By Gene Johnson
MALAKWA, British Columbia — Colin Martin was on bail, appealing his sentence for leading a U.S.-Canada drug conspiracy involving aircraft. But he was still able to obtain three helicopters, two of which ended up being flown by drug smugglers.
His case illustrates the remarkable ease with which smugglers have obtained flight training and helicopters as they grab a share of Canada's sprawling, multibillion-dollar trade in marijuana, cocaine and MDMA, or Ecstasy.
Of about 10 pilots arrested in roundups of British Columbia-based helicopter smuggling operations this decade, at least half had recently trained at flight schools, sometimes dropping out once they knew just enough to handle the machine, an Associated Press review found.
Flight school operators say they don't check a student's background or monitor what students do on their own time, though they generally do ask why a student wants to become a pilot. Several said they don't want to train smugglers, but they also don't want to turn away business simply because a prospective student might be heavily tattooed or pay in cash.
"I don't think there's anything we can do," said Chinook Helicopters owner Cathy Press, who has seen several former students arrested for smuggling. "If you went and thought everyone was drug-running, you could tell the police, but maybe you're wrong - and that's not great for business."
Even if her suspicions were correct, she added, "They might put someone in jail, but someone else will step forward, so why get in the middle of it?"
A clean criminal record is not a prerequisite for a pilot's license, said Rod Nelson, a spokesman for Transport Canada, the government agency that oversees the aviation industry. Nor do Canadian officials ask students to disclose previous convictions. They do ask about any substance abuse in an applicant's past.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration takes a similar approach, asking flight students to disclose previous convictions and requiring background checks only of foreign students, spokesman Paul Turk said.
Sam Lindsay-Brown was a clean-cut, friendly 23-year-old when he showed up at Chinook Helicopters to begin flight training in December 2007. He was also a drug smuggler. And for almost a year after Canadian police began investigating him, he remained enrolled, essentially working his way through flight school as a co-pilot on cross-border drug flights.
U.S. agents arrested Brown in February as he put his training to use by making a 426-pound marijuana drop in northeastern Washington state with one of Martin's leased helicopters. He committed suicide in jail four days later.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Transport Canada note that they can't bar people from studying as a pilot or obtaining a license without proof of criminal activity.
"The guy's 20-some-odd years of age, and he's gaining qualifications that can be used for a lawful purpose," said RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk. "It's a tragedy that he chose to get involved in this line of business, instead of pursuing the lawful side of the skills he was acquiring."
The RCMP declined to say whether agents were aware he had been enrolled at flight school. They had been investigating him since spring 2008, after a woman he hired to transport 200,000 tabs of Ecstasy was arrested in California and gave his name to police.
RCMP spokesman Norm Massie said the agency had no record of Brown making prior smuggling flights, but two coconspirators confirmed to the AP that Brown had made several as a co-pilot, meaning he would be paid at least $5,000 to help load and unload contraband and keep an eye out for trouble.
The coconspirators spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their own involvement in criminal activity and fear that they could face repercussions from other drug traffickers for speaking with a reporter.
Massie declined to discuss what steps the RCMP takes to monitor flight schools, but said the agency knows that some traffickers get training there.
"We would be remiss not to include that in our investigative techniques," Massie said.
Martin, 37, was sentenced in 2007 in Canada to 2 1/2 years in prison for leading a major drug-smuggling operation in the 1990s, one that started using an airplane after ground couriers were caught.
He said he became involved in drug trafficking about 16 years ago and remains well connected in the smuggling world, though he declined to discuss specifics; he was arrested but has not been charged in Lindsay-Brown's case. In interviews with the AP, he estimated that as many as 30 pilots across Canada make drug-smuggling flights at least occasionally.
Someone looking to hire a pilot can put the word out via Blackberry and hear from pilots as far away as Quebec or Australia by the end of the day, Martin said.
In dozens of interviews with smugglers, pilots, lawyers, Canadian and U.S. authorities, and operators of flight schools and helicopter companies, a snapshot of the highly specialized profession emerged.
Some drug-running pilots are highly experienced. Some do it full-time, and some do it on the side when legitimate business gets slow or unexpected expenses such as helicopter damage leave them struggling to pay the bills. Some enjoy the rush. Some have a thing for getting America high. They all like the money.
One, Shane Menzel, told a federal judge in Seattle that he turned to smuggling because it was so hard to find work as an inexperienced pilot. Many "low-time" pilots must work for years washing helicopters and cleaning out hangars before they get a real flying job.
People familiar with British Columbia's marijuana trade have estimated that anywhere from 30,000 to more than 80,000 pounds of pot per month is smuggled into the United States.
