Neither wind nor mud nor dark of night could keep a plane carrying 7,000 pounds of marijuana rom landing at the Hanover, Va., Municipal Airport on Tuesday night, but a class of fledging pilots and their flying instructor made sure the cargo ended up in the hands of police, not smokers.
It was about 2 p.m. when Julian Walker, manager of the tiny airport located 10 miles north of Richmond, looked up from his navigation class to see a gray and white DC-4 taxi down the runway. The airport rarely sees anything bigger than single-engine planes, so Walker immediately was suspicious.
"We get these little bulletins from the FAA," Walker said. "They tell us to look out for suspicious when I see it."
What raised Walker's curiosity, he said, was the plane's size. "When we deal normally with little airplanes that weigh 1,600 pounds and we get one weighing 73,000, that's bound to attract attention," Walker said, noting that in addition there had been no prior announcement that a plane that size would be arriving.
Walker promptly called the Hanover County sheriff's department, according to investigator Mitchell E. Hopkins, who arrived at the airport in an unmarked police car. He strolled up to the now-stationary plane and asked a man standing next to it what was in it.
"Antique furniture" came the reply, and Hopkins asked if he could search the plane.
And there, in the 20-year-old plane's hollowed-out interior, Hopkins said he found 7,000 pounds of marijuana carefully packed in two large wooden crates marked "Fragile. Keep in a dry place."
The marijuana, Hopkins said, was blond-colored and probably Colomibia in origin, a variety highly prized by marijuana connoisseurs. At a street price of $40 an ounce, Hopkins said the cache would be worth $4,480,000.
By night's end, Franklin M. Phillips, 22, of Louisville, Robert G. Eby, 29, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Dutch Robbins, 41, of West Palm Beach, Fla., were in jail, charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute it. The marijuana was confiscated by the sheriff's department. The plane was stuck in the mud.
At least two other persons reportedly were still at large, Hopkins said. And a number of questions were left unanswered.
According to Hopkins, the two at-large persons were seen darting off into the night when the three people on board the plane were arrested. The two were standing by a nearby flathed truck and forklift that apparently had been brought in after nightfall to unload the marijuana, he said.
Hopkins said that th flatbed truck and forklift were both registered in California under fictitious names. The plane also was registered under at least two fictitious names and police said they still are searching for its owner. Hopkins would not say where the plane's flight had originated.
Inside the plane, he said, were a number of false routes worked on aviation charts and fictitious logs of the plane's prior points of departure. The suspects apparently traveled lightly, as only small suitcases were found on the plane in addition to the marijuana, Hopkins said.
Hopkins said that Eby is apparently a ship designer and Robbins a concrete worker. According to police, Eby is out on bond after being arrested on other marijuana charges in Georgia and Florida.
The three suspects, who were dressed casually in sports shirts and slacks, were "a little surprised" at being arrested, but were generally well-mannered, Hopkins said. "None of them wanted to admit they knew each other," Hopkins said.
Conviction on charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana carry up to 40-year prisan terms in Virginia.
Eby was also described as "one hell of a pilot" by several police officers. The span between the DC-4's wheels was wider that the Hanover Airport runway so Eby landed the plane in the mud.
If it had not been for Julian Walker's flying class, Hopkins said, the plane and its cargo could easily have disappeared back into the night, since the airport normally is closed in the evenings.
Meanwhile, as Hanover County sheriff's deputies and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration combed the area for clues yesterday, the old plane sat serenely off the runway as officials tried to decide what to do with it.
"Maybe we should make it into a monument," said Julian Walker. "We could pour some concrete around it and charge 25 cents a person. It's the biggest thing to come to this airport since the Rockefellers visited King's Dominion."