A Tampa-based Immigrations and Customs Enforcement undercover operation sold a Gulfstream II turbojet -- which crashed in Mexico seven years ago with nearly four tons of cocaine onboard -- to suspected drug smugglers in Clearwater shortly before the mishap. That's according to federal documents in an ongoing drug case involving some of the people in the 2007 aircraft sale.
That jet took off from the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport -- where it was sold -- on Sept. 16, 2007. Eight days later, it crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula with 3.7 tons of cocaine onboard.
The sale of that jet to the ICE undercover operation known as Mayan Jaguar was brokered by a former race car driver named Don Whittington, now the owner of a Fort Lauderdale charter jet company called World Jet Inc. In 1987, Whittington pleaded guilty to federal tax charges. He is currently being investigated for possibly using a Colorado hot springs resort, registered to the same address as World Jet, to launder the proceeds of aircraft used for drug smuggling -- including the Gulfstream, according to a search warrant affidavit for Whittington's emails.
The affidavit, now sealed, was obtained by the Durango Herald last fall. It was left unsealed accidently and sealed after the paper obtained it to protect sources and tactics, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver.
Whittington brokered the sale of the Gulfstream from SA Holdings LLC to a Coconut Creek-based company called Donna Blue Aircraft, which turned out to be an ICE front company, according to the search warrant affidavit. Donna Blue Aircraft then sold the jet to two pilots who "have long been targets of DEA investigations for the trafficking of cocaine from South America to Central America and Mexico," according to the affidavit. One of those pilots, Gregory Dean Smith, "currently works as a contract pilot for Don Whittington and World Jet, Inc.," according to the affidavit.
World Jet's office was raided in November, according to the DEA, after a yearlong investigation "revealed that Don Whittington sold and leased multiple jet aircraft to purchasing agents of Venezuelan, Colombian, African and Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations," the affidavit states.
The proceeds from those sales were invested in a Western Colorado spa, investigators say in the search warrant affidavit.
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The sale of the Gulfstream, another jet at St. Pete-Clearwater and other planes from the area have long been the subject of scrutiny by international investigators and government officials.
On April 5, 2006, a DC-9 left the airport, bound for Venezuela. Days later, it was seized in Mexico, where the Mexican army found 5.5 tons of cocaine.
Mexican authorities who issued an arrest warrant for a top financier of the Sinaloa drug cartel uncovered the connection between the cartel and the purchase of two jets, according to Mexican authorities.
The investigations reached the attention of high-level officials in the U.S. and Mexican governments concerned with the nexus between smuggling and terror groups, according to a State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks.
"In the area of money laundering, the USG (U.S. government) developed strong working relationships with the Financial Intelligence Unit of the Attorney General's Office (PGR) and its companion unit in the Mexican Treasury (Hacienda) in combating money laundering, terrorist financing, and narcotics trafficking," according to the cable, from the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela to the State Department. "In one case in late 2007, Mexican police worked with U.S. authorities to identify and arrest the alleged finance head for the Sinaloa drug cartel, targeting a ring that bought airplanes with laundered money to smuggle drugs."