COMING: SPRING 2020
The pursuit of notorious drug smuggler Wally Thrasher
CHASING THE SQUIRREL - Book Summary
CHASING THE SQUIRREL is the amazing true story of notorious drug-smuggling pilot Wally Thrasher, whose investigation led to the biggest drug bust in the history of the Mid-Atlantic United States in 1986.
Thrasher was a charismatic blue-eyed daredevil who made millions flying marijuana and cocaine from South America and the Caribbean into the U.S. in the 70s and 80s. He was nicknamed "The Squirrel" for his uncanny ability to escape trouble, the Washington Post calling his brushes with death, "The stuff out of a James Bond movie."
He lived the good life with his beautiful Portuguese-born wife, Olga, at their mountain estate in Southwest Virginia's New River Valley, where cash was carried in by wheelbarrow and hidden in the house's beams. Thrasher also owned oceanfront homes, yachts in South Florida and several airplanes. His extravagant lifestyle featured weekends in the Caribbean, bear-hunting trips to Montana and high-roller junkets to Las Vegas, where he partied with Frank Sinatra's entourage.
But when an associate crashed Wally's marijuana-filled plane into Fancy Gap Mountain on October 17, 1984, the Feds finally had the evidence to arrest the Squirrel. However, soon came word that Wally had died in another plane crash -- this one in Belize -- and his body was allegedly burnt to ashes. Investigators soon learned the death certificate was fake and suspected the crash was staged. Back in Virginia, his wife, Olga, became a federal informant and shared details of the Thrasher drug empire with authorities. Based on her information, DEA agent Don Lincoln went undercover in an audacious sting operation, infiltrating the high-level smuggling ring. Twelve international drug traffickers were arrested and convicted in one of the largest federal court trials Virginia has ever seen. The investigation also led to the indictment of Roberto Squarez-Gomez, the Bolivian drug lord known as "The King of Cocaine."
The authorities' focus then turned back to hunting Wally Thrasher, who was believed to be living an assumed identity in a faraway tropical land. US Marshals spent decades chasing leads all over the globe to find him, even profiling the Squirrel on TV's "America's Most Wanted."
Author Ron Peterson, Jr. also wrote the 2019 best-seller, UNDER THE TRESTLE, selected one of the top 100 true crime books of all time (POPSUGAR, March 2019). His research for the true story of CHASING THE SQUIRREL included over 100 interviews with Wally Thrasher's former associates, friends and family, as well as the state and federal law enforcement authorities who pursued him. Wally's wife, Olga, and son, Montana were both interviewed extensively, providing new information.
Peterson's work has been published in newspapers throughout Virginia, as well as in corporate publications for two Fortune 500 companies. His career includes leadership positions at the Virginian Pilot newspaper and Cox Media, where he managed television advertising campaigns that appeared on CNN, Fox News and ESPN. A journalism major at Radford University, he served as sports editor for the university newspaper and played on RU's first NCAA baseball team in 1985. Peterson, a board member of the Hampton Roads Sports Media Hall of Fame, resides in Smithfield, Virginia.
Olga & Wally
Q: Who is Wally Thrasher?
A: Wally Thrasher was one of the most prolific drug smugglers in history. And by prolific, I mean he did it for a long time, repeatedly, from the early-70s through the mid-80s -- tremendous longevity for a drug trafficker. He was a legend in Southwest Virginia, he was nicknamed "The Squirrel" for his elusiveness. He was likened to the bootleggers who ran moonshine in that part of the state back in the day. Except Wally was flying planeloads of marijuana, not driving a car full of bootleg liquor. Friends, family and associates say that he was in it for the thrill, more so than the money; he was an adrenaline junkie years before that term was coined. A lot of the book sounds like fiction -- something out of a James Bond movie -- but I was able to verify all the stories about him. The book is filled with true tales about his adventures and brushes with death -- he once fought a gorilla, spent two years in a hellish Mexican prison, crash-landed a plane in the Everglades and bribed his way out of a bust in the Caribbean. And that's just the first couple chapters!
Q: How did you first hear about Wally Thrasher?
A: When I was researching my first book, UNDER THE TRESTLE, I spent a lot of time interviewing retired Virginia State Police officer Austin Hall, who was the lead investigator of the Gina Hall murder case, back in 1980. At one point, Austin said, "You know, you also ought to write a book about Wally Thrasher." I had never heard of him; Austin told me how Thrasher's life and times were like something out of a James Bond movie, and how law enforcement spent years trying to catch him, but never could. I researched Thrasher, looking up old newspaper articles about him and came to learn it was an incredible story which was largely untold. There was even a television segment on "America's Most Wanted" about him back in the 90s. I'm a big fan of untold stories and this is one of those true crime stories that has been largely untold. And the Wally Thrasher story has this sort of "D.B. Cooper" element to it, in that most of the federal authorities who pursued him believe he is still alive, somewhere in tropical South America or a Caribbean island.
Q: What kind of research went into the book?
A: One of the first things I did was contact his wife, Olga, who shared a lot of information about Wally's smuggling activities. Also, his son, Montana, who was six years old when Wally disappeared and has spent a lot of time investigating what happened to his father. Over the years, both of them have been approached by authors and wanna-be movie producers who wanted to tell this story, but never followed through. I promised them that I would tell the story accurately and respectfully and both agreed to give me full access to everything they knew. There are three key law enforcement officers that I spent a great deal of time interviewing. Once is David Dean, a special agent who headed-up the investigation of Thrasher for the Va State Police back in the 80s. I also spent time visiting with a DEA agent named Don Lincoln, who went undercover in an incredibly dangerous operation to infiltrate the international drug traffickers the Thrasher investigation led to. Lincoln is a legend in the DEA for the work he did on this case. Also, the retired US Marshal for the Western District of Virginia, Wayne Pike, who was appointed to the post when George W. Bush was President and had over 100 Marshals working for him. A lot of Pike's resources went toward the international hunt for Wally Thrasher. I also interviewed some of the associates Wally smuggled drugs with, who shared some of the innovative things Wally did as a dope pilot to avoid getting caught. Those smugglers eventually served time in prison in the 80s and 90s and now live in Florida. A few are aviation instructors now, which is pretty cool. And in addition to that, I interviewed a lot of people who grew up with Wally Thrasher or were his friends along the way.
