under scrutiny after 9/11, both Rick Boehlke and Hilliard lieutenant Rudy Dekkers began squirming under the media spotlight. The two men then competed to see who could heap the most scorn on the other. They probably knew their feeble attempts to divert attention from themselves were useless. But they made them anyway.
Boehlke was the winner on points. He said he was alarmed that his desperate attempt to save his failing airline could have had dire consequences. He accused Dekkers’ of promising flight students’ jobs at the airline.
Boehlke demonstrated an eye for a good headline. “There could have been terrorists on a ride-along!” he told reporter Eric Mason.
The FAA agreed. “Having a student without enough hours or that type rating as a co-pilot is not legal,” an FAA spokesman said about Dekkers’ scheme.
Boehlke said a ‘chill’ runs through him when he thinks about it.
Back in Warm Spring, Oregon, authorities finally identified the man killed when a small private business jet crashed January 9 in mountainous terrain in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation of central Oregon.
Richard Boehlke, 72, of Portland, was flying solo when the plane went down, said Lt. Ron Gregory of the Warm Springs Police Department.
Boehlke had been flying a Cessna Citation jet on a filed flight plan from Troutdale, east of Portland, to Boise when it crashed on a Saturday afternoon in the Mutton Mountains, located in the northeast corner of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
The original flight plan indicated two persons on board.
Now it tuned out that Boehlke was the only person found in the wreckage.
Warm Springs Tribal Police Lt. Ron Gregory told “NewsChannel 21” there was only one person, Boehlke, aboard. “This was confirmed through video at the originating airport, and later through DNA testing on the remains.”
Yeah, but the flight plan said two people. You’re missing one.
Plus an employee of the Airport FBO said he saw two people board the plane. An amateur forensic examiner on YouTube showed the aviation center’s cameras, pointing down from the corners of the building.
Also, Richard Boehlke had a highly-checkered past.
Did that have anything to do with it?
How to steal $355 million on the downlow
While he was pocketing his winnings from the Capital Consultants bust-out, Rick Boehlke had found himself the object of attention from a local KABC reporter, Eric Mason, who spotted something.
He told me, “The financing that had gone between Mr. Boehlke and Florida Air, which was a sister operation to the flight training center which trained Mohamed Atta, was murky.”
‘Murky’ is not a word you want to see applied to the financial dealings of the people who trained Mohamed Atta to fly—certainly well enough to kill almost 3000 people.
Boehlke was also under scrutiny for participating in the $355 million looting of pension funds of mostly Mob-led unions, like the Laborers Union, in Portland, Oregon.
Who had the temerity to steal pension money from Mob-led unions? Gangsters. Newspapers were reporting the looting had been “Mob-led.”
How had Rick Boehlke ‘got in for a piece’ of the massive looting of workers pension funds in Portland? Hardest hit ($60 million) by the theft were secretaries and laborers from the Laborers Union, called the biggest Mob-run union.
Richard Boehlke participated in what the Securities & Exchange Commission called “the biggest fraud by an investment manager in U.S. history.”
Boehlke was as controversial in his hometown of Gig Harbor, Washington, we learned, as Wally Hilliard and Rudi Dekkers were in Venice, Florida.
This was newsworthy all by itself. But Boehlke did it while simultaneously being involved in even-more funny business with Wally Hilliard, who was at the time, you’ll recall, doing business with Mohamed Atta. It could be construed as a continuing criminal conspiracy, should anyone be interested.
No one was.
Meanwhile, in Havana
If someone broke into Citibank over Labor Day and made off with $300 million, we’re pretty sure it would lead the Evening News. But the looters not only got away clean, but they also even managed to keep it from making big headlines.
To make up for the money stolen from their pension funds, analysts said, some of the unfortunate secretaries in the Laborers Union would have to spend an extra decade working.
Almost no one was going to jail, and no one was offering to give any of the money back. The local Portland newspapers seemed puzzled. It appeared to be a classic inside job.
Richard Boehlke was one very fortunate man.
He got $26 million in somebody else’s pension money to build a high-rise condominium which was only budgeted at $12 million.
Even before he even broke ground, Boehlke pocketed $14 million.
And Boehlke did it while simultaneously being involved in still-more funny business with Wally Hilliard.
