I’ve written some blog posts in the recent past about what I consider to be a fascinating mystery. It’s the story of a ghost plane, that turned up in Australia, a significant quantity of illegal drugs and cash seized by New South Wales police, as well as an under the radar flight operation, that in all likelihood involved the American CIA.
It’s the story that keeps on giving. So many intriguing twists and turns. Here is part four. But first, some background to put the story in context.
At the heart of this tale is a plane, a US-registered Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop, that arrived illegally in Australia but no one knows how it got here.
But clearly someone knew quite a bit because the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, raided the eight-seater private plane while it was parked on the tarmac at Illawarra airport, a tiny, regional hub south of Sydney. The day of the raid was a real cops and robbers type operation. The plane was surrounded by about 20 armed police.
A 43-year-old Wollongong pilot, Bernard Stevermuer, who is listed as the owner of the plane, was arrested and charged with being part of a criminal organisation and dealing with the proceeds of crime. He is currently on bail.
The News South Wales Police case is that a major international crime syndicate was using the airport to import guns and drugs for distribution throughout southwest Sydney. The syndicate was allegedly operated by two men, who police claim have links to a number of New South Wales outlaw motorcycle gangs. What their precise connection might be to Stevermuer has not been revealed. Normally, when police conduct raids of this type, it’s usually accompanied by a fair bit of bragging, about how law enforcement is cracking down on organised crime, but strangely, in this case, they’ve been conspicuous by their silence. Not one public word has been uttered since the raid.
Police clearly had Stevermuer under surveillance. They also claim to have documents which show that the syndicate commissioned Stevermuer to buy the plane in the United States for $US400,000 with the money provided by a mortgage company in Sydney. But as you will discover, the purchase was anything but straightforward and full of intrigue.
Police also allege that documents show Stevermuer, for some unexplained reason had access to large reserves of cash and was prepared to pay $A1.5 million to buy two aviation businesses based at Illawarra Airport in Australia.
Several aviation sources have confirmed that Stevermuer was in negotiation to buy the flight training organisation, NSW Air and another company, called the Aerial Patrol shark-spotting plane service.
Police allege these two aviation companies were to act as legitimate fronts in order to hide criminal activity. But when Stevermuer offered a $300,000 cash deposit, the seller became suspicious and the sale fell through. When Police arrested the Wollongong pilot, they discovered 36 kg of an illegal drug, which they now are refusing to name, but believed to be heroin, with a street value of $A9 million, as well as $A70,000 cash.
But then the story gets even more intriguing.
If you do a search of US Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) records, you will discover, that an organisation called the Oregonian Aero Club, with an address listed in Wilmington, Delaware, owns the Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft.
But the fact that this club has its registered office in Delaware, might be an extremely significant development. Delaware is one of the strangest American states in terms of corporate law, especially if you happen to be in the business of asset management.
Companies, incorporated in Delaware, enjoy similar freedom and secrecy to the clients of other highly secretive organisations like the Vatican Bank or financial institutions based in the Cayman Islands. Asset Management companies, which own aircraft and yachts, register them in Delaware as a way of minimising tax and personal liability and also because the assets are automatically registered as belonging to a trustee corporation rather than an individual, making it a great place to hide true ownership if that was your desire.
And according to FAA records it turns out that the person who is listed as a Director of the Oregonian Aero Club, which owns the mystery plane, is none other than Australian pilot Bernard Stevermuer, who has just been arrested by Australian police.
The papers list Stevermuer as the purchaser of the plane on behalf of Oregonian Aero Club. Nothing strictly illegal in that you might say. Except, why would an Australian pilot and skydiving instructor, bother to travel across the world to buy a 42-year-old plane?
There is nothing in the least exceptional about this model of aircraft apart from its age.
Even more unusual, Why would an Australian who doesn’t live in the United States, be listed as a Director of a fictitious American aviation club? None of this makes sense unless of course unless there was a darker purpose behind the deal.
The Oregonian Aero club has no headquarters, no web address, telephone numbers, aircraft (apart from this one 42 year old plane) or members. In fact none of the other aero clubs in the Oregon area have ever heard it.
And, as it turns out, the plane at the centre of this intrigue, the Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop aircraft, could best be described as a ghost plane. By that I mean there is no record, whatsoever, of it ever arriving in Australia.
In fact, the last known official record concerning this aircraft reveals that it flew into the Philippines on May 5, 2014, after a two-month journey from the United States. But the Swearingen Merlin 3 had been doing a lot of flying right up until the time it left for the Philippines. It flew for a couple of weeks from Punta Gorda in Florida via Missouri and Texas and then to California and finally Washington State.