Q: Tell us about Wally's wife, Olga?
A: Well, Olga knew about her husband's illegal activities and was peripherally involved, let's make no doubt about that. When she first met Wally, she was unaware that he was a smuggler and as she fell in love with him, sort of got caught up in the lifestyle he provided. Not to make excuses, but it is easy to see how easily it happened. Everyone who ever knew Wally raves about what a charismatic, good-looking, likable guy he was. When the Feds came after Wally, and he subsequently disappeared back in '84, Olga faced federal charges and a lengthy prison sentence. She wanted to do what was best for her children, so she became a federal informant in exchange for full immunity. And she gave the Feds a TON of information ... which enabled the authorities to eventually make the biggest bust in the history of the Mid-Atlantic United States -- seizing over 700 pounds of pure cocaine, $1.3 million in cash and arresting 12 international traffickers, as well as indicting three bona fide drug lords in South America. All because of Olga's inside info. She was given full immunity -- she turned down the Witness Protection Program -- and she has made the most of her second chance. After Wally disappeared, she went from living in a mountain estate and driving a Jaguar to living with relatives and driving an old Honda. But Olga bounced back, she became a successful designer, a career woman, and raised two kids who both grew up to be outstanding people. I came to admire the fact that she made good on the second chance she was given by the federal government.
Q: How about Wally's son, Montana?
A: The biggest irony of this story is that Wally & Olga's son, Montana Thrasher, is now a police officer in Georgia. Over the years, Montana has spent a great deal of time doing research on his father and the circumstances around his alleged death. He and I have been in contact a lot over the past year, often several times a week. Montana was willing to share a lot of the info he has compiled and that is included in the book.
Q: You mentioned the "Big Bust of 1986" ... tell us more about that?
A: Well, the book is really two books in one, the first half is about the life and times of Wally Thrasher as a drug smuggler. The second half of the book takes a deep dive into "The Big Bust of 1986" -- which happened when Wally disappeared and Olga became a federal witness. Olga helped the Feds set-up and bust another Virginia smuggler named Doug Griffin who flew tons of weed and coke into an airport near The Homestead resort in Bath County. Then, Griffin flipped -- "did the Lord's work" as DEA agents like to say -- and helped DEA agent Don Lincoln infiltrate the organization of Carl Warmack, a big-time Florida smuggler. Warmack then led the Feds to the major international traffickers -- some really bad actors from Cuba, Panama, Colombia and Bolivia -- a total of 12 conspirators who were eventually arrested. The sting operation seized over 700 pounds of pure cocaine that these guys flew into the Roanoke airport, along with over a million in cash. To this day, it is the largest drug bust in the history of the Mid-Atlantic United States. The Federal trial in Roanoke that ensued in 1986 was one of the biggest trials the state has ever seen -- security was so tight there were police snipers on the roof of Downtown Roanoke's federal courthouse to protect the trial witnesses. All twelve conspirators were convicted. And after that, the Bolivian kingpin known as "The King of Cocaine" -- Roberto Suarez Gomez -- was also indicted and eventually did time in prison in Bolivia. Suarez-Gomez was the inspiration for one of the characters in the 80s movie, Scarface. And all those dominos fell as a result of the original investigation of Wally Thrasher.
Q: Is Wally Thrasher still alive?
A: Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question. Both Olga and Montana believe he is dead; but the state and federal law enforcement personnel who worked the case say he is probably still alive. Living off the grid somewhere in the world. The DEA and US Marshals have spent a great deal of time and resources hunting for him. He was even profiled on TV's "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries." There have been many alleged sightings of Wally, all over the globe, that I cover in the book. When you read the book and get to know him, it's not hard to imagine the Squirrel living on a tropical island somewhere, toes in the sand, drink in his hand, living a life out of a Jimmy Buffet song.
Chapter One: Acapulco
The sleek silver Beech 18 airplane was poised at the far end of the airstrip, ready for takeoff from a mountain valley near Acapulco, Mexico. Wally Thrasher was in the pilot seat, prepared to do what he loved most: fly a plane.
It was September 4, 1974. Wally’s small cargo plane was loaded with 1,500 pounds of marijuana—a strain of Cannabis sativa called Acapulco Gold, cultivated exclusively in the Guerrero Mountains outside Acapulco. The weed had a distinctive greenish-gold color due to the way it was aged and dried by the gentle winds off the Pacific Ocean. It was “connoisseur pot,” a highly sought-after strain with an earthy smell reminiscent of pineapple.
Purchased straight off the farm in Mexico for forty dollars per kilo, the load of marijuana would accrue value on its way through the distribution chain and eventually be sold by US street dealers for twenty dollars an ounce. A 1,700 percent markup.
Wally Thrasher was one of the highest-paid drug-smuggling
pilots in America. He did not set up the deals or actually touch the product. He simply flew the dope from point A to point B, a critical mission for which he was extremely well compensated. His going rate at this time—early in his career—was $80 per pound, so he would earn a cool $96,000 for this particular smuggle once the weed was safely off loaded back in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Yes, Wally was in the dope-running business for the money, but most significantly, he was in it for the thrill. He was a daredevil in the truest sense of the word.
At thirty-four, Wallace Samuel Thrasher had a bold spirit and the dashing good looks to go with it. He was criminally handsome, blessed with the prettiest blue eyes most women had ever seen. A charismatic southern gentleman raised in the hills of Pulaski County, in Southwest Virginia’s New River Valley, Wally had a Hollywood smile, a stylish mane of prematurely grey hair, and an aura of confidence that turned heads everywhere he went. When he traveled through commercial airports, he was routinely mistaken for a celebrity—Merle Haggard or Burt Bacharach, among others.
Wally gave the gauges on the instrument panel a final pre-flight scan in the cockpit of the Beech 18, a classic plane that happened to be the same type of aircraft in which Ingrid Bergman flew away from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. He looked down the dirt runway and revved the twin engines. This bird was ready to fly. Along with his copilot, another American named Lewis Jones, Wally returned the thumbs-up sign to the Mexican men in charge of the ground operation standing beside the airstrip. He roared the engines to full power and released the brakes. Like a rocket, the Twin Beech barreled down the primitive, pockmarked airfield as the thrust pushed both pilots against the backs of their seats. Wally's adrenaline was flowing; this would be another dicey takeoff.
