Here’s a story of mystery and intrigue. It concerns a private plane, organized crime, a drug seizure, a large amount of cash and more than likely the CIA. Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, members of the Australian Federal Police and the New South Wales Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad, conducted a raid on an eight seater private plane, a US-registered Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop, parked on the tarmac at Illawarra airport, a tiny, regional hub south of Sydney. It was real cops and robbers stuff. About 20 armed police in vehicles literally surrounded the plane. The local newspaper, was tipped off about the raid and took plenty of pictures. A 43-year-old Wollongong pilot, Bernard Stevermuer, was arrested and charged with being part of a criminal organisation and dealing with the proceeds of crime. He is currently on bail.
Police allege 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 other men, who police claim have links to a number of New South Wales outlaw motorcycle gangs.
Police claim to have documents which show that the syndicate commissioned Stevermuer to buy the plane in the United States for $US400,000 provided by a mortgage company in Sydney. But as you will discover, the purchase was very complicated and full of intrigue. Police also allege that documents show Stevermuer, was prepared to pay $A1.5 million to buy a business at Illawarra airport to act as a legitimate front to hide criminal activities. But when he offered a $300,000 cash deposit, the vendor became suspicious and the sale fell through. When Police arrested the Wollongong pilot they discovered 36 kg of an illegal drug, which they are refusing to name, but believed to be heroin, with a street value of $A9 million, as well as $70,000 cash.
It certainly looked as if the police had earned a well-deserved pat on the back for doing their job and keeping Australia safe from would-be drug traffickers.
Except this wasn’t the end of the story.
In fact it was only the beginning.
It turns out the Swearingen Merlin 3 twin turbo prop is a stealth plane. By that I mean there is no record, whatsoever, of it arriving in Australia. In fact the last known official record concerning this aircraft shows 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 pretty busy 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 is anyone’s guess. What is also apparent, whoever was flying this plane, took extraordinary steps to remain undetected. 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 under 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 Coff’s 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 this story is about to get even murkier.
If you do a search of US Federal Aviation Administration 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.
So, who or what, is the Oregonian Aero Club?
That is an excellent question because no-one seems to know. None of the aero clubs in Oregon have ever heard of it. It has no club premises, street address, phone contact or website. We have no way of knowing if any of its members fly planes or whether it owns any other aircraft.
But the fact that this club has a registered office in Delaware might be an extremely significant clue. Delaware is one of the strangest states in the United States, in terms of corporate law specifically if you happen to be in the business of asset management.
Those types of companies, incorporated in Delaware, enjoy freedom and secrecy similar to clients of other highly secretive organisations like the Vatican Bank or financial institutions in the Cayman Islands. Asset Management companies with aircraft and yachts, advertise registration in Delaware as a way of minimising tax and personal liability because the assets are automatically registered as belonging to a trustee corporation rather than an individual. Making it a great place to hide if that was your wish.
And it turns out that the person who signed the ownership papers, buying the aircraft on behalf of the Oregonian Aero Club, that does not seem to exist, was none other than Australian pilot Bernard Stevermuer, who has just been arrested by Australian police.
What exactly is his connection to this aero club? It’s a very good question for the Australian Police to ask Stevemuer. A second equally good question to ask is why he signed the ownership papers on the 12th of March 2014, when the plane didn’t leave the United States for the Philippines, its last known official destination, until April 2014? And what was the point of travelling thousands of kilometers from Australia to the United States to buy a 42-year -old plane? The answers to all of these questions are intriguing to say the least. But you are going to have to wait for me to write the next instalment in this story.