Agents Seize Four Planes in Wisconsin Bound for Colombia Drug Operation
OSHKOSH, Wis. (AP) _ Federal agents seized four modified DC-3 cargo planes in this eastern Wisconsin city, alleging the craft were bound for duty with a Colombian drug operation, officials announced Friday.
U.S. Attorney John E. Fryatt said the planes were seized Thursday afternoon as part of a 4 1/2 -month Drug Enforcement Administration investigation of purchases of aircraft by Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel.
The investigation has focused on alleged money laundering by U.S. aircraft brokers in Phoenix and Atlanta and has resulted in indictments in the two cities, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Lipscomb said.
Lipscomb declined to reveal any information about those indictments.
″Our allegation is the money used was drug money and in fact that the planes were to be used to traffic narcotics,″ Lipscomb said.
The planes, valued at about $10 million, were seized at Wittman Field in Oshkosh, a city of 50,000 along the banks of the Fox River in east-central Wisconsin.
Pilots with Air Colombia S.A. of Bogota, which purchased the converted craft, arrived Thursday in Oshkosh to take the planes to Colombia, said J.E. Snyder, agent in charge of the DEA office in Milwaukee.
The pilots were questioned and released and the planes were transported to ″a secure area″ outside Wisconsin by federal marshals, Snyder said.
The cargo planes were vintage World War II aircraft that had been converted by Oskkosh-based Basler Flight Services for modern cargo transportation, Fryatt said.
The U.S. Attorney’s office recently filed sealed documents in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee seeking forfeiture of the aircraft, Snyder said.
″The next move will be on the people that tried to buy the aircraft,″ Snyder said. ″We’re obviously filing documents with the court that indicate the aircraft were purchased with drug money. They have to file documents indicating they weren’t.″
No criminal charges are anticipated against Basler, Snyder said. ″As far as we’re concerned, he’s a legitimate vendor selling to what he thought was a legitimate company,″ he said.
Tom Weigt, president of Basler Turbo Conversion, which rebuilt the planes with new turbo-prop engines, said his company was a little suspicious when negotiations with Air Colombia began.
″Initially, when we started talking with these folks, we had done investigations as best we could to find out if they were running an upstanding organization,″ he said. ″Each time we made a check, it always came up OK.″
Weigt said the deal was originally made for six airplanes, but two were canceled. Air Colombia, under the provisions of the contract, had made progress payments for the planes, but had not made a final payment, he said.
The Medellin drug cartel is described by U.S. officials as a powerful crime organization responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine exported from Columbia into the United States.
Officials refused Friday to detail the specific links between the cartel and the purchase of the planes.
The DC-3s were originally designed by Douglas Aircraft in 1937, Weigt said.