Hondurans Say 4 Died in Plane Crash
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) _ An American pilot killed with three crewmen when Honduran jets shot down their DC-3 airplane was a former U.S. Air Force officer with a record of transporting drugs, military officials said Thursday night.
Honduran authorities tentatively identified the pilot as Joseph Bernard Mason of Miami Springs, Fla., who would have been 51 on Friday. They said he was a former Air Force colonel.
The U.S.-registered plane was coming from Nicaragua and proceeding northwest when it was intercepted and shot down Monday night, the military said. It crashed at El Palmital in Lempira province, about 6 miles from the border with El Salvador border and 108 miles west of Tegucigalpa.
″Mason was a very experienced pilot and a veteran of the Vietnam War,″ said Col. Manuel Suarez Benavides, a Honduran military spokesman, at a news conference. ″Mason was investigated in the United States for his activities related with the transportation of drugs.″
He said investigators were not sure of the nationalities of the other victims, but they were not thought to be Americans. On Wednesday, the military said they were Guatemalans and gave no reason for now saying the nationalities have not been determined.
The earlier version said no narcotics were found in or around the wreckage, ″but it is believed the cargo was thrown out by the crew″ shortly before the craft was intercepted, the military said.
Suarez Benavides said Thursday: ″We have not found any drugs but we have evidence that Mason was dedicated to transporting cocaine from Colombia to the United States.″
During the news conference, Suarez Benavides showed reporters some of the partially destroyed documents recovered from the area where the plane crashed and burned, consuming the bodies in flames.
American Embassy spokesman Arthur Skop said he could not confirm whether Mason was a former Air Force officer, but said: ″He was not a U.S. government employee and was not on any U.S. mission.″
The leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua says the plane matched the description of one that was dropping supplies for U.S.-backed Contra rebels in that country. Skop said that assertion was ″absolute garbage.″
Skop also said Honduras has not released Mason’s remains for return to the United States and he did not know when that would be done since the case is under investigation.
In Miami, authorities said Mason’s last known address was Miami Springs, and he had a record of drug-related arrests in the Bahamas and Miami.
Billy Yout, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Miami, said Mason was arrested on Jan. 26, 1983, in Bimini, Bahamas, and charged with possessing 1,560 pounds of marijuana.
Mason’s plane was confiscated, he paid a $20,000 fine and apparently was released, Yout said.
Also in Miami, Metro-Dade police spokeswoman Virginia Martin said Mason was arrested in 1981 on charges of marijuana possession and cultivation in Dade County, but the charges were dropped.