Most airplane crashes happen on final approach and landing, but in
the drug smuggling business, the most dangerous part of a flight is the
takeoff. This plane was about 600 pounds over its maximum allowable
gross weight -- "over the gross," in aviation lingo. Besides the 1,500 pounds
of weed, there were two 100-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks in the cabin: these
thick rubber "pillow tanks" resembled waterbeds and weighed 600 pounds
each when full. They would give the plane longer legs, enabling it to go all
the way to Lauderdale without stopping to refuel. But because the plane
was overweight, its performance was diminished—it would climb slower
and stall easier. If you were flying way outside the box of safety regulations,
the handling characteristics would range from bad to awful. Anyone who
ever flew with Wally said he was the best pilot they had ever seen, and he’d
have to be to fly a bird this obese. He was now essentially a test pilot, a role
Potholes hammered the overladen plane as it bounced down the
runway with the engines screaming at max power. It took two thousand feet
of the three-thousand-foot airstrip for the aircraft to finally reach the target
takeoff speed of one hundred miles per hour. With the end of the strip only
a hundred feet away, the wheels finally lifted away from the ground. They
were airborne, but just barely, as it was impossible to climb and gain
"Squirrel" in high school
altitude without the overloaded plane stalling and falling back to the ground. So as usual, Wally improvised. He flew through the valley at only a few hundred feet, slaloming between the mountain ridges as the plane climbed gradually. “Treetop flyin’,” he called it.
Five minutes later, he and Jones were able to breathe a slight sigh of relief as the plane finally reached one thousand feet. But if they encountered turbulence—not to mention a storm—the bloated aircraft would go down like a ton of bricks. If the crash itself didn’t kill the two pilots, the fire would, as they would be wearing the several hundred gallons of fuel from the auxiliary tanks.
Wally proceeded on a northwest heading up the Mexican coast. The plane gradually gained more altitude over the next half hour as he savored the view of the turquoise Pacific Ocean to his left and the rugged green Guerrero mountain range to his right. Despite being overweight, the plane was performing well, cruising at two hundred miles per hour as it approached an altitude of ten thousand feet. The twin-engine Beech 18 had a reputation among aviators as a fire-breathing dragon—a challenging plane for mere mortals to fly. But more accomplished pilots like Wally loved the handling characteristics and performance.
One hundred and fifty miles into the northwesterly flight path, Wally reached the first waypoint, taking a right turn as the sleepy fishing town of Zihuatanejo appeared on the horizon. Zihuatanejo would later be made famous as the oceanfront paradise that Andy Dufresne dreamed of and eventually escaped to in The Shawshank Redemption.
The sweeping right turn to the starboard side put the aircraft on a heading due east, a direct path toward the Gulf of Mexico, about 350 miles away, and beyond that, Florida. As the plane gradually burned fuel and became lighter, Wally was able to climb to a comfortable cruising altitude of twenty-four thousand feet, above the mountains of the Mexican state of Michoacán. As planned, he would fly well north of Mexico City, wisely avoiding the airspace of North America’s most populated metropolis.
“We’re on the home stretch now, Squirrel,” Jones said with a grin.
Wally laughed. “Squirrel” was his old high school nickname, coined
at Virginia’s Pulaski High in the late 1950s. Wally had earned the
nickname from his football teammates for his scampering running style
on the gridiron. While piloting planes filled with weed in the 1970s, he
repeatedly demonstrated this similar squirrel-like ability to outrun law
enforcement authorities. It went well with his abnormal tolerance for risk.
Wally was an adrenaline junkie years before that term was coined.
He was like a cat with nine lives; friends described him as a guy who
would never back down from a dare, no matter how dangerous.
Take a particular outing in 1970, for example. Wally and several
friends in Virginia were at the Roanoke County Fair on a hot Saturday
night in August. The feature attraction was a traveling show called
“Noell’s Ark Gorilla Fighting.” Inside a caged boxing ring was the biggest,
meanest-looking gorilla anyone had ever seen—almost six feet tall and at
least four hundred pounds with menacing eyes that stared right through
anyone who looked at him.
A banner read, “If you can last three minutes in the ring with the
gorilla, you win $100.” The fair had been open all day, and no one had
been brave enough to try.
When the Squirrel and his friends walked past the gorilla fighting booth,
a buddy dared Wally to fight the massive ape. True to his reputation, Wally accepted the challenge. He introduced himself to the gorilla’s owner, Robert Noell, who happened to be missing two fingers of his right hand. A few years earlier, the savage ape had bitten them off in a training incident.
“Keep your hands away from his mouth,” Noell said. Then he asked Wally to sign a waiver releasing Noell from liability and handed Wally a football helmet.
“Trust me; you’ll need it,” he said.
What happened next would become an often-told tale in Southwest Virginia. Although there are several different versions of the story, all of them agree on several points. Wally managed to last about two and a half minutes in the ring. For the first two minutes, he held his own against the gorilla, peppering him with punches and jabs as the animal sized Wally up, growing increasingly angry. Then, suddenly, the great ape became the aggressor, savagely charging Wally and knocking his helmet off with a powerful roundhouse. He began beating Wally in the head repeatedly with the helmet. The gorilla ended the fight by picking Wally up and throwing him about twenty feet into the surrounding crowd.
“Catch meee!” Wally yelled as he flew through the air. His friends took him to the hospital, where he was treated for a concussion and given a couple dozen stitches for his various lacerations.
Growing up in the pastoral setting of 1950s Pulaski County, Wally had an upbringing as respectable as the iconic Leave It to Beaver. He had a strong father who was always home in time for dinner and a loving
mother who doted on her children. Just as his counterpart did in the TV show, Wally always learned a lesson by the end of each day. The Thrasher family home was in the actual town of Pulaski, the seat of the county of the same name. With a population of only about ten thousand at the time, Pulaski was a veritable Mayberry. A very wholesome small town to grow up in, Pulaski was a place where pot was something you cooked in, coke was cola, and a joint was a bad place to be.
