The small airstrip in rural Virginia looked deserted Tuesday night as the small gold-and-white plane landed and taxied past two hangers and a pay phone then quickly cut its engines.
The darkness was deceptive. Moments later, local and state police emerged from the tobacco fields surrounding the strip seized the pilot, the plane and 1,400 pounds of marijuana valued at up to $1 million.
"This is just fantastic for Clarksville," said Sgt. John Quinley of the Virginia State Police about the drug seizure, believed to be the biggest ever in Mecklenburg County on the North Carolina border and about 190 miles southwest of Washington.
"The whole town is buzzing," he said, estimating that more than two-thirds of the town's 1,600 residents had visited Marks Municpal Airport since yesterday morning to view the 28 bales of marijuana seized by police. "they're going to be telling this to their grandchildren."
U.S. Customs Service agents followed the twin-engine Beechcraft Queenair from New Orleans in a larger plane and alerted local authorities when it touched down in Clarksville. Customs officials identified the pilot as 49-year-old William M. Dickerson of Leesburg, Va., and Wilson, N.C.
Dickerson was charged before a U.S. magistrate in Richmond with intent to distribute marijuana and released under $50,000 bond.
Federal drug enforcement authorities say the drug seizure, while relatively small compared with seizures in Florida of 30 tons, points up increased drug activity in the rural areas of the Mid-Atlantic states.
Tiny airstrips in rural areas where sophisticated law enforcement is lacking are highly attractive to those in the lucrative drug-smuggling trade.
"This is a real small town and I don't know how we got a plane full of marijuana here, anyway," said Clarksville Town Treasurer Mary Guerrant "They probably figured nobody was looking."
According to Customs spokesman James Mahan, federal agents began following the aircraft Tuesday afternoon, after pilots near New Orleans spotted it flying low over the Gulf of Mexico to avoid radar detection.
He said the plane first attempted to land at Oxford, N.C., but veered off when the pilot apparently became suspicious. It then landed at Clarksville, 30 miles to the north, and customs agents alerted a team of state and local police, which arrived minutes later.
Police condiscated the plane, which was registered to an airplane modification firm in Factoryville Pa., and arrested its lone occupant. Also seized were 28 bags of marijuana weighingg about 50 pounds apiece, which were scattered along the airstrip's 4,500-foot runway.
Authorities said the marijuana probably was being shipped from Mexico or Jamaica to the area around Chapel Hill, N.C., and said the Clarksville seizure would probably have no effect on Washington area supplies of the substance.
A preliminary hearing for Dickerson is scheduled for April 23 before a U.S. magistrate in Richmond.