I was interested in Boehlke for what light he might shed on Wally Hilliard and Huffman Aviation, and now Florida Air.
“I functioned as the director of operations,” former employee Bill Bersch told me. “That means my job was to decide which flights to cancel every day. I used to look at Wally and Rudi and wonder: whatever made them think they could start an airline?”
In addition, flying the friendly skies for fun and profit played no apparent part of Wally Hilliard’s motivation that he could discern.
Bill Bersch said it had all left him feeling baffled.
“I mean, I was on the executive team and here they were, trying to start an airline, and from August till the present we had all of four business meetings.”
Bersch’s professional frustration showed. “Wouldn’t you think— if you were trying to start an airline—that you’d have at least weekly meetings?
He didn’t wait for me to answer. He was “het up.” I understood the feeling.
‘And then, when you could get a meeting scheduled, somebody would tell you that it had been canceled, because Wally was in Havana.”
Wally in Havana
One last item: Prior to the Sept 11 attack, the local Venice Gondolier had made a sport of reporting on Huffman Aviation’s business dealings.
Only, afterwards, it didn’t seem funny.
The Gondolier ran a headline saying Huffman was no stranger to headlines.
“Huffman Aviation Inc. has had problems in the last few months with the city of Venice, Sarasota County and the state of Florida, but the school keeps flying,” the paper reported.
Dekkers’ wasn’t paying his rent out at the airport.
“When Huffman Aviation paid three months of overdue rent last Friday, May 12th, company president Rudi Dekkers said the rent wouldn’t be late again. “No, we won’t have this anymore,” he said during an interview last Friday.”
One month later a headline read: “Huffman rent is late again.”
“Huffman Aviation Inc. is again on notice from the city to catch up on its rent payments or face eviction from the airport,” the paper wrote on June 9th.
Nothing had changed by mid-July.
For the sixth straight month, Huffman Aviation Inc. has failed to pay its rent to the city on time.”
Then, seemingly miraculously, Huffman paid it’s rent, less than one month before the 9/11 attack.
The Gondolier headline was Huffman pays its rent.
I know. Sort of gives you pause, doesn’t it?
“Ties to an organized network”
While receiving humiliating newspaper coverage, Hilliard had been launching a commuter airline. Planes and pilots for Florida Air came from someone I knew only, back then, as “a Gig Harbor, Washington man.”
As stated, Boehlke was also involved at this time in the massive Mob bust-out of Capital Consultants in Portland, Oregon, a pension fund management company that “lost” $320 million dollars, much of it from the pension fund of the Laborers Union, reportedly the biggest Mob-run union in America.
“Boehlke would do anything for money, he was so desperate,” an aviation executive in Gig Harbor told me.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t skipped the country by now, what with all the trouble he’s gotten himself into farting around with those Mafia boys down in Portland.”
He used the ‘M’ word. while I had learned could be dangerous in certain environments, like the steps of the Louisiana state capitol in Baton Rouge. Also in for a taste of the looting was Alvin Malnik, reputed by Reader’s Digest to have taken over control of the Mob with the deaath of Meyer Lansky. Malnik’s connections with Barry Seal was the focus of an entire chapter, “Alvin of Arabia,” in Barry & ‘the boys.’
Somehow word of the ‘M’ word’s use got back to Boehlke, who must have gritted his teeth.
Jeff Grayson, the pension manager who helped Richard Boehlke and numerous others get rich, eventually went to prison. “Ex-money manager charged with fraud” was the October 6th, 2002 headline of an Associated Press story.
“A federal grand jury indicted Jeffrey Grayson whose firm ‘collapsed’ losing hundreds of millions of pension investments. Grayson was charged with mail fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, witness tampering and paying a former union chief union trust funds in a scheme that cost Grayson’s clients over $355 million in failed and fraudulent investments.”
Can we agree that $355 million is a significant sum?
Good. Because it gets worse.
His favorite uncle
The looted Capital Consultants was instrumental in giving Richard Boehlke his start in business. According to Boehlke, the company underwrote “Crossings International,” a development company he founded.
With Grayson’s backing, Boehlke got into the assisted living business, a hot market catering to America’s growing population of senior citizens and made a killing.
Oddly enough, one of his senior living centers, in Venice, Florida, sat across the street from what had been the stately headquarters of Jackson Stephens. The building now housed Stephen’s lawyer, Dan Boone.