Wally displayed venturesome tendencies from an early age. His old boyhood pals from his MacGill Village neighborhood still shake their heads as they recall him as the kid who continuously engaged in risky activities—impulsively climbing to the tops of tall pine trees, scaling treacherously steep cliffs, and swimming across icy lakes and rivers, always with little thought to the possible consequences.
“Wallace made a habit of doing dangerous things when we were kids,” recalls childhood friend Lanny Harris. “He had no fear of failure. He never thought about the consequences of hazardous activities—what would happen to him if he fell a hundred feet from the tip-top of that tall tree or how he could drown if he got a cramp out in the middle of the lake a quarter mile from shore. He just had absolutely no fear.”
Wally joined the Boy Scouts when he turned eleven and established himself as one of the highest achievers in his troop, making Eagle Scout by age fifteen. He approached camping trips with great enthusiasm, his mom often telling friends and neighbors, “Wallace would rather sleep outside than inside.”
When he reached high school, Wally and his competitive spirit found a worthy outlet on Pulaski High’s football field, where his speed and elusiveness earned him the “Squirrel” moniker. At five foot eleven and 175 pounds, he was an outstanding lineman, playing both as a hard-hitting guard on offense and a ball-hawking end on defense. In the springtime, he was on the track team, where he was a great sprinter but excelled most in distance events.
School friends note that while most teenage boys inevitably go through a clumsy stage, that was never the case with Wally.
“Wally never had an awkward day in his life,” Harris recalls. “From day one in school, he had this very self-assured demeanor; he was handsome, athletic, outgoing, and confident. He never had to try hard to be popular.”
Another high school classmate perhaps put it best: “All the guys wanted to be like him, and all the girls wanted to be with him.”
While Wally took full advantage of his popularity, dating more than his fair share of girls, his true passions were the outdoors and hunting. During deer season he would hunt every day if given the opportunity. On days when no one else wanted to go, he would routinely set out on his own, hiking for miles to hunt on secluded land. Often it was private property, and according to one friend, “He could care less about who owned the land or lived nearby.”
An old classmate shares an example.
“Wally often skipped school to go hunting and one time went out by himself on foot, exploring some country land way out in the middle of nowhere. He hunted all day and then came across a farm and a barn and decided he was going to sleep there and spend the night, without telling the farm’s owner. The next morning, crack of dawn, the farmer finds Wally in his barn and confronts him, angrier than hell ... ‘What the hell are you doing in my barn?’
“Well, Wally uses his charm, establishes a rapport with the farmer, and is invited to have breakfast with him and his family. Eventually, the farmer takes such a liking to Wally that he invites him to come hunt there anytime he wants, gives him an open invitation to stay in their spare bedroom and have meals with ’em and everything.
“The really funny thing was that when Wally finally went back to school, he was expelled for truancy. Well, Wally was tickled to death, ’cause that gave him another couple days to go back and hunt on the farmer’s land and stay there as the family’s guest.”
Wally graduated from high school on June 14, 1958, and entered the U.S. Navy ten days later. While most of his friends took jobs at one of Pulaski's furniture factories or opted to go to college, Wally saw the Navy as an opportunity to see the world. He served three years as a sailor, his tours of duty taking him to ports of call in the Canary Islands, France, Portugal, and Spain, which whet his appetite for future visits to foreign lands.
Wally received an honorable discharge in March of 1961, returning home to Pulaski worldlier and a bit wiser. He took a job selling funeral plots at a local cemetery, Highland Memory Gardens in Dublin. He proved to be a natural salesman, earning more money during his stint there than his friends did in conventional jobs.
Not wanting to miss out on his college education via the G.I. Bill, Wally then enrolled at Virginia Tech (VPI, as it was called then) in nearby Blacksburg in the fall of 1961. He was a straight D student, an academic record made somewhat more impressive by the fact that friends say he never once cracked a book or set foot in the library. He found college boring, not seeing any practical application for freshman-level general ed classes. Wally chose not to return to VPI after the spring of 1962, confident he could blaze his own unconventional path to success in life without a college education.
This self-assurance was obvious to anyone who ever knew him.
“Wally just had this aura about him,” said an old friend. “Not only was he this great-looking guy, but he was very charismatic, with a magnetic sort of personality. He could meet someone for the first time and have them leave the conversation feeling like he was their best friend. He was extremely confident, but somehow it was short of being cocky and arrogant. Anyone that met Wally fell in love with the guy.”
Wally found the working world to be a breeze, taking a sales job that gave him freedom and an opportunity to travel. He sold a line of men’s clothing, representing the manufacturer at the wholesale level and calling on retail stores and chains. He also worked for Airhart-Kirk, a clothing retailer owned by his uncle Bill Kesler’s family near Roanoke. His natural likeability again made it easy for him to excel.
Pictures from this time show his movie star looks, which soon led to a series of modeling gigs with a New York company that made designer clothing. The hours were short and the money good, with Wally taking full advantage of the biggest fringe benefit that came along with the job: attractive women.
In early 1963, Wally became smitten with a young woman who locals still say was “the prettiest girl in Southwest Virginia,” a young Radford resident named Mary Jo Bishop. They married on October 21, 1963. Wally was twenty-three and Mary Jo twenty-two.
Within about a year, Mary Jo was pregnant. She gave birth to a
daughter, Kimberly Darst Thrasher, on August 23, 1965. Acquaintances
recall that Wally “still had a lot of tomcat in him” and spent a lot of time
away from home, going out socially with his buddies. Wally being Wally,
he was not short of female accompaniment. This was even brought to
light by the local Southwest Times newspaper, which ran a photo in
July 1966 of Wally at the Claytor Lake State Park beach with a
bathing-suit-clad young woman on each shoulder, Charles Atlas–style.
One could only imagine his bride’s humiliation.
Contemporaries viewed these dalliances as inappropriate for a
married man with a wife and young daughter at home. Before long, Wally
and Mary Jo separated, and on June 27, 1968, their divorce was official.
