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Pot plane landed in S.D. 25 years ago

Pot plane landed in S.D. 25 years ago

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AKASKA - While many Americans were glued to their televisions for Super Bowl XIV, five men heard the rumble of a low-flying four-propeller DC-7 over the Missouri River bluffs while ice fishing in a remote bay near dusk on Jan. 20, 1980.

"It was unbelievable to see what we were seeing - that big of a plane flying that low," Don Goetz of Akaska said. "It just boggled our minds."

Twenty-five years ago, the plane - packed with 26,000 pounds of baled Colombian marijuana - circled once and landed on a bluff overlooking the spot where the Missouri and Moreau rivers meet.

"We heard him reverse the props, 'WHHHRRR!' and then there was a cloud of dust," Goetz, now 67, said.

The five fishermen, who didn't know what was in the plane, hopped in their pickup trucks and headed to the site. They already were skeptical because the Mobridge airport was just a few miles away, had the plane been in trouble.

Tony Rivers, whose ranch was perched high across the river, also saw the plane land and called the sheriff.

Something fishy

It was getting dark. The fishermen parked their pickups in front of the plane and noticed another pickup parked off to the side, though the occupants didn't come over.

"They just sat there. Then, we seen the landing lights strung out on the fields. Right away, that made us suspicious," Goetz said.

As the five stood wondering what to do, the pilot climbed down.

"His story just didn't add up. He kind of had that attitude like he wished we would leave," Goetz said.

About that time a pickup rushed over, the pilot jumped in and the pickup sped away, Goetz said.

Two other men, most likely on lookout duty on a nearby hill, were left behind.

"They left us standing there with our mouths hanging open," he said.

Goetz backed his pickup to the door, and the anglers hoisted each other up into the abandoned DC-7.

"The plane was gutted out, and there were all these bales strung out the entire length of the plane," he said.

They threw one marijuana bale out and put it on Goetz's pickup so they could report what turned out to be the biggest drug bust in South Dakota at the time.

As they started to leave, the sheriff and a trooper arrived and drew their guns until they recognized the wide-eyed fishermen.

Well-coordinated

As the bewildered men later learned, they helped foil the almost-perfect execution of a plan a year in the making.

"Had those guys not been out on the river ice fishing, it would have worked," Mark Meierhenry, the state attorney general at the time, said.

The original plan was to land the plane on a reservation in New Mexico, said U.S. Attorney James McMahon of South Dakota. He was a deputy state attorney general in 1980 and handled the case in state court and then in federal court as a special prosecutor.

After landing the plane, the traffickers planned to unload the marijuana, put it on semi trailers and haul it to the Minneapolis area for distribution, he said. It had an estimated street value of $18 million.

They intended to land at night and during the Super Bowl so everyone would be inside in front of their televisions, McMahon said.

Hatched in 1979

According to a January 1981 AP story based on a federal grand jury indictment, the idea to fly the marijuana into the United States originated in 1979 when two DC-7s were found in Panama.

One of the planes flew to Colombia on Jan. 19, 1980, to pick up the marijuana, then to South Dakota.

The organizers met in Watertown to discuss possible landing sites and rented a small airplane there to fly over the terrain.

By mid-January, they had bought batteries, rented a generator and drove semis to Aberdeen. On Jan. 20, 1980, batteries and lights were set in two parallel lines on the field to outline a makeshift runway.

Big organization

Three of the traffickers were caught that night. Two others were caught the next morning. Goetz and his cousin found one, who had spent the night shivering in a haystack.

The five men caught were from out of state. The only South Dakotan charged no longer lives here. All six pleaded guilty to state drug charges.

Eight other men later were charged in federal court and most pleaded guilty.

Worry now disbelief

Most of the 13 tons of marijuana was loaded onto five dump trucks, hauled to the Pierre landfill, shredded and burned on Feb. 6, 1980.

Goetz, Rivers, Jerry Goetz, Roland Reiger, Roger Krien, Todd Krien, Tom Brown and Keith Cullem all received a plaque thanking them for their help in breaking the drug ring. They also were given the burlap bags that held the pot.

Don Goetz said he was worried about his family's safety after the ordeal but now recalls the incident with more disbelief than concern.

He still farms part-time, brings in pheasant hunters every fall and shares his story over yellowing newspaper clippings.

"Even now, it seems like something I dreamt."

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