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Plane with a past disappears after drug bust

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published July 1, 2007


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CLEARWATER - More than 150, 000 airplanes criss-cross the country each day, from jumbo jets to two-seat Cessnas to Air Force F-16s. They all are headed somewhere.

They each carry a past.

The story of a plane that spent two years in Clearwater includes stops with the Seattle Seahawks, Howard Dean and Kenny Rogers.

But it is the plane's last load of cargo - $100-million worth of cocaine - that drips with intrigue.

* * *

The rusted-out DC-9 wasn't fit to fly, but the aircraft broker from California called anyway.

A man identifying himself as Jorge Corrales said he needed a plane for a traveling soccer team. The plane's owner, Fred Geffon, needed the money.

Like dozens of others, Geffon had believed in Brent Kovar and his innovative wireless technology, Geffon would later tell lawyers. He bought the DC-9 to be a flying showcase of Kovar's work.

But now that business was crumbling, creditors were calling and the twin-engine DC-9 was one of the last things left.

Geffon sold the plane, painted white with blue trim and a gold seal that made it look presidential, for nearly $1-million.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials interviewed Geffon about the cocaine eventually found on board. He is not suspected and has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Kovar, who was not involved in the sale of the DC-9, was not interviewed by federal officials and also is not a suspect.

But their pasts are intertwined with the plane - a 40-year-old jet that has traversed countries and oceans.

* * *

The DC-9 was built in 1966 and originally made runs from New York to Miami for the now-defunct Trans World Airlines.

It is a "tank of an airplane, " said Jeff Wolfson, a Chicago area businessman who once owned the plane.

In the 1980s, the plane flew for billionaire Kirk Kerkorian's Tracinda Corp., majority owner of the MGM Mirage resort and casino chain. It also shuttled Kenny Rogers across the country on a music tour.

The NFL's Seahawks used it in the 1990s. And it was Howard Dean's presidential campaign plane in 2004.

Later that year, Wolfson sold the plane to Geffon for 2.5-million shares of stock in Kovar's company, SkyWay Communications Holding Corp.

* * *

For SkyWay, the DC-9 was to be a glorious demonstration of the company's innovation.

Kovar said he had developed a way to almost instantly transmit images, video and text to airplanes flying across the world.

He claimed his technology could have prevented the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But business never took off.

"I lost too much money in the deal, " Geffon said.

That's when the call came from California.

The man known as Jorge Corrales wanted the plane, tail number N900SA.

* * *

Corrales, who could not be reached for comment, made six payments to Geffon totaling $1.047-million, court documents show.

A federal aviation inspector authorized one flight to a hangar so the plane could be repaired, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The destination: Caracas, Venezuela.

Federal aviation officials say it's cheaper to make plane repairs overseas. It also lined up with the story that an international soccer team would be using the plane.

On April 5, 2006, the DC-9 took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The FAA, however, says it has no records about the flight, or which inspector authorized the departure.

* * *

Little is known about the DC-9's time in Caracas. What is known comes from Mexican authorities.

First, it was not repaired.

And at some point, maybe in Caracas or perhaps Columbia, the plane was loaded with 128 black suitcases marked private and packed with 5.5 tons of cocaine.

The plane headed north to Mexico on April 10, 2006. Soon thereafter, its engine started to fail.

A smaller jet, which accompanied the DC-9, flew ahead of the plane and landed at an airport in Ciudad del Carmen, 350 miles to the southwest of Cancun.

The men on the jet arranged for the DC-9 to make an emergency landing. They said the plane had a mechanical failure.

But when officials on the ground tried to board the DC-9, they were turned away. They were told there was an oil leak.

Eventually, the Mexican army seized the plane.

On board: suitcases full of cocaine, one of the larger seizures in the country's history.

Three of the four people on board the two planes were arrested. The DC-9's pilot escaped.

* * *

N900SA is poison these days.

Wolfson, the former owner, has 2.5-million shares of SkyWay stock to show for the sale.

Its value? $7, 500.

Kovar is in bankruptcy court. And Geffon, who would not say how much money he lost in the deal, spent weeks in news and internet reports linked to an international drug deal.

A conspiracy theorist who runs a popular Web site continues to link both Geffon and Kovar to the Mexico bust. The blogger calls the plane "Cocaine One" because of its presidential-looking paint job.

In Mexico, authorities fingered Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera as the man behind the drugs found on the DC-9.

Guzman's cartel smuggles multiton cocaine shipments from Colombia through Mexico to the United States, according to the U.S. State Department.

Nicknamed "Shorty, " Guzman is one of Mexico's most wanted criminals. He remains on the loose.

And the DC-9?

Mike Horan, an attorney involved in the SkyWay bankruptcy case, heard the plane may be back in the United States, possibly in Miami.

Others say it's still in Mexico.

Or that it was seized by the U.S. government.

Geffon doesn't know. Neither does the FAA, which says the plane has not reappeared with a new tail number.

The plane could be in a scrap yard somewhere, said FAA spokesman Roland Herwig. It could have been sold for parts.

"It could be a restaurant for all we know, " he said.

Or, it could be flying again.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or 727 892-2273.

Fast Facts:

The McDonnell Douglas DC-9 Series 15

- 3, 693-gallon fuel tank

- 104 feet long

- 89 feet wide

- Up to 90 seats; five in a row

- Maximum takeoff weight: 90, 700 pounds

[Last modified July 1, 2007, 01:49:34]


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