Wally’s entrepreneurial spirit shined through in the late 1960s,
when he opened a trendy clothing store in downtown Radford called the
Hydraulic Buffalo, located at 1033 Norwood Street. Many longtime
residents of the New River Valley remember the store well, as it sold
hippie clothing for both men and women. The best part of the job for
Wally, predictably, were the young women who would come into the store
A display case in the back was well stocked with marijuana-
smoking paraphernalia like bongs, pipes, rolling papers, and roach clips,
and this was perhaps where Wally first became aware of the market for cannabis. This was the peak of the hippie era—Woodstock was in 1969, counterculture was widespread, and drug use was common.
Around 1970, about the same time Wally fought the gorilla at the county fair, his thrill-seeking spirit drove him on another adventure. On a whim, he signed up for airplane flying lessons in Roanoke. Wally showed up for his first lesson, and he was hooked on flying before the plane’s wheels ever left the ground. He later said, “It was like a magical door opened for me, and I could see the rest of my life on through it.”
His aviation instructor marveled at Wally’s natural instincts for flying. His kinesthetic awareness and ability to think clearly in a hectic environment. Just as a musician’s ability to “play by ear” is a most desirable trait, Wally had a similar innate ability to fly a plane by feel. And rather than just relying on this natural ability, Wally worked extremely hard at expanding his aviation skills, reading instructional manuals for hours at a time. For once in his life, he was sacrificing other pursuits to work on something that was truly important to him. Flying lessons are prohibitively expensive for most people, but Wally devoted every spare dollar he had to buy flying time, going on training flights four or five times a week. In record time, inside of six months, he earned his FAA Private Pilot license. The Squirrel had become the Flying Squirrel.
“I think Wally’s motivation to become a pilot was not only for the thrill of flying, but also to one-up the rest of us,” recalls a friend. “While we were driving down the road in our hot rod cars, there was Wally up above us, flying a plane and doing loop-the-loops.”
Completely eaten up with the flying bug, Wally connected with an old friend named Donnie Holiday who worked in public relations for Piedmont Aviation. Holiday helped Wally land a job selling airplanes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The job was a perfect fit, combining Wally’s newfound love for aviation with his natural gifts as a salesman. His clientele, wealthy businessmen, all took a shining to Wally and he quickly became the company’s top sales rep. A side benefit of the job was that he gleaned a great deal of knowledge about the technical aspects of aircraft -- their weight capacities, flying speeds, landing strip requirements and even engine design and maintenance. This would later prove invaluable.
Flying every day, Wally continued his formal aviation training and within a year, earned an FAA Commercial Pilot Certification. In 1971, eager to become a commercial pilot, he made the move to Florida, where jobs in aviation were abundant. Wally settled in New Smyrna Beach, which offered a vibrant lifestyle more suitable to his personality than rural Southwest Virginia. Located on Florida’s Atlantic Coast just south of Daytona Beach, New Smyrna was rated one of the country’s top beach towns by Surfer Magazine. It was a place where all the cool guys and pretty girls hung out – in other words, it had his name written all over it. He learned to surf and took full advantage of bachelor life, his dates an impressive showing of both quantity and quality, according to old acquaintances.
A friend recalls, “New Smyrna Beach was a hopping little oceanfront town in the early-1970s. There were bars and nightclubs all along A1A, the main drag that went through town. On the ocean side of the road were surf bars, where the beach crowd hung out and surf bands played. The other side of A1A was more of a country-western, honky-tonk scene, like the movie ‘Urban Cowboy.’ Wally was the only guy I knew who frequented the night spots on both sides of the street. The guy had friends everywhere he went.”
One of the Squirrel’s first paid gigs as a pilot in Florida was taking a plane full of skydivers up to 10,000 feet to bail out of a jump plane. On a busy day it was not uncommon for him to fly twenty or more loads of skydivers. Each flight, he would promise a case of beer to any skydiver who could beat his plane back down to the ground – a bet he never lost.
Wally also worked as a crop-duster for Williams Air Service in Fort Pierce, flying a small plane equipped to spray pesticides and herbicides on the large inland farms and orange groves of Saint Lucie County. He thrived on the task, honing his low-altitude flying skills, swooping insanely close to the ground and dodging power lines to douse acres of shoulder-high corn. He perfected the art of tight, sharply-banked turns as good as any barnstorming air-show pilot, performing an aerial ballet at 140 mph. The crop-dusting service’s owner, Harold Williams, swore that Wally was the best he’d ever seen at the dangerous task. It was excellent experience, as the skills he developed would serve him well in his future endeavors.
Looking to expand his horizons, in late 1971 Wally found a very well-paying niche as a charter pilot, flying tourists to and from the Caribbean for an air taxi service out of Fort Pierce and Fort Lauderdale. He became the charter pilot of choice for an affluent clientele who enjoyed Wally’s professionalism and magnetic personality. In no time at all, he had all the charter business he could handle, shuttling wealthy tourists to the islands. The pay was good and by mid-1972, Wally had saved up enough money to buy his own airplane, the twin-engine Beech 18 that he was now flying, full of marijuana, over Mexico.
Chapter Two: Trouble
As he flew through Mexican airspace, Wally passed the time
making small talk with Lewis Jones, his good friend and frequent
partner in crime, seated in the co-pilot seated to his right. Jones,
45, owned a central Florida cattle ranch and listed his legal
occupation as “rancher.” It was Jones who first introduced Wally
to drug smuggling a few years earlier. They became acquainted at
a Fort Lauderdale restaurant/bar called ‘Frankie & Johnny’s, a
popular watering hole for local pilots. Rumored to be a mobbed-
up joint, it was owned by a group of guys from Jersey with Italian
surnames who sat together at a back table perpetually watching
horse races on satellite TV.
Like most people Wally met, Jones took an immediate
liking to him. The Squirrel’s reputation preceded him, such that
when they were introduced, Jones loudly remarked, “So you’re
that hot-shot, lady-killin’ son-of-a-bitch I’ve heard about … I hear
you’re one hell of a pilot!”
The pair hit it off right away, spending the rest of the night
Wally at Claytor Lake
buying each other drinks and swapping stories of high-flying adventure and travel through the Caribbean. As the liquor flowed, Jones spoke freely – as usual, much too freely – about his exploits running dope. Wally’s curiosity was piqued; he was all ears, asking Jones many questions about the business.
