Cocaine Airways

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

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Whatever Plumlee has told the government about secret CIA flights involving weapons and drugs that involved military bases, including El Toro, during the 1980s, remains a secret, his testimony classified. So far, no document has emerged showing that his under-cover-of-darkness landings in Orange County ever took place.

But I may have nearly had that document one chilly winter morning 10 years ago.

That day, I found myself shivering in California's high desert, standing beneath the wing of a hulking B-52 bomber at March Air Force Base's Historical Aircraft Museum near Riverside. The sky was clear, and the glare of the sun off the silver fuselage above us was blinding. At my side was Gene Wheaton, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer with leathery skin, silver hair and a scraggly beard. We were waiting to meet a mysterious source who claimed to have top-secret government documents proving that drugs and weapons were flown in and out of U.S. military bases during the 1980s.

He was late. Wheaton grumbled impatiently. Suddenly, an overweight, middle-aged Latino in a faded U.S. Army parka and dark aviator sunglasses marched toward us. He was breathing heavily. In his right hand, he clutched a black walkie-talkie. He was not happy.

"Which one of you is the reporter?" he barked.

I lifted my hand, waving slightly.

"You didn't mention anything about bringing a partner."

"This is Gene Wheaton," I answered. "He used to work in Army intelligence. I brought him here to make sure your documents are the real thing."

"Hi there," said Wheaton.

The man didn't answer. Instead, he glanced around, peering beneath the belly of the B-52, and raised the walkie-talkie to his mouth.

"Perimeter. Status?"

"Perimeter. Check," a voice squawked. "All clear."

Satisfied, the man told us he also used to work in Army intelligence. He hinted at a top-secret background in black-box operations, including, he said, covert drug flights sponsored by Uncle Sam. With his free hand, the man pulled a folder from his pocket and handed it to me. Inside was a piece of paper stamped with the logo of the U.S. Department of Defense. It looked like an uncensored version of what had been faxed to my office a week or so earlier: instructions from the Pentagon to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and March Air Force Base not to record landings or takeoffs by two civilian airlines.

This time, the names of the airlines weren't blacked out: Southern Air Transport and Evergreen International Airlines. The man with the walkie-talkie didn't demand anything—except that I take the paper from his hands. But the document wasn't stamped "declassified." It could be stolen, Wheaton warned, and if I accepted it, I could go to federal prison for violating national security laws.

Spooked, I followed Wheaton's advice and refused the gift. The thought dawned on me that I had just narrowly avoided being set up. The guy's bizarre appearance and behavior suggested he might have been a fraud—even though his paperwork looked like the real thing. I would later hear from reliable sources that Wheaton was wrong, and that I could have taken the document without fear of being arrested. I gave the man my business card and told him if he was determined to give me the document, to stick it in the mail and call me at work to let me know it was coming.

The strange man stomped off with his walkie-talkie. He passed through the shadow of the B-52 and disappeared into the bright sunlight. I'm still waiting for his call.

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