Cocaine Airways

A former CIA pilot says secret flights to El Toro could explain a Marine officers suicide

Things got weirder for Plumlee a week later. He returned to Florida, where he was arrested and extradited to Denver to stand trial on a $50 forged check. Despite the relatively nominal money at stake, and despite the absence of evidence, "the judge sentenced me to an indefinite stay in jail," Plumlee says. "Then I was sent to the reformatory and the FBI came out telling me if I didn't shut up about what I knew about the Kennedy assassination, I'd never get out of there."

In September 1964, two weeks after the Warren Commission released its report saying Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, Plumlee says he walked out of prison a free man. "No checks were ever produced written by me," he says. "And I was never asked to testify to the Warren Commission. I never talked about it for years, until the 1970s." That's when investigators for the Church Committee met with Plumlee in Phoenix and took his testimony about the Kennedy assassination.

Plumlee stayed in Colorado throughout the '80s, flying as a commercial pilot with several airlines. Some of his work put him in close contact with people who were suspected of smuggling drugs around the country. When he wasn't flying, he fielded telephone calls from Kennedy assassination researchers and flirted with the idea of publishing a book about his experiences. FBI records from the 1970s document that Plumlee told the agency about his involvement with Roselli and other Cuban mobsters—and about his presence in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. But his dream of writing a book on the subject went up in smoke. "My house burned down in Colorado in 1981," he recalls. "The house was firebombed. I got beat up in a bar. There were a lot of papers taken out of the house, and later, I had the IRS all over me. I blamed it on the Cubans."

*   *   *


The fire that destroyed Plumlee's book project drove him back into the dark world of CIA gunrunning. When friends in Arizona law enforcement learned about his problems, they offered him a job: posing as a drug pilot in an effort to infiltrate the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels then establishing themselves as middlemen in a broad conspiracy to smuggle cocaine from South America into the United States.

According to Plumlee, he and other pilots were secretly working for the Arizona-based Tri-State Drug Task Force. "My contact was the Phoenix organized crime detail," Plumlee says. "The federal agents didn't know about my existence." Plumlee flew under an assigned fake name: William H. Pearson. "All of us ops guys used aliases," he says.

When he first started flying drugs into the United States, Plumlee says he was certain the information he collected—flight routes, drop points and cargo loads—was being passed on to federal drug agents, along with the tons of cocaine he was ferrying. "The whole thing was set up as an interdiction program operating through Mexico," he says. "We were transporting weapons and drugs on C-130s. I was flying drugs into this country and weapons back into Mexico. We were working undercover to log and record the aircraft ID numbers and where the landing strips were. The object was to log these staging points and flyways. But then Iran-Contra came along, and we started flying guns back and forth and drugs into the southwest U.S."

Iran-Contra, as the covert operation Plumlee had stumbled into would later be known ("Iran" being a reference to the Reagan administration's secret missiles-for-hostages exchange with the Iranian government), began as a covert effort to arm the Nicaraguan Contras. The Contras were a right-wing army partly created by the CIA to topple the country's Sandinista rebels, who took over the country during a popular uprising in 1979. When the U.S. Congress banned any aid to the Contras, Oliver North, then a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps working for Reagan's National Security Council, secretly continued arms shipments. In 1986, the crash of a C-123 aircraft in Nicaragua that was owned by Southern Air Transport and piloted by a friend of Plumlee's, Bill Cooper, exposed the covert operation.

"The drug interdiction program was used as a cut-out for the CIA," Plumlee says, referring to the Tri-State Drug Task Force. "We had a meeting in the Oaxaca Café in Phoenix, and I was asked if I wanted to fly C-130s. The next thing I know, I was working for the CIA . . . The way that happened is that I was the last person who would ever be thought to be CIA because of all the past stuff that had happened with me not getting along too well with the FBI or CIA."

Plumlee says all the pilots involved in the CIA's guns-for-drugs exchange were given special numbers to push on their aircraft's transponder, codes that would give them the greenlight as they entered U.S. airspace; a U.S. Customs balloon on the Mexican border functioned as the traffic cop. "Someone was sanctioned to clear us across that border," he says. "It takes quite a coordination to do that." There were times, he says, when the balloon was conveniently brought to earth—just as Plumlee or some other CIA pilot neared the border—and other times when they'd simply broadcast the specified numbers on their transponders. "We don't see anybody within 50 miles of us," Plumlee says. "I say that's CIA."

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