Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (2023)

Robert Carlson, a California businessman whodreamedof becoming the cocaine king of the skies, used private jets to funnel a billion dollars' worth of cartel drugs through smaller airportsacross the country — exploiting a security blind spot.

He did it over and over again, profiting off a rarely policed mode of transportation. And when he was finally busted in 2017 in Lexington, it wasn't because of the X-ray scanner or drug-sniffing dog. That level of security at private and secondary airports just isn't there.

Instead, an informanttipped offfederal agentsand blew up one of the nation's largest airborne domestic smuggling rings — one in which Carlson moveddrugs for three yearsfor the Sinaloa Cartel.

Acloser look at Carlson's case — provided throughfederal court transcripts and interviews with prosecutors and agents — exposes gaping holes in securityat the majority of the nation's more than 2,500 general aviation airports, where there are no Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

Kenneth Martinson, a retired Homeland Security Investigations agent who is considered one of the godfathers of plane smuggling cases, said the task of policing private planes"does fall through the cracks."

"The next time you look up and see one,wonder to yourself: 'Where’s it going?Where’d it come from, and what’s on board?'

"There’s a good chance it could be illicit narcotics.”

Related story:Mexican cartels stockpile drugs and money amid COVID-19 pandemic

TSA—created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—focuses on securing flights at thenation's 440 major airports that host commercial fleets such asDelta and American Airlines. If TSA agentsfind drugs during screenings of passengers or luggage, they alert police.

These security measures don't exist at the majority of the secondary airports, which host much of the nation's 200,000 general aviation aircraft — more than half of the world's private planes.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dmitriy Slavin explained the risks tothe Eastern Kentucky judge overseeing Carlson's case.

"Nobody is scanning your luggage," hesaid. "You get on, you fly over, you get off. You move your drugs. That is a huge problem because it's so easy, and it's very difficult to stop, just because of the nature of these small airports."

In just a four-month period in 2017, Carlson moved $60 million in drug profits out of Atlanta to California, said Thor Whitmore, an Atlanta-based Homeland Security Investigations special agent.

"And that's just out of Atlanta," he said. "The Carlson case was a big eye-opener."

Agents saythe majority of drugs spread across the country are hidden on trucks or tucked into packages sent through the mail, so law enforcement officialsfocus their efforts on policing major highways and screening mail. They also concentrate on drug searches at Mexicoborder crossings.

It's impossible to quantify the volume of drugson board private planes that are never searched.

The Drug Enforcement Administration cautioned in its 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment that,with cocaine "more and more, traffickers are utilizing private airplanes and secondary airports" that have less security. The DEA also warned that traffickers use personal planes toflymarijuana produced in states where it's legal to states where it's not.

Hiding drugs on jets isn't new. Agents noticed the trendas far back as the 1970s.

The Carlson private plane drug ring isone of the largest of its kind since the 1980s, when the crime was depicted on the popular TV show "Miami Vice," saidWhitmore, a federal agent for 27 years.

After the 1990s, traffickersshiftedtowardmoving drugs on land to avoid police crackdowns on aircraft. But during the past few years, police began to notice an increase in private aircraft drug cases.

Despite a continuation of thedeadliest drug epidemic in the nation's history, there still hasn't been a significant push to prevent the spread of drugs using private planes.

Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (1)

Experts cite two main reasons: a lack of security resources and an ask-no-questions culture enjoyed by the jet set.

A debate underway for decades centers on how to increase security to screen for bombs, drugs or other contraband, while maintaining the privacy and convenience expected by elite travelers.

Congress' think tank, the Congressional Research Service, noted in 2009 that discussions about imposing restrictionshave been "highly contentious."

"That’s what attracts people to either owning their own aircraft or chartering a private plane, to avoid that scrutiny because it’s a hassle," Whitmore said. "They don’t stand in a long line and get frisked."

Some members of Congress are themselves pilots, and others frequently use private jets.

And pilots and the general aviation community have a strong lobby, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA, the world’s largest aviation organization, with 330,000 members. Itstressesfreedom over restrictions.

"The AOPAis the NRAof flying," Martinson said. "They’re a powerful voice, and they are heard."

Read this:Why a viral drug cartel video showing off tanks and taunts is bad news for the US

The 'Loco gringo'

Robert Walter Carlson, Jr., 50, is anextreme example of how a criminal can easily find and capitalize on security weaknesses at secondary airports across the nation.

He was driven by greed.

Carlson had an $8 million mansion, drove a red Ferrari and socialized with Hollywood’s A-list. He claimed to have once befriended neighbor and legendary actor Dick Van Dyke.

But his job as a computer networking specialistcouldn't sustain his luxury lifestyle.

