ODDBALL news events occur from time to time in West Virginia - and one of
the wildest was the historic Pot Plane crash of 1979.
The caper involved a bizarre cast, including some moviemakers who, believe
it or not, eventually got out of jail and won an Academy Award.
The tale began after midnight on a summer night. An old Douglas DC-6 cargo
plane, four propellers whirring, approached Yeager (then Kanawha) Airport
and radioed for permission to land. Tower operators didn't know that the
darkness-shrouded craft contained 12 tons of marijuana.
Inside the plane were three young men in their 20s: The pilot, David
Seesing, a former Eagle Scout, was a Texas aircraft salesman who lived with
the daughter of President Nixon's ambassador to Australia. The co-pilot,
Dana Anderson, had previously served drug terms in Morocco and Colombia,
and had vanished from New York after his name surfaced in the murder of a
top model's lover.
Waiting on the ground in yellow Ryder rental trucks, ready to unload the
cargo, were five others, including Leon Jacques Gast and Shahbaz "Shane"
Zarintash. Gast was a movie producer who called his company Gassed Films.
Zarintash was an Iranian immigrant who had attended West Virginia Tech and
worked as an engineer for the state Division of Highways.
Also nearby, in an unmarked police car, was Kanawha County Sheriff's Deputy
Mark Chadwick. His father, Sgt. Jim Chadwick, was at the county police
Then the plan went haywire. The DC-6 touched down, but gunned its engines
in a doomed attempt to climb. The craft plummeted down a hillside, ripping
apart, spewing 400 or so 50-pound bales of pot, and catching fire. The crew
jumped for their lives. One of the four engines reached Keystone Drive in
the valley far below. Bales hung in treetops and ruptured down the slope.
Police and emergency crews roared to the airport. Officers found Anderson
staggering along a road, injured. Nearby were Seesing and the third
crewman, muddy and bloody. At first, they told police they had been fighting.
Radio alarms were flashed around the Kanawha Valley. Police soon caught the
others in the fleeing Ryder trucks. Later, charges were filed against the
father-and-son deputies, Jim and Mark Chadwick, accusing them of aiding the
Sightseers began looting the spilled pot, and 15 were arrested. Police
doused the bales with fuel oil, trying to burn them, and sprayed the
hillside with herbicide. National Guardsmen patrolled the site. Some bales
were buried - then dug up again after looters tried digging. It was a mess.
Trials finally began the following winter. Four suspects pleaded guilty,
including director Gast. He said he and Zarintash were trying to make a
documentary movie about a boxing match by Muhammad Ali in Africa.
Other defendants sweated through months of courtroom delays. It was called
the "snow-to-roses trial" because it stretched into summer.
One defense attorney, Edwin Kagin of Kentucky, lived in a tent at Kanawha
State Forest. Nearby, another defense lawyer, Richard Chosid, stayed in a
camper. Also tenting was an investigator, disbarred lawyer Harry Shelor.
They said they were saving defense costs for clients.
When verdicts finally came down, four more smugglers were convicted, and
all got five-year sentences. Sgt. Chadwick was found innocent, and his
son's trial ended with a hung jury.
More court struggles ensued. Bankrollers of the plot were indicted and
convicted. Some verdicts were set aside, and the smugglers convicted again.
Young Deputy Chadwick finally was acquitted - even though three of the
smugglers testified that he had been their lookout. Then-Sheriff Danny
Jones said Chadwick "walked into my office after the verdict, demanded to
see me, and asked for six years back pay." The ex-deputy filed several
appeals seeking more than $100,000 from taxpayers, but the Gazette and
others protested, and his effort failed.
Meanwhile, lawyers bit the dust. One bankroller who pleaded guilty was
Florida lawyer Frederick Shapiro. Then defense lawyer Chosid was convicted
in a Michigan pot-smuggling scheme. Worst of all, ex-lawyer Harry Shelor,
who had served as an investigator, drew a death sentence for murdering a
state trooper who discovered his Kentucky pot patch.
Another weird twist happened a year after the crash, when lawyer Jon Duncan
came to a Monroe County bank with a garbage bag containing $58,000 in small
bills. The money was deposited in the attorney's escrow account. Later,
$42,600 more was brought in a fishing tackle box. Four other deliveries
raised the total to $157,000.
Federal agents said the money came from the Pot Plane plot. They charged
the bank with failing to obey a law requiring disclosure of cash deposits
greater than $10,000. Then-federal Judge Elizabeth Hallanan remarked that
"$58,000 in small bills in a garbage bag is not routine."
The bank paid a fine. One of the marijuana smugglers and a Monroe County
man he had met in Kanawha County jail - a psychotic who had shot his
girlfriend to death in the Kanawha County welfare office - were convicted
in 1986 for this money mess.
The Pot Plane caper seemed over. Then an epilogue occurred. Director Gast
finally finished his film about Muhammad Ali, titled "When We Were Kings" -
and it won a 1997 Oscar for best documentary.
The lawyer who lived in a tent, Kagin, son of a Presbyterian minister,
today is a leader in national agnostic groups.
In the news business, we watch a lot of strange stories unfold. This one
was a classic.
Haught is the Gazette's editor.
Pubdate: Mon, 13 Oct 2003
Source: Charleston Gazette (WV)
Copyright: 2003 Charleston Gazette
Dude, I can still remember the taste of that Pot Plane Diesel brown. There was some that was diesel-coated, a lot that wasn't, the latter buried deeper than the fuel ever reached. I grew up and lived within a 1/2 mile of Keystone Drive, the valley at the bottom of the airport mountain, and though I was living in California when the crash actually occurred, I had come home on leave from the Air Force right after the crash, and one of my friends and his older brother had done several 'night patrols' of the area. That shit was around for years in one form or another, with many attempts made to clean it somehow, with univerally miserable results.
Thanks for the detailed description of the full event.