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July 19, 2010

It's raining marijuana

GREENVILLE — Law enforcement authorities believe they know who was piloting a plane found abandoned Monday morning at the Caddo Mills Municipal Airport.

Hunt County Undersheriff Joe Knight said a warrant was being prepared Monday night for a California man, after learning the owner of the aircraft was also from California.

“We found the owner of the plane and found out who he lent it out to,” Knight said.

The identity of the suspect had not been released as of press time, pending the issuance of the warrant. The plane was reported to have been carrying almost half-a-million dollars worth of marijuana, some of which was dumped over the Neylandville area early Monday morning.

The aircraft had been followed by federal agents across the southwestern United States, nearly colliding with the surveillance plane during a touch-and-go landing at Majors Field municipal airport in Greenville.

Carl Rusnok with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Dallas said the plane had been under surveillance for some time before it came to Hunt County.

“We were alerted to a plane suspected of smuggling drugs,” Rusnok said.

ICE partnered with Air Marine operations through the Department of Customs and Border Protection to begin tracking the plane.

“The plane was identified as coming from Arizona, so it was followed for a while,” Rustok said. “The ICE agents involved had reason to be suspicious of the plane and of the people on the plane.”

Rustok would not comment on the reasons why the agency became suspicious of the aircraft, as it was part of a continuing investigation.

The agents followed the aircraft as it landed at Majors Field Municipal Airport and landed next to it, before the suspect plane took off again.

“From what I understand, they nearly collided,” Rustok said.

Knight said at around 5:22 a.m. Monday, the sheriff’s office received a report of an aircraft flying very low near Majors Field Municipal Airport. About two hours later, a citizen reported finding the abandoned aircraft at the Caddo Mills Airport. Inside the plane, deputies found a large black duffle bag-style suitcase, filled with about 100 pounds of marijuana.

Knight said there was no evidence the plane crashed at the airport.

“There was no damage to property, other than a few plants knocked down,” Knight said. “Our guess is the plane just ran out of fuel.”

Knight said the aircraft was impounded.

“We are going to hold it for investigative purposes,” Knight said.

Local and federal investigators spent most of Monday connecting the dots in the case and gathering evidence from across the county.

At 9:45 a.m., a call from a Neylandville-area couple, saying they had heard an aircraft flying low overhead before hearing something hit their roof earlier in the morning. In the daylight, the couple made a surprising discovery.

“They found a large duffle bag on top of their house,” Knight said. That bag was also filled with marijuana.

A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter later found two more duffle bags, each filled with about 100 pounds of marijuana, in a field just off of Farm-To-Market Road 512 in the Neylandville area.

“These folks in the airplane were dropping large bags of marijuana out over the county,” Knight said. “We found an additional 89 pounds of hydroponic pot inside the aircraft.”

The marijuana had an estimated street value of  $1,000 per pound, with a total approximate value of $489,000.

While investigating the aircraft, drug dogs from the sheriff’s office and Greenville Police Department tracked the occupants of the plane to FM 1565.

The owner of a nearby gas station reported finding a man and woman at the front door of his business when he opened up for the morning. The individuals were asking about bus stations in the area.

Undercover agents from the Greenville Police Department and the Rockwall County Sheriff’s Office staked out the bus stations in both locations and a man and woman matching the descriptions of the individuals from the service station were located at the Greenville bus stop, but were not the same people.

After a check, the female was allowed to go on her way, while the man was found to have a parole warrant out of California and was detained at the Hunt County Jail. Knight said the individual is not believed connected to the abandoned aircraft.

The pilot of the plane might still be in the immediate area, Knight said. A photo of the suspect was being prepared in connection with the warrant and is expected to be released to the public sometime today.

While the arrests of suspects carrying large amounts of marijuana or other drugs are commonplace along the highways of Hunt County, Knight said Monday’s discovery of a drug smuggling plane is only the second such incident reported locally since Sheriff Randy Meeks took office in January 2009.

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