While supplying both the planes and the pilots for the new Florida Air, Boehlke’s Harbor Air, and Florida Air, were both going bankrupt.
So were Boehlke’s other companies, Crossings Aviation, and Crossings Development, the Portland entity which Boehlke used to build his condominium project.
His big project was called “Legends Condominiums.” Remember what “legend” is in spook talk? “Your legend is your cover story, the lie that holds together long enough to get away.”
Last Boehlke add: When Portland TV reporter Eric Mason first met him, Boehlke denied being Boehlke, and told him he was someone else.
“It’s interesting, in the first conversation that I had with him he denied being Richard Boehlke,” Mason said. “I asked him, from the description I’d gotten, I said, ‘Mr. Boehlke, can I get an interview with you?’
And he said, ‘Mr. Boehlke isn’t here.’”
That’s the sort of thing spooks do.
So, why so you think he died?
“When I saw him again later, “Mason continued, “I said, ‘Mr. Boehlke, I think you really need to speak to me. I’ve got some important questions for you.’ He finally said okay, come on upstairs.”
Mike Pickett, of PAVCO Flight Center owns one of the oldest aviation firms at the airport where Boehlke went bankrupt and was very familiar with Boehlke’s operation.
“Boehlke owned retirement homes, pulled shenanigans, and got sued a lot,” said Picket. “He owned Crossings retirement homes and got in trouble about something to do with a woman who passed away. He would do a lot for money.”
Boehlke lived in in Gig Harbor, on the Puget Sound, where he owned a seaplane and a helicopter, which he would use, said a source, to blow leaves out of his yard.
Also, Rick Boehlke held orgies on his seaplane.
“For the 53-year-old Boehlke, the sun-drenched parties aboard his personal Grumman Albatross with friends in the San Juan Islands were supposedly over,” reported the local paper.
“His huge flying boat sits for sale at the Tacoma Narrows Airport in Gig Harbor, along with other assets from his bankrupt aviation company. Observers in Washington note he is not, however, running noticeably short of cash.”
The story I later heard was Boehlke lost $40 million in the stock market. And the dog ate his homework.
Just like Wally Hilliard, Boehlke’s aviation-related businesses didn’t make business sense.
“Richard Boehlke’s former employees always wondered what the aviation business was really doing,” reporter Mason told us.
Just like Wally Hilliard.
Boehlke’s aviation company was also evicted from its terminal at Sea-Tac International for failure to pay back rent.
Again, just like Wally Hilliard. It was like the two men were both singing from the same prayer book.
“From the beginning they felt that the finances flowed from the real estate holdings and the retirement home into this aviation company, and that there was really no way this aviation company was really making money,” said Mason.
“The question of what this aviation company was all about remains to be answered.”
You can wonder “why” only so often before you’re seen to be terminally naïve. Still, I wonder why.
Because almost 3000 people died.
How many drug pilots died for that toot?
Kenneth Burnstine was ultimately responsible for a half-dozen plane crashes, some fatal, some not.
Before he died, I interviewed a colorful and highly astute man named Gerry Patrick Hemming a half-dozen times. If you don’t know who he was, a brief Google search will tell you more than you’ll ever need to know.
Why I bring it up: In what I considered his most outlandish tale, Hemming told me he and Barry Seal had ran a “search and rescue operation” for smuggling pilots whose planes had vanished and been presumed to have gone down.
“Do you know how many pilots have gone down while on smuggling runs?” he asked.
“Its not a statistic the DEA generally gives out, but there have been 6000 pilots who have met their deaths in smuggling since 1972.”
(That’s over a decade ago now. The statistics have gone up.)
He recounted a typical search and rescue mission.
“Two pilots left Jamaica, going out around Cuba. They didn’t carry life jackets because they thought it was bad luck. We were hired to search the remote keys at so many thousands an hour. A dozen times we (Barry and I) did that. In between we were training people to fly heavier twin-engine planes.”
Seal had also worked with him, stated Hemming, in “running a smuggling school for a bunch of DEA guys in the tiny town of Eloy, Arizona.”
On the day that the Iran Contra scandal broke, 1400 pounds of cocaine were found abandoned on the runway in Eloy.