SAN DIEGO — Six men were arrested Tuesday when the FBI said it foiled a complex plot that called for using a helicopter and automatic weapons to free two inmates from a federal prison in Pennsylvania.
The plot, uncovered by the FBI and several state and local police agencies, called for a self-styled mercenary to arrange for a helicopter to fly into the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Williamsport, Pa. Automatic weapons and grenade launchers were to be used to hold off guards while the two prisoners were airlifted out.
The prisoners targeted for escape were identified as Stephen N. Vento Sr., 45, reportedly an associate of the Nicodemo (Little Nicky) Scarfo organized crime family of Philadelphia, and Noah Vance, 42, of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, according to FBI spokesman Lane Bonner. Vento, 45, is serving an 18-year term at Lewisburg for a 1985 narcotics conviction. Vance is serving a 60-year sentence for bank robbery. Both were charged Tuesday with conspiracy and assisting escape.
Face 10-Year Sentences
Also arrested were four alleged accomplices, including John L. Valentine, 45, owner of a San Diego limousine service. The other suspects are Vento's son, Stephen N. Vento Jr., 18, of Philadelphia; James M. Dickerson, 43, a self-styled mercenary and resident of Rochester, N.Y., and Charles F. Stearly, 30, of Jonesboro, Ark., who reportedly was recruited by Dickerson to fly the helicopter.
Each is charged with conspiracy and assisting escape from a federal prison and faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a $500,000 fine. The FBI said more arrests are expected.
The arrests were disclosed here at a press conference held by Thomas Hughes, special agent in charge of the San Diego FBI office.
Hughes, Bonner and other FBI officials gave the following account of the alleged escape attempt:
Vento Sr. and Vance were standing in the prison yard dressed in shirts stained a distinctive red from cranberry juice, when a helicopter piloted by an undercover FBI agent swept over the yard at 11:45 a.m. EDT, the appointed time for the escape. When Vento and Vance dashed toward the aircraft, they were arrested.
"We needed for them to make an overt act so they could be properly charged," Hughes said. "Once they made for the helicopter, that's all we needed to charge them."
According to FBI officials, Dickerson, who advertises his services in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and his alleged accomplices were to be paid $90,000 for the military-style operation. Bonner said that $50,000 had already been paid to an Arkansas state trooper who was working under cover. The FBI said that Stephen Vento Jr. was carrying $60,000 in cash when he was arrested at the Elmira, N.Y., airport, where he was allegedly awaiting the arrival of his father and Vance.
Law enforcement officials were alerted in May when Stephen Vento Jr., Dickerson and Stearly attempted to lease or rent a helicopter from an unidentified flying service in Pine Bluff, Ark. Company officials, fearing that the trio wanted to use the aircraft to smuggle drugs, became suspicious and contacted the Arkansas State Police.
Trooper Hears of Plot
An Arkansas state trooper, posing as an employee of the company, learned of the escape attempt, FBI officials said. The investigation then branched out to Philadelphia, Buffalo, N.Y., San Diego and Miami.
The plan called for the helicopter to be disguised with Pennsylvania State Police markings so that it would not arouse suspicion when it approached the prison. Guards in the prison towers were to be held off with M-79 grenade launchers and automatic weapons aboard the chopper, Bonner said.
Hughes said Valentine is accused of providing a Sten submachine gun and 300 rounds of 9-millimeter ammunition for the escape attempt and is scheduled to be arraigned today before a magistrate in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
FBI officials noted that Stephen Vento Jr. was free on bail on a 1984 murder charge in the slaying of Michael Micaliin Camden County, N.J.
The six suspects are expected to be taken to Harrisburg, Pa., for trial, Bonner said.