They became fast friends. While the duo had a lot in common, they were opposites in many ways. Wally was 34 and looked younger. Good-looking and fit, he was low-key and cool. Jones, on the other hand, was 45 and looked older. He was loud and obnoxious, comically unattractive with a pot belly and a “skullet” hairstyle (bald on top, long in the back). Wally worked-out and ate right, treating his body like a temple; Jones treated his like a tent. And while Wally had many beautiful women seeking his affection, Jones had to stoop to being a sugar-daddy with free cocaine to get younger women to accompany him to the clothing-optional Caribbean resorts he frequented.
As the flight continued over Mexico, Jones grew bored and restless in the co-pilot seat and turned his attention to the airplane’s stereo system. He inserted an 8-track tape into the tape player. It was Jimmy Buffet’s “A1A” tape, which had just hit the charts a bit earlier in ‘74. Wally and Jones had both seen Buffet perform live many times in the early-70s, at venues in Miami and Lauderdale – Bubba’s, The Flick and The Coconut Grove. As Buffet often did with patrons when playing South Florida dive bars, he once joined Wally & Lewis on a break between sets, drinking a few rounds of tequila shots at their table. That was how Jimmy Buffet rolled as he made his way up in the music business.
Soon to be famous for his hit, “Margaritaville,” Buffet was an airplane pilot himself and just so happened to have a circle of friends that included a few guys he called “gentlemen marijuana smugglers.” Buffet even admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that he once smuggled a bale of weed from the Caribbean to Florida. “For my own consumption,” he said. About a half-dozen of the songs he wrote were inspired by dope runners who he romanticized as modern-day pirates. One of his most popular tunes, “A Pirate Looks At 40” is an example …
“I’ve done a bit of smuggling, I’ve run my share of grass. I made enough money to buy Miami,
but I pissed it away so fast … Never meant to last … Never meant to last.”
Singing along with Jimmy Buffet at 24,000 feet above the earth, a beautiful sky on the horizon, Wally and Jones felt like the song was written for them. They were both as happy as they had ever been in their lives. Each pondered how much they loved this line of work and the perks that came with it. They often joked that flying a plane was better than sex … and the perks of this job provided plenty of both. There were wonderfully long nights in exotic bars and nightclubs in tropical lands, with an endless supply of women and good liquor.
“Wally, what the hell would you be doing with yourself if I hadn’t gotten you into this business?” Jones asked him, laughing. “You know, first time I laid eyes on you, I knew that you were a Goddamn natural born dope smuggler!"
Wally laughed along with Jones and shook his head. He was right, Wally was indeed grateful to Lewis for bringing him into the smuggling game. It happened in mid-1972, coincidentally at about the same time President Richard Nixon was in the White House stating that drug abuse was “Public enemy number one.”
It was Jones who introduced Wally to the man who was the leader of their smuggling ring, Kenneth G. Burnstine, an extremely wealthy, larger-than-life Fort Lauderdale businessman. Burnstine’s backstory is hard to believe, but almost a half-century later, an internet search still brings up dozens of news articles about Burnstine’s exploits as a trafficker. Even a Wikipedia bio.
The big fish in a group of South Florida businessmen colloquially
called the “Jewish Mafia,” Burnstine was President and CEO of an
airplane leasing and charter service called Florida Airways International.
While it did plenty of legitimate business, it was also a front for a major
international drug trafficking organization.
Ken Burnstine was a character straight out of central casting. Originally
from Chicago, his parents ran a car dealership patronized by the Capone
mob back in the day. He was Ivy League-educated, earning an MBA
before joining the Marine Corps for the Korean War in 1954, where he
served as a pilot. After the war, he made a fortune as a real estate
developer and investor in Lauderdale’s 1960s growth boom. In 1964,
Burnstine built perhaps the most famous building in South Florida, the
cylindrical KenAnn Building (named after him and his wife Ann, hence
KenAnn). The building’s design was inspired by, no kidding, The
Jetsons. The futuristic round building is still a South Florida landmark,
complete with a lobby waterfall and interior design elements borrowed
from architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The 8th floor rooftop featured
Lauderdale’s top-tier nightclub and dining venue – The Chateau Madrid,
the go-to spot for classy live entertainment ranging from Tony Bennett
to Rosemary Clooney to Louis Armstrong.
Burnstine’s ostentatious taste was also on display at his castle-
like 7,000 square foot mansion on the Intracoastal Waterway, at 2101 Middle River Drive, in Lauderdale. In his oak-paneled library, a button slid a wall of books away – James Bond style – to reveal a fully-equipped shooting range and an assortment of pistols, rifles and other weapons hanging on the wall, ready to shoot. His property was surrounded by a tall brick wall with signs warning, “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” This was no joke, as several pet lions roamed the property.
Why an already-rich, successful businessman like Burnstine would become involved in drug smuggling is a question that still puzzles many. But apparently, at some point in the late-1960s, Burnstine had become bored. Yearning for the same thrills and adventure he’d experienced as a Marine pilot, Burnstine became a middle-aged soldier of fortune, flying illegal shipments of guns to the Banana Republics; countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that were entangled in civil wars and militant uprisings. He was linked to infamous mercenaries like Mitchell WerBell, III and Lucien Conien.
Burnstine made the transition from gun-running to dope-smuggling when he met a drug trafficker named James Scott Harvey in the bar of Club Internationale in Fort Lauderdale, in February of 1972. Over drinks, Harvey shared that he had made a big drug deal with the “Rhode Island Gang” to smuggle large quantities of marijuana from Jamaica, through South Florida, up to the Northeast for distribution. Harvey was doing the smuggling by boat and encountering numerous challenges, lamenting the fact that several of his boat-loads of pot were intercepted by authorities.
Burnstine had a suggestion.
“If I can fly guns, I can damn sure fly your dope,” Burnstine boasted to Harvey.
By the time the drinking was done that night, Burnstine had a handshake agreement to run an air smuggling operation with Harvey, under the front of Florida Airways International.
Burnstine’s company was ideally suited for the task, owning a fleet of eleven aircraft, World War II era Lockheed Lodestars that shuttled legal cargo to-and-from the Caribbean when they weren’t filled with weed on drug runs. Burnstine jokingly called the aging Lodestars his “marijuana armada.”