So he cookedupa scheme in 2014tocart Northern Californiamarijuana on private planes, according to federal records reviewed by The Courier Journal.He met a Mexican drug smuggler associated with the Sinaloa Cartel,one of Mexico's most powerful cartel empires.

Carlson realized he could make more money and lessen the risk of getting caught by moving cocaine instead of a suitcases full of pot, which is bulky and smelly.So he asked the cartel associate to vouch for him andintroducehim tocartel leaders in Mexico.

Carlsonarrived at a four-star hotel in Guadalajara in early 2016 and was greeted bya man who appeared to be a police officer on the cartel's payroll. The man said Carlson wouldn't be harmedbuthad to be blindfolded.

The cartel was looking for new opportunities to move cocaine and other drugsafter repeated police stings on U.S. highways likeInterstate 10, a major drug corridor that stretches from California to Florida.Cartels like to team withU.S. citizens, especially a "gringo" who could blend in with other wealthy passengers onprivate jets.

Carlson boasted that he couldbe the "FedEx of the white skies," promising a network of private pilots who could offer a fasterturn-around time to deliver cocaineand fly back to California with drug profits. By land, it often took weeks.Carlson could do it in two days.

Carlson also could lessen the risks of a drug bust. If the cartel sent drugs from Mexicoon a private jet,it would have toclear a U.S. customs search. Carlson could avoid that scrutiny by picking up cartel drugs driven across the border to California and then making only domestic flights.

Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (2)

Sinaloa members and Carlson celebrated their billion-dollar partnership over tacos and bottled Coca-Colas in a tiny restaurant in Los Mochis, a coastal city in the cartel-controlled state of Sinaloa.

Back in the U.S., Carlson hurriedly built his network. He partnered with Katharine Matthews, a Hollywood socialite who partiedin the same social circles withpop stars like KatyPerry and Justin Bieber,actor Leonardo DiCaprio and rapper Snoop Dogg.

Carlson recruited others wanting quick cash, including several pilots, a model, a chefandan Army combat veteran, records show.

Carlson knew there wasa sharp contrast in the scrutiny for those flying private compared with passengers stepping foot on a commercial flight. There's no photo ID required, no ticket confirmation, no pat-downs in security lines. And there's no baggage screening.

On a small private aircraft, passengers typicallydon't even have to give their names. Even if pilots fillout a manifest, they don't have to ask to see identification to verify passengers are giving their real names.

DEA:Mexican drug cartel ships kilos of cocaine to rural hub for suitcases filled with cash

And, on a private plane, the pilot can refuse to allow law enforcement onboard— something Carlson knew and exploited.

To further lessen the risks of getting caught, Carlsonoffered to pay adozen pilots extra to fly the drugs across the country. Only one said no. Carlsonlooked for those who complained of money problems. He stayed away from "law nerds" who followedrules.

Carlson also forked out hush money to ground crews that fueled planes and unloaded luggage.

Along with owning various planes, Carlson used chartered jets, too.Sometimes, he made drug runs unbeknownst to theplane owners and pilots.

Carlson and his team made drug deliveriesat noncommercial airports inAtlanta;New York City;Bessemer, Alabama; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Michael Romagnoli, a group supervisor for Homeland Security Investigations in Northern Kentucky, led the Carlson probe and discovered how the drug ring flourished for so long using secondary airports.

"It's not a security lapse," he said. "There isno security. There's no dogs.No police. No TSA."

Over time, Carlson became reckless,bragging that he ran drugs for a Mexican cartel.He once took a woman he met on a dating appto Mexico for their second date to meet cartel members.Ultimately, someone Carlson confided intipped off police.

A few weeks before his arrest, Carlson started flying methamphetamine.

His cartel fixer sent two meth shipments destined for Lexington,known internationally forhorse farms and thoroughbred racetracks.

Carlson, now in prison,quipped while testifying during his co-defendants' trial in March:"Igot paid for the first trip. On the second trip, the only thing I got was this orange jumpsuit."

In-depth:A ruthless Mexican drug lord’s empire is devastating families with its grip on small-town USA

When Carlson's plane landed on the second trip to a small airstrip inLexington inApril of2017, state troopers and federal agents were waiting.

Acting on a tip, police watched the passengers movesuitcases from the plane toa black BMW and drive off, ignoring a red light. Police stopped the car, and adrug-detecting dog sniffed out 40 pounds of meth.

The dog also sniffed out three suitcases on the planestuffed with an estimated 80 kilos of cocaine— the second-largest cocaine bust in Kentucky history. Those drugs had been destined for Atlanta and Miami.

Carlson planned to spend the night at a luxury hotelbut ended up in a jail cell.

Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (3)

The investigation led to the conviction of Carlson, Matthews andfive others, including a man who helped launderthe money and a pilot who had to forfeit his million-dollar jet.

"In this case we arrested the rich, the elite, privileged people that were exploiting this method of travel," Romagnoli said.

Carlson pleaded guilty in 2017 to trafficking 5 or more kilos, though he estimates he moved hundreds.His attorney, Patrick Nash, declined to discuss the case. He is waitingto see if the judge will agree toreduce Carlson's sentence of 16 years and eight months in a federal prison, where parole is not an option.

Carlson spent several daysdetailing his three years of drug smugglingto prosecutors and police. Many of those secrets remainhidden in sealed court documents.

Using Carlson's information, investigators continue todrill down to identify and prosecute the local distributors who bought drugs from Carlson in Lexington, Atlanta, New York, Miami and other cities. And they're trying to work their way up the chain to the cartel suppliers in Mexico and cartel associates in the U.S.

Gorman, a special agent withHomeland Security Investigations, helped send Carlson to prison and is already looking for his next airborne drug smuggling case.

"On any given day, in our skies, there is probably contraband moving from coast to coast," he said.

"There’s guns, aliens and drugs."

An orange grove of drugs

Securing the nation's 2,500 secondary airports, and intercepting illegal drugsremains a challenge.

Customs agents seized 67 kilograms of illegal drugs on private planes in fiscal year 2019, compared with nearly 57 seized the previous year, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

That's just a small percentage of the volume traffickers move on private planes, agents said.

A senior DEA official, who spoke on background,said the agencyfocuses more on international flightsmovinglarger amounts, up tomultitons of cocaine to North and Central Americafrom the Andean and Southern Cone regions.DEA relies on other federal agencies, like Homeland Security Investigations and the Federal Aviation Administration, to target smaller shipments on flights within the U.S.

Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (4)

Whitmore said Homeland Security Investigations doesn't have the manpower to police all secondary airports.

"TSA, that would alleviate a lot," he said. "But it would just kick 'em down to smaller airports to avoid it."

Some airports are so smallthey don't have towers or staff at night. There also are countless airstrips incornfields, deserts, pastures and backyards that are never registered with any federal agency. Florida agents found two prop jets that landed in tandem in an orange grove northwest of Orlando in 2010with $800,000 worth of marijuana.

Since TSA doesn't have the resources to screen at the majority of the smaller airports, the agencyreleased guidelines on security measures, but theyaren't mandatory. And they were developed in collaboration with the AOPA and several other aviation associations.

Christopher Cooper, AOPA's director of regulatory affairs based in Washington, D.C., said most pilots are honest and willing to help police rootout those who aren't.

AOPA partnered with TSA in 2002 to create a secure hotline — 1-866-GASECURE—to encourage airport managers, pilots andground crew to report possible dangers or crimes.

TSA’s Transportation Security Operation Center staff have received 336 calls tothe hotline since 2018, said TSA spokesman R. Carter Langston.

Looking back:Key Mexican cartel member with ties to a billionaire fugitive extradited to US

Homeland Security also has eyes monitoring aircraft at the Mexican border and oninternational and domestic flightsthroughtheSecurity'sAir and Marine Operations Center.

Also, the FAA is working totrain local, state and federal agents on suspicious behaviors at noncommercial airports, said Steven Tochterman, a veteranFAA special agent who helped on the Carlson case.

"The bad buys are always looking to exploit the loophole," he said.

"And we’re trying to shut it down.”

Reporter Beth Warren:; 502-582-7164; Twitter @BethWarrenCJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:

Rogue pilots trafficked a billion dollars in cartel drugs across US while no one watched (5)

How we told this story:The Courier Journal interviewed nearly a dozen federal agents, defense attorneys and prosecutors familiar with the case and reviewed hundreds of pages of federal court records, including trial transcripts.

About the writer:Beth Warren is an award-winning investigative/enterprise reporter covering drug cartels and the nation's deadliest opioid epidemic. She and a team of reporters detailed the rapid rise and extensive reach of El Mencho and CJNG in a 28-page special report published in November. She can be reached at andat 502-265-8248.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Maia Crooks Jr

Last Updated: 27/08/2023

Views: 6042

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (63 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Maia Crooks Jr

Birthday: 1997-09-21

Address: 93119 Joseph Street, Peggyfurt, NC 11582

Phone: +2983088926881

Job: Principal Design Liaison

Hobby: Web surfing, Skiing, role-playing games, Sketching, Polo, Sewing, Genealogy

Introduction: My name is Maia Crooks Jr, I am a homely, joyous, shiny, successful, hilarious, thoughtful, joyous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.