It's a Friday afternoon in midwinter, beneath the wing of the B-52 bomber at March Air Force Base's Historical Aircraft Museum near Riverside. I am standing next to Gene Wheaton, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer, just in case things get out of hand. We're awaiting an anonymous contact who claims to have top-secret government documents showing how various U.S. military bases were used in the 1980s to smuggle massive quantities of drugs into the U.S.
Suddenly, a stocky Latino wearing a U.S. Army parka and dark sunglasses approaches us. He's breathing heavily, and rings of mucus have formed around his nostrils. In his right hand, he carries a sturdy-looking walkie-talkie. He doesn't look happy.
"Which one of you is the reporter?" he asks brusquely.
I wave my hand slightly.
"You didn't mention anything about bringing a partner."
"This is Gene Wheaton," I answer. "He used to work in Army intelligence. I brought him here to make sure your documents are the real thing."
"Hi, there," says Wheaton.
Instead of answering, the guy lifts his walkie-talkie to his mouth and mutters into the receiver.
"Perimeter. Check," a voice squawks. "All clear."
Apparently, he's communicating with someone else nearby, probably to make sure we really came alone. We seem to pass a test, and he's ready to do business. He tells me that he used to work in Army intelligence and hints at a long, illustrious career in special operations—including, he says, U.S.-sponsored drug flights. But the guy looks like he hasn't exercised in at least a decade. And his ridiculous habit of interrupting our conversation to speak in code into his walkie-talkie isn't impressing me much either.
Finally, he hands me a piece of paper stamped with the logo of the U.S. Defense Department. It looks like an uncensored version of what had been faxed to my office a week earlier: instructions to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and March Air Force Base not to record landings or takeoffs by two airlines.
This time, the names of the airlines aren't blacked out. They are Southern Air Transport and Evergreen International Airlines, both of which have long been suspected of running drugs for the right-wing Nicaraguan contras.
The only problem: the document isn't stamped "de-classified," meaning either it's a fake or, worse, it's been stolen from some top-secret military filing cabinet. The guy isn't asking for any money. He just wants me to take it from his hands.
"Don't," Wheaton says. If I take the document, he says, I run the risk of violating U.S. national-security laws—a crime punishable by several years in a federal prison.
Ultimately, I let the strange fellow with the dripping nose keep the paper. It's a turn of events he apparently hadn't even considered. He stomps off, still muttering into his walkie-talkie. The thought dawns on me that I've possibly just made the biggest mistake of my professional career.
I would later hear from reliable sources that Wheaton was wrong. But at the time, something about the guy's appearance and behavior told me he was a fraud—even though his paperwork looked like the real thing.
What kind of a reporter would pass up such an opportunity?
Three years later, I'm still asking myself that same question. Nick Schou