When Jones introduced Wally to Burnstine, in late-1972, he vouched for the Squirrel’s reputation as a stand-up-guy. Wally was given a crash course on how his marijuana made it into the United States from Jamaica, then the principal supplier for Burnstine’s operation. Wally learned the Rastafari in Jamaica had almost an endless supply. Not far away, in the US was an insatiable demand, along with an established distribution network to get pot into the hands of street dealers in major U.S. cities. The big challenge – what kept shot-callers like Burnstine awake at night – was how to get the dope from here to there. This was where a pilot like Wally came in.
Wally discovered that his unique set of skills gave him what was essentially a ground-floor opportunity. Wally’s timing was perfect, through sheer luck, he was in the right place at the right time with the right talents. In years previous, most illegal drugs had been brought into the U.S. via boat. Similar to 1920s prohibition-era rum-runners, early-70s era dope smugglers had relied on stealthy “go-fast” cigarette boats to outrun authorities. But in response, the U.S. Coast Guard had developed their own high-speed watercraft and helicopters to intercept them.
Seeing the opportunity, this was when adventurous airplane pilots like Burnstine -- many of whom were veterans trained to fly in the US military -- jumped into the smuggling game with both feet. Making things easy was the massive amount of air traffic in Florida, enabling drug pilots to blend in effortlessly. The profession of airborne drug smuggling was like a stock shooting up in value, as state and federal authorities could not adapt quickly enough to keep pace.
Wally smiled to himself as he thought about the first drug flight he ever flew, when he smuggled 1,000 pounds of weed from the Caribbean to a private airfield near Daytona Beach. He was so excited when he landed the plane that he didn’t even wait around to get paid. Two hours later he was at home, still hopped-up, trying to unwind, when his doorbell rang. He answered and a man he had never seen before handed him a tinfoil package and walked away. Wally expected cookies. Inside was $80,000 in $100 bills. It was love at first sight.
Like any successful business, the one Wally and Jones worked for had well-defined roles for everyone in the organization. At the top was Burnstine, the CEO, focused on long-range and strategic planning. He financed each operation, as most loads required payment up-front at the time of pickup.
The #2 guy, Merle Gottlieb, was VP of Florida Airways, handling the
day-to-day operations, planning individual deals and managing the people
and resources from start to finish. Depending on the size of the deal,
Burnstine and Gottlieb each netted at least $100,000-$200,000 per run,
often well north of that, especially for a cocaine deal, which commanded
a higher rate. Wally shied away from running coke.
Gottlieb also coordinated the “ground crew” who were waiting to
off-load the product when Wally and Jones landed back in South Florida.
A pair of vans were poised at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where
the crew of unloaders would do their job as Wally and Jones nonchalantly
walked away from the plane, their task complete. The vans would then
transport the product north on I-95, along the well-established drug
corridor up to northeast cities like Washington D.C., Baltimore,
Philadelphia and New York.
The manager of the ground crew typically made $10,000 per load
for supervising 3-4 off-loaders who made about five-grand each for a
few hours of grunt labor. The members of the ground crew were
small-time local dealers paid in product rather than cash.
But the most important player in the operation, far and away, was
the airplane pilot. He was the superstar free agent. The diva. The pilot
typically made anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 per load. But the job
was arguably the most dangerous occupation in America, as a dope pilot
was many times more likely to be killed in a crash than busted by the Feds.
As Wally and Jones continued their flight above Mexico, they passed over the state of Michoacán, about 100 miles north of Mexico City. It was then that Wally noticed that one of the plane’s two engines, the one mounted on the left wing, was running a bit rough. They were Pratt & Whitney R-985 “Wasp Juniors” that typically ran with a smooth, low rumbling sound likened to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at cruising speed. At first, it was a subtle, almost imperceptible vibration that a less intuitive pilot would not have detected. But Wally could feel and hear it, gradually increasing in intensity. Within ten minutes, it was sputtering distinctly enough for even Jones to notice it.
“What the hell is that?” Jones said.
Wally said nothing, visually scanning the gauges on the instrument panel while listening intently to the sound. The left engine continued to sputter and cough as the tension built in the cockpit.
“The engines should both be good,” Wally said calmly. “Tip-top. I had ‘em both serviced two weeks ago back in Fort Pierce.”
Jones said nervously, “Do you think those sons of bitches gave us bad fuel?”
“That’s a possibility,” Wally said, thinking ahead about what to do if the situation became a crisis.
Contaminated fuel was always the X-factor when refueling at bush league airstrips. One of the many occupational hazards is the lack of modern fuel storage and delivery systems at backwoods outfits like the one they just departed from near Acapulco. Like most aircraft, the Beech 18 required specialized fuel known as AvGas (Aviation Gasoline). It is distinctly different fuel from MoGas (Motor Gasoline, used in automobiles) in that it is specially formulated for stability, safety and predictable performance under a wide range of temperatures and environments. If MoGas or water had found its way in with the AvGas, the contaminated fuel could be catastrophic to the Twin Beech’s engines.
Running through the trouble-shooting checklist in his head, Wally turned his attention to the mixture control for the engines, which regulates the fuel-air mix. It was a dial located just to the left of the throttle. Wally adjusted the mixture ratio so it was more rich; a higher fuel ratio. This seemed to help at first, but within a minute the left engine was sputtering again.
He then tried to goose the engine back to form, running it at full-throttle, half-throttle, quarter-throttle. It was all the same. Still sputtering.
Suddenly, the left engine backfired so loudly that it shook the entire aircraft.
“Holy Shit!” exclaimed Jones, almost jumping out of his seat.
Wally said nothing.
An oily smell of burnt machinery crept through the cabin. Both men looked out the cockpit window toward the left engine. It was not running. Dead. The sight of a still propeller, at 24,000 feet, was hair-raising to say the least.
“Holy Shit!” Jones said again, beginning to panic.
Wally remained quiet, his pulse barely elevated as he continued through his checklist.
“Identify, verify, feather,” Wally said to himself. This is the trouble-shooting mantra for a failed engine. Any pilot worth his salt can say it in his sleep.
