By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
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By Gustavo Arellano
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By Steve Lowery
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Thirteen years ago, former CIA pilot Tosh Plumlee went on television to discuss his top-secret career running drugs and weapons for the agency during the 1980s—a career that included covert flights to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Plumlee had already testified about that activity to Senator John Kerry's 1989 inquiry into the CIA's ties to Central American drug traffickers. His testimony remains classified until 2020. After the program aired, the FBI warned Plumlee that if he kept talking, he could go to federal prison for violating U.S. national security laws.
Plumlee kept his mouth shut, settled in a small town in rural Pennsylvania and enjoyed the quiet life until three weeks ago, when he told his life story to OC Weekly (see "Cocaine Airways," Sept. 15). So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, four days after that article appeared, things got weird for Plumlee all over again.
On the morning of Sept. 18, Plumlee went to a local coffee shop to read the newspaper as he does every day. The town where he lives is small enough that strangers tend to stick out. He noticed two men sitting in a car in the parking lot of the restaurant. After he finished his coffee and morning read, he saw that the two men—both wearing suits—had moved from their car to a small table outside. As he walked past them, one of the men called out, "Hey, are you Tosh Plumlee?"
As Plumlee turned around to answer, both men sprang from their seats and approached him. One of them flashed an official-looking badge identifying himself as an FBI agent. Plumlee was only able to make out part of the man's name on the badge.
"We just want to let you know that you're being investigated for making false allegations against the government," the man said.
The man didn't mention OC Weekly, but the timing wasn't lost on Plumlee. "I said, 'Well, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do,'" he says. "'So I'll see you in court.'"
Plumlee drove home and immediately called the Pittsburgh office of the FBI. He provided them with the partial spelling of the name on the badge and asked if they had an agent matching that description. "They couldn't confirm if they had any agents by that name or whether I was being investigated," he says. As he hung up the phone, the possibility dawned on him that he was being harassed by bogus feds.
"They showed me credentials, but that doesn't mean nothing," Plumlee says. "And the FBI doesn't work like that. The FBI doesn't come out and hit somebody on the street and say, 'Hey, we're investigating you.' And how are they going to prove anything? They'd have to go to court and open up all these secret files. That's never going to happen. I believe it is somebody passing a message to me that they are watching what I'm saying."
If somebody is trying to send Plumlee a message, it wouldn't be the first time. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Plumlee was writing a book, Black Knights of Cuba, about his CIA days. Among other things, the book included Plumlee's recollection that right-wing Cubans planned to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Miami in November 1961 by firing a bazooka at Air Force One—and that he and other operatives had been in Dealey Plaza on the day of Kennedy's assassination, looking for pissed-off Cubans.
In the course of researching the book and calling old contacts in Miami, he'd been told to back off from the book project. Plumlee says he ignored the advice. In 1981, he was driving from Grant, Colorado, where Plumlee lived when he wasn't flying on a regular basis, to nearby Bailey when someone fired several shots at his truck, riddling it with bullets. Lisa Lien, whose parents owned a local restaurant that Plumlee used as his mailing address and telephone number, was in the truck with Plumlee at the time.
"We were coming back to the restaurant and we were shot at," she says. "I don't remember a whole lot, because I was 20 and it was more than 20 years ago. We got out and were really freaked out. Neither of us got hit, but there were bullet holes in the bottom of one of the doors or toward the rear end of the truck."
In August of that year, two men in suits approached Plumlee in Denver and told him to stop stirring up the past. "One of them was supposed to be a Secret Service agent," Plumlee says. "But his name didn't check out. And of course, everybody was saying he was CIA, but I don't go there on stuff like that."
That wasn't the end of it, however. A few weeks later, someone attacked Plumlee outside a bar in Evergreen, Colorado. "I got pretty well beat up and the Evergreen Police Department never showed," Plumlee says. "And I drove home and that's when I see my house is on fire." Neighbors were able to retrieve Plumlee's dogs from the house, but most of his belongings—including his documents and partially written manuscript—went up in flames. "There was a hole in the window, and accelerant was all over the place," he says. "It was firebombed. Who was behind it? Was it the CIA? The Cubans? I have no idea."
A former neighbor of Plumlee who asked not to be identified by name claims she saw the fire from her house. "We thought it was a forest fire," she says. "It wasn't a small fire. It was fast, and there were men in suits running around. They split before the fire truck came." On another occasion, the woman adds, men in suits parked near her house. "I think there were four guys, and a guy in front picked up a pair of binoculars and scoped our house out . . . There was an odd feeling in the air back then."
Brad Lien, Lisa's brother, who now runs the family's restaurant, also remembers the day of the fire. "I remember Tosh coming back from the bar all beat up, and then we heard about the fire," he says. "We all knew about it because everyone and their brother had police scanners. It was pretty suspicious." He adds that, because Plumlee used the restaurant as his home address, he'd often see strange visitors looking for Plumlee. "A couple of times people would come in looking for him," he says. "We always said we didn't know where he was. Guys in suits and ties. I'm a biker, these guys were clean. Any kind of fed or someone clean-shaven and smelling pretty you can spot right off the bat."
Plumlee later considered writing another book, but when his publisher told him he'd have to send it to the CIA to be reviewed and possibly censored, he backed down and kept quiet. When the Weekly first contacted him 10 years ago, shortly after his television appearance, to ask him about his covert flights to El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Plumlee refused. After his most recent visit from the two men in suits, he could be forgiven for wishing he had remained quiet a bit longer. "I live in a quaint little town and am active in community affairs," he says. "I'm 69 years old and I'm not trying to start anything. Stuff like this just goes with the territory."