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Friday, May 1, 2009

Rotorcraft Report: Tree-Topping Drug Choppers Busted

PUBLIC SERVICE | GOVERNMENT AGENCIES

An R22 and a Bell 206 JetRanger collectively airlifting 600 pounds of marijuana across the U.S.-Canada border, have been busted by a joint Royal Canadian Mounted Police, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Immigration and Customs task force. The helicopters were part of a "dope-for-cocaine" cross-border exchange. First, a Canadian-organized crime group brought in bulk marijuana and ecstasy using helicopters flying at treetop level to avoid police surveillance. Next, criminals paid for the drugs with cocaine and cash.

"Such smuggling operations are quite common, unfortunately," said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Dan Moskaluk. "Helicopters are among the preferred platforms. But smugglers also use fixed-wing planes operating on floats or wheels."

The bust began when U.S. police found the cocaine in a car they stopped in Utah. That arrest led to information about a planned drop in Colville, Wash. where an LZ had been hacked out of the forest. The pilot, 24-year old Canadian Samuel Brown, was arrested after he landed a stolen Bell 206 loaded with 426 pounds of marijuana on Feb. 23. He later hanged himself in jail.

On March 5, a rented R22 was photographed as it flew into Idaho laden with 174 pounds of marijuana under its hull. The 29 year-old pilot, Jeremy Snow of Kelowna, B.C., was arrested upon landing.

When added to other apprehensions, Operation Blade Runner, the DEA and RCMP arrested eight suspects, seized 748 pounds of marijuana, 163 pounds of cocaine, 20,000 ecstasy tablets, cash and guns.

"Although our investigation into this organized crime group had started in late 2008, the intelligence gathered and shared between the RCMP and American agencies during Operation Blade Runner helped us interrupt these smugglers," said Cpl. Moskaluk. "We also get tipped off to such flights by citizens who notice helicopters and fixed-wing planes flying low and fast over forests, lakes and rivers. We certainly appreciate the public assistance."

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