KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A former narcotics officer once linked to a drug ring with South American connections set his plane on automatic pilot before parachuting to his death with 77 pounds of cocaine, officials said Thursday.
The FBI and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration joined an investigation in which authorities were trying to trace ownership of the plane, which crashed Wednesday in rugged North Carolina hills 60 miles south of Knoxville.
The plane had been sold Monday to a company that apparently does not exist, a broker said.
Authorities said that a key found on the body of Andrew Carter Thornton II, 40, originally from Paris, Ky., had the same identification numbers as the unmanned aircraft that went down about about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday.
Found With Unopened Chute
Thornton was found lying on top of his unopened main chute with his reserve chute deployed nearby. The coroner said he suffered a broken neck.
Federal Aviation Administration investigator Robert Lash said authorities believe that Thornton used the plane to bring $14 million worth of cocaine into the country.
FAA spokesman Roger Myers in Atlanta said that the twin-engine Cessna was capable of reaching the Tennessee-North Carolina area from South America.
Drug smuggling in the area has increased recently as federal authorities tighten drug enforcement along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Light planes equipped with additional fuel tanks can make a Colombia-Tennessee flight with ease, DEA agent Tony Acri said in Atlanta.
Thornton was known to be an accomplished parachutist and pilot. He served in the Army in the 101st Airborne Division. Between 1968 and 1977, he was a police officer in Lexington, Ky., and spent three years in the narcotics division. He quit after obtaining a law degree from the University of Kentucky.
Linked to 'The Company'
In 1981, he was indicted in California for allegedly flying a plane to South America for a reputed drug ring known as "The Company." The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor marijuana count, to which he pleaded no contest in 1982. He was paroled after serving five months in prison, and his license was suspended by the Kentucky Bar Assn.
"I'm glad his parachute didn't open. I hope he got a hell of a high out of that (cocaine)," said Brian Leighton, an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno, Calif., who prosecuted Thornton on the marijuana trafficking charge.
In 1981, Thornton was among 25 men accused in Fresno in a theft of weapons from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and of conspiring to smuggle 1,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States.
Thornton was not charged in the China Lake weapons case but was indicted in Fresno on one count of conspiracy to import a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
Thornton left California after pleading not guilty and was arrested as a fugitive in North Carolina, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a pistol.
Felony Charges Dismissed
He pleaded no contest in Fresno to a misdemeanor drug charge, and the felony charges were dropped. In June, 1982, he was sentenced to six months in prison, fined $500 and placed on probation for five years. He served five months before release.
On Thursday, Acri said that the DEA had not been tracking Thornton's plane before the wreck.
The aircraft was "very clean. There was no luggage, shaving kits or anything to indicate anybody had been in it," said Charles Fouts, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Fouts said that the FAA's last registry of the plane was with Opex Aviation Inc. of Santa Paula, Calif. But Graham Butler, an Opex officer, said that the plane had been sold two months ago.
Airplane broker Ron Schmidt of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said that he sold the Cessna 404 Monday to a company he identified as Key Air of Miami. But no Key Air is listed in the Miami telephone directory.