He pushed the red “prop feather” button on the instrument panel. It would activate a hydraulic pump to “feather” the failed propeller, hopefully re-starting the dead engine. In his flight training years earlier, Wally had rehearsed this exact scenario, when his instructor took him up to 25,000 feet and turned off both engines. Instructors call it an “engine out” training exercise. On that memorable training flight, Wally had successfully feathered the props and re-started both engines within thirty seconds.
Repeatedly, Wally tried to feather the prop and re-start the engine. But it was no use, as the left engine refused to spark.
A favorite debate among pilots is whether a single-engine or twin-engine plane is safer. Most pilots feel they are safer in a twin than a single. Because in a twin, if one engine goes out, you still have another and although it is difficult, a twin can be flown with one engine out. But other pilots point out that if you lose an engine in a twin, power and maneuverability are so greatly compromised that you will just have one more engine to get you to the scene of the crash that much quicker.
With no other alternative, Wally devoted his full attention to the challenge of flying the plane on only the right engine. It was difficult, but doable. Since flying a twin is essentially like having a power plant on each wing, with one engine out, the aircraft does not fly straight, it will “yaw” toward the blown engine. This can cause the plane to spiral out of control within seconds if the pilot does not adapt quickly.
To avoid this death spiral, Wally needed to essentially do three things at once. First and foremost, he deftly maneuvered the rudder control to stabilize the yaw of the plane to avoid the dreaded graveyard spiral. Second, Wally used the aileron control to adjust the ailerons, located on the wings, stabilizing the banking of the aircraft and preventing a barrel roll. And third, he raised the plane’s elevators, located on the tail, to optimize the aircraft’s pitch and prevent a nosedive. Within 15 seconds, the plane was trimmed and stable, as Wally was able to keep her steady.
But a few minutes later, the right engine began to cough. As Wally remained cool, continuing to troubleshoot and evaluate the options, Jones was in full panic mode.
“Goddamn bad fuel they gave us,” Jones said. “I guaran-goddam-tee it!”
As the right engine’s performance diminished, the plane began to lose altitude. Things were getting very bad, very quickly. It was clear that this bird would not stay in the air long. As the minutes went by, the plane continued to steadily lose altitude at a rate of 500 feet per minute, despite Wally’s best efforts at keeping the altitude steady.
The situation had progressed to a worst-case scenario. This was now damage-control mode. The immediate priority now was to find a clear patch of ground for a controlled crash landing. Wally had done this before, so it was not his first rodeo.
“We gotta land her or she’s gonna land us,” he said to Jones.
As their altitude lowered to 5,000 feet, Wally spotted a rural dirt road with about a quarter-mile of straightaway. That might be enough. It was a crapshoot, but this was the only viable option. Making the landing even dodgier were the tall trees at each end of the road’s straightaway section. A steep landing approach would be necessary.
But if there was one thing Wally knew how to do better than fly an airplane, it was land an airplane. His usual technique was to fly down to ground level, flying the plane only a few feet above the ground with the nose elevated, and ease off the engine until the plane quit flying, and the landing gear smoothly touched the ground. He attempted to do the same on this rutted, pothole-laden dirt road. Despite his very steep angle of approach, necessitated by the surrounding trees, along with the compromised maneuverability, miraculously, he managed to touch down in a three-point attitude, with all three wheels contacting the ground simultaneously. It was a hard, jarring landing, but a safe one nonetheless. Once on the ground, the aircraft bounced along at 75 miles an hour, careening along the uneven dirt road, its wings clipping tree limbs on either side. Finally, the combined forces of gravity and friction helped the brakes bring the rolling plane to a stop about twenty feet short of a large grove of trees at a sharp turn. The Squirrel had escaped trouble again.
“I need to change my underwear,” Jones joked. They both breathed a sigh of relief, safely on the ground.
After some nervous laughter, still giddy with adrenaline, Wally and Jones exited the plane and stepped out into the 95-degree heat to assess their predicament. While Wally examined the engines, Jones walked around the plane’s perimeter, looking for damage to the landing gear and wing tips. The landing gear and tires were okay, and there were several dents and dings on the ends of each wing from clipping trees limbs as they landed. But hopefully, she was structurally flyable.
As for the engine, Wally shared his assessment.
“I’m no mechanic, but I think if we drain the bad fuel and could somehow get good fuel from somewhere, I could get her started and running right,” Wally said. “Then maybe we could taxi down this road until we come to a longer straightaway or an open field or something … somewhere to take off and get her back up in the air.”
Jones offered his two cents: "Or, we could just to get the hell out of here, leave the plane behind and get home the best we can."
Both men had discussed this very scenario on several occasions, not only in pre-flight planning sessions with Burnstine and Gottlieb, but also in late-night barroom conversations, swapping stories with other smugglers.
Ten minutes went by as they continued to ponder their options. Then, suddenly, there was rustling in the woods around them. A few seconds later, loud clicking sounds. Rifles cocking. Startled, Wally and Jones looked around to see a dozen men dressed in military fatigues, with M3 rifles pointed at them. A rag-tag bunch of Mexican army soldiers.
The soldiers began shouting in Spanish. Wally and Jones each spoke a little Espanol, but the men were yelling so rapidly that they could not be understood. The soldiers surrounded them, poking with their rifle barrels, continuing to bark loudly in Spanish.
“No hablo Espanol,” the two Americans said repeatedly, holding their hands up.
The soldiers pushed them both onto the ground, face-first, forcing them to spread their arms. While one solider pushed Wally’s face into the ground with his boot heel, others conducted the crude Mexican form of “frisking.” One man pulled Wally’s shirt up to his neck, exposing his torso, while another man yanked his pants down to his ankles. Jones, spatchcocked on the ground beside Wally, received the same treatment. A crass way to search for a hidden weapon, but effective.
“Levantate!” they were told. Stand up.
Wally and Jones’ hands were tied behind their backs and they were marched down the dirt road, prodded like cattle with the ends of the rifles. After a quarter-mile walk, they came to an old military van. The doors in the back were opened and both men thrown into the cargo area. It was like going from a sauna into an oven. Inside, a man covered their heads with a hood, tied at the neck. The van careened down the road at full speed, as Wally and Jones bounced off the walls in the back like pinballs.
(End of Excerpt)