Flight records indicate the plane left Seattle, Washington on the 30th of April 2014. It touched down at Cold Bay, Alaska, a village of 108 people, one shop, one hotel and an airport. The next day the aircraft flew to Honolulu and then the Marshall islands, a series of atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Next stop was the US airbase at Guam before arriving in the Philippines capital, Manila.
But what happened to the plane after that is a total mystery. It clearly entered Australia some way but what route it took and who was flying it is anyone’s guess. What is also apparent, whoever was flying this plane, took extraordinary steps to avoid detection. By that I mean entering Australia at one of its most remote and least habited geographic points, flying visually, without instruments, at low altitude, for long periods so it wouldn’t be detected by radar.
That would have taken the expertise and daring of an extremely skilled pilot.
The next record of contact between this plane, registered NH224HR, and a control tower, was at Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales on the 27th of June 2014. The plane radioed in that it was bound for Illawarra airport. And that’s where it’s been ever since, on the tarmac, until the police raid.
But would this mystery be solved if we were able to trace the full ownership of this plane from the time in rolled off the assembly line?
As I already established in a recent blog post, the U.S. Forest Service was the first owner of the Swearingen Merlin 3 in the early 1970s. The Forest Service has a track record of an activity known in aviation circles as sheep dipping planes on behalf of the CIA. You sheep dip a plane when you conceal or disguise its true owner. Sheep dipping explains how some Forest Service owned aircraft were discovered in exotic locations like Colombia and Mexico being used by drug cartels instead of fighting forest fires.
Are there any significant clues in who might have owned by plane, before it was sold to the Oregonian Aero Club? Again a search of U.S. FAA records reveals the previous owner was a company called Sterling Strategic Consulting LLC based in Salem Oregon. Nothing unusual in that you might think except that Sterling Strategic Consulting LLC is owned by a dentist based in Colombia, Missouri on the other side of the United States. He bought the Swearingen Merlin 3 in 2011 and sold it to the Oregonian Aero Club a few months later. There is no suggestion or implication that any of these transactions were illegal. But they were definitely unusual and as per usual we end up with more questions than answers.
There is one final interesting element to this story that invites further scrutiny. The fact that this plane began its mysterious odyssey across the world, from Charlotte County Airport at Punta Gorda in Florida, could be an indication of its true origin and purpose. Punta Gorda, would have to be one of the more unusual locations in the United States and it’s all to do with its history. Punta Gorda could easily and humorously be re-named Spooksville. The founding fathers of Punta Gorda happen to be a pair of CIA spooks, Bud Cole and Al Johns, who turned a vast tidal flat into upmarket home sites complete with canals. As a CIA agent, Al Johns, was fairly gung-ho if you’ll pardon the pun. The CIA posted him to the East China Sea in the 1950s where his job was to supply pirates for junks used to attack Communist Chinese shipping. In fact, Punta Gorda seems to act as a magnet for CIA agents past and present. Porter Goss, former CIA Director during the Presidency of George W. Bush, was a long time resident of Punta Gorda and served as a local Mayor.
With that kind of history of CIA connectivity, it’s little wonder that Punta Gorda’s Charlotte County Airport has been home to some interesting characters and even more interesting allegations. For example at least one Congressional committee heard allegations that the airport was used to transport arms to the Contras in Nicaragua and to smuggle drugs, principally cocaine. Of course the allegations were never proven and no one was ever prosecuted or served jail time.
And there’s the case of the 23 helicopters that mysteriously disappeared from Charlotte County Airport. One of the helicopters was later discovered in Chile of all places. No one can explain how they managed to disappear, how they managed to leave the United States or who was responsible but the local Sheriff has suggested publicly that he has a pretty good idea even if he’s not saying.
Maybe it isn’t so surprising that a ghost plane that flew out of a mysterious place like Punta Gorda would end up thousands of miles away in Australia, linked to drugs and organised crime and with no record of it ever entering Australia in the first place.
You would hope that the New South Wales Police would be interested in all of this information. It is clearly going to take their raid on the plane in a completely new direction and an international one at that. They have a lot of questions they need to ask. Who knows what they might uncover. But if they have any such plans they are not saying. Maybe their silence speaks volumes.
If I was a betting man, which I am not, I would wager that the mystery of the Swearingen Merlin 3 aircraft and how and why it ended up on the tarmac at Illawarra Airport is destined to remain exactly that. A mystery. And if the American CIA is involved you can take that as a given.