The Taxi Driver

Military sales to Latin American dictators, CIA contacts, and the strange odyssey of OC cabby Richard Schorling

"I knew Noriega pretty well," said Schorling. "I met him when he was Lieutenant Noriega in 1978. I got him helicopter training."

Probert, who says he accompanied Schorling on a few trips to Latin America, recalls seeing Noriega's troops entertaining Schorling and the rest of his party. Other Schorling business associates and employees support that claim. "I met Noriega a couple of times," said Leigh Sloan, Schorling's assistant from 1982 to around 1985. "Noriega and Rick were good friends."

Sloan says she occasionally traveled with Schorling to Panama and Mexico. She says she first met Noriega in early June 1985. They gathered in a tiny, dingy hangar office at a private, rural airport on the outskirts of Panama City to discuss an aircraft sale. Sloan said Noriega wore fatigues and talked easily with Schorling, like the two were old friends. Schorling was there, she said, to buy aircraft from Noriega.

"We always flew directly in and never went through customs," Sloan said. "I thought that was strange. The military would pick us up. And everyone always carried guns, even on the airplane."

In 1989, the Bush administration toppled Noriega in a clumsy and expensive military assault hilariously titled Operation Just Cause. Noriega was captured, returned to the U.S. and convicted in a U.S. court of drug trafficking. He's serving out the remainder of a 10-year sentence, reduced from 40 years.

How the loss of Noriega as a contact affected Schorling is unknown. What is known is that by 1990, Schorling was engaged in far riskier and more dangerous deals than simply selling helicopters to tuna fishermen. According to Probert and others, Schorling pitched a number of questionable schemes. One involved selling the Guatemalan air force $4 million worth of helicopters procured in Mexico for half that sum. In another cumbersome plan, Probert asserts, Schorling proposed circumventing U.S. export restrictions by selling aircraft parts directly to "the Guatemalan air force office in Miami."

Both plans apparently died, but Probert said Schorling had other ventures to consider. "Rick also dealt with wrecks," he said—buying wrecked helicopters, repairing them and then selling them for a hefty profit.

Schorling says dealing with wrecks was never a big business for him. "Repairing helicopters was only a small part of it," he said. "The biggest part was the sale of new and used helicopters."

But court records tell a different story. According to a declaration written in 1993 by former Schorling associate Lynn Carlson that is on file in the Los Angeles Superior Court, this practice was a common part of his business. "Then and now," wrote Carlson, "it was a profitable enterprise to rebuild old helicopters in the United States and sell them at a high markup in the Latin America market."

Probert remembers this "enterprise" especially well: it cost him $325,000. Typically, Probert says, "I would give Rick $25,000 to get a wreck, and he'd turn it around and give me back $50,000. If I gave him $50,000, he'd give me $100,000. We did this for years."

Buying low and selling high would make Schorling merely an astute businessman. But Schorling's critics say he went far beyond that.

Court records and interviews with former Schorling associates allege that sometimes he installed junk parts in the wrecks he obtained. Sometimes, he'd sell a helicopter two or three times—without notifying each owner. Sometimes, he'd go through the motions of selling a helicopter that never existed or was just a wreck sitting in a Long Beach hangar.

One day, Probert says, Schorling came to him with a "super helicopter deal": for a $375,000 investment, Schorling would buy four helicopters from a Latin American nation and then sell three. That would leave Probert with his initial investment, another $100,000 and the fourth helicopter.

It didn't work, and Probert lost his money.

Schorling says the whole deal came about because—after years of pushing for a big deal—Schorling finally allowed Probert into one of his "Central American helicopter deals." This one, Schorling says, involved helicopters from Guatemala; the deal collapsed when U.S. Customs confiscated the helicopters because of their registry. He claims everyone involved, including himself, lost money.

Probert remembers it much differently. According to him, Schorling didn't put in a dime. "The whole thing was bullshit," said Probert. "The helicopters never existed. I saw papers showing them registered in the U.S. and sitting out in Van Nuys, but that was it. I never saw them myself. I wanted my money back, so he wrote me two checks: one for $50,000 that cashed, and one for $325,000 that bounced. Then he split."

The bounced check, which Probert showed the Weekly, was dated Feb. 22, 1991, and was from Schorling's company Frontier International, then headquartered in Laguna Hills. The signature "Rick Schorling" is clearly visible.

Schorling told the Weekly his check bounced because the money had been wrapped up in the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense. "Then there was a coup," Schorling said, "and that ended the possibility of our getting our money back."

But there was no Guatemalan coup—unless it escaped the notice of the world media. When told of Schorling's explanation, Probert rolled his eyes. Then he produced a series of faxes he traded with Schorling in 1992, as he cursed Schorling for stealing his money. None of Schorling's messages mentioned a Guatemalan coup.

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