US probes former race drivers over drug aircraft
MIAMI (AP) — U.S. drug agents are investigating an aircraft leasing business operated by two former champion race drivers that is suspected of providing airplanes to South American drug traffickers.
Court documents and interviews show that agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies raided the offices Monday of World Jet Inc. The company is controlled by brothers Don and Bill Whittington, who teamed up with a third driver to win the France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1979.
Years later, both pleaded guilty to having roles in a $73 million marijuana smuggling ring that authorities said financed their racing careers.
Court records show the Whittingtons now are suspected of illegally leasing aircraft to cocaine cartels and laundering drug-related profits through a resort hotel and a ranch in Colorado.
No charges have been filed in this case.
Mia Ro, a DEA spokeswoman, confirmed the agency is leading the investigation but declined to provide details.
An employee at World Jet hung up Tuesday when telephoned for comment, and the Whittingtons did not respond to email messages. It wasn’t clear if they had attorneys related to the probe.
According to the DEA, World Jet leases or sells aircraft to drug traffickers in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Africa at inflated prices, keeping the plane under the Whittington name or that of a third party and maintaining a U.S. tail number. After a certain period, the aircraft is returned to World Jet.
“In the event that the aircraft is seized pursuant to a narcotics interdiction, both parties can deny responsibility and World Jet Inc. can reclaim the aircraft,” the DEA said in the affidavit, filed in federal court.
Specific aircraft traced to World Jet were involved in numerous drug shipments or attempts, according to the DEA, including one Hawker 700 jet that was seized by the Venezuelan government earlier this year. One informant said that plane was supposed to carry more than two tons of cocaine from Venezuela to Honduras.
Another plane, a Beech King Air 300, was sold to the head of a South African company currently under U.S. investigation for laundering profits from the illegal drug and weapons trade in the U.S., the DEA affidavit says.