It's a huge business, infusing billions of dollars a year into the province's economy. The province's most prominent gangs - the Hells Angels, the United Nations, the Independent Soldiers - are believed to own most of the drugs moved across the border, but to avoid heat they leave the shipping to others.
Air transport is generally considered the best way to exploit the vast, unpopulated terrain along the border.
Planes can fly faster and farther than helicopters, but need airstrips. Helicopters can skim treetops - flying as close as three feet - to avoid radar detection. They can dart through low mountain passes or river valleys and land at a remote clearing or even a wide spot in a logging road, where they're met by GPS-equipped drivers. They're back across the Canadian border in minutes.
Often, no cash crosses the border, because it might be seized or difficult to exchange, Martin said.
Instead, whoever moves the marijuana or Ecstasy south gives the profit to a U.S.-based cocaine trafficker. That trafficker instructs a contact north of the border to pay the Canada-based owner of the marijuana or Ecstasy.
The cocaine trafficker then takes the proceeds from the marijuana to buy cocaine to be shipped north into Canada, where the transaction happens again in reverse.
A helicopter smuggling operation charges about $350-$550 per pound to fly marijuana south of the border, and $1,500-$1,800 per kilogram to bring cocaine back.
Such an operation, of course, needs helicopters. In Canada, it is difficult to lease a helicopter without an operating certificate, a Transport Canada document that allows someone to use a helicopter for commercial purposes. Such a document is a sign of legitimacy to leasing companies, who typically want to know what their machines are being used for.
But there are ways around that hurdle.
Many smugglers instead simply buy helicopters, registering them to "numbered" companies - 123456789 Ltd., for example. There are 90 helicopters registered for private use to such companies across Canada, Transport Canada records show.
In other cases, smugglers have paid third parties to register the machines for them, or they're not registered at all. One unregistered helicopter with the tail mark C-FTCH has been used in smuggling runs and recently was parked deep in the woods near Cranbrook, in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, three people with knowledge of the machine told the AP.
Martin bought the first helicopter he acquired in 2007, sight-unseen, for $925,000 from an owner in Texas. No conditions of his bail prohibited him from possessing aircraft. Massie declined to discuss Martin's case, but said generally: "Should those conditions be in place? Absolutely."
The helicopter was eventually repossessed when he couldn't afford more than $1 million in repairs. Meanwhile, Martin tried to lease another helicopter through Gorge Timber, a company registered in his wife's name. The helicopter was a Eurocopter EC-120 put up for lease by a British Columbia company called Vertical Solutions, run by Kevin McCart. Martin said he didn't think he'd be able to get the lease without an operating certificate, but a Calgary city police aircraft engineer, Greg Solar, who had helped him repair his first chopper, had a connection.
"I thought, 'We're a little company, we don't have the best books,'" Martin said. "And all of a sudden Greg's saying, 'I know Kevin McCart. I'll put in a good word for you guys.'"
Solar and McCart declined to speak with the AP, but Martin said he leased the EC-120 for $30,000 U.S. a month, including insurance and maintenance. He had it for about nine months, until last fall, when the owner took it back because uninsured pilots had been flying it. The helicopter was used in cross-border drug flights, Lindsay-Brown's coconspirators told the AP.
Early this year, Martin used Gorge to lease another machine - the Bell 206 Jet Ranger that Lindsay-Brown was arrested in - from Eagle Copters of Calgary, one of Canada's most prominent helicopter companies.
Mike O'Reilly, Eagle's president, did not return repeated calls from the AP.
"Sure, I have a past, but those charges were a decade ago," Martin said. "If you have the money and you want to get into a helicopter business, you can - doesn't matter who that individual is."
On Feb. 23, the day of his arrest, Sam Lindsay-Brown climbed into the Jet Ranger at Martin's shop and flew it to a snowy clearing outside Ione, Wash. He was to drop off 426 pounds of marijuana and pick up 83 kilos of cocaine, authorities said.
But the driver he was meeting, Len Ferris, had been arrested in Utah with the cocaine. For more than a day, Ferris did not return Blackberry messages from Sean Doak, a recently paroled drug trafficker who was his contact on the Canadian side of the border, Martin said he later learned from Adam Serrano, another man arrested in the case.
That was a clear sign of trouble, but Doak never told Lindsay-Brown about it, and Lindsay-Brown had no clue he was flying into a set-up, Martin said.
U.S. agents greeted him with guns drawn.
Martin reported the helicopter stolen. The DEA said it didn't believe him and returned the machine to Eagle Copters.
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The following week, another pilot flew down to meet Ferris - with predictable results. This time, it was Jeremy Snow, who recently had done flight training at Okanagan Mountain Helicopters in Kelowna. He was arrested as he landed in Idaho, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Seattle and is expected to face four years in prison.