Drug-Running Plane Seized by Feds Used to Spy on George Floyd Protests

An Air America plane used as part of a drug-smuggled front in the 1980s was outfitted with surveillance equipment and flown over Minneapolis during the George Floyd protests, public records reveal.
September 9, 2020, 1:00pm
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Image: Tony Webster, used with permission

A government-owned aircraft that circled the unrest in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police originally belonged to Air America, an international drug smuggling front in the 1980s.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) aircraft N528NR was seized by the U.S. Marshals via asset forfeiture and later acquired by the DNR. The aircraft circled for hours over the protests and later riots on May 30th and 31st. 

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Prior to the surveillance flights in late May over Minneapolis, the Cessna T310R could typically be spotted flying over the forests of northern Minnesota. The stated objective of DNR aviation operations is to inventory and manage forestlands, provide wildfire reconnaissance and other ecological activities. The DNR has a law enforcement component, the role of which following the murder of George Floyd isn’t entirely clear yet. DNR internal documents, communications and other records are being sought to further understand the department’s place in the unprecedented law enforcement response to the protests and riots. 

The plane, according to decades-old documents, is equipped with thermal imaging technology. Web searches for information about DNR forestry operations indicate the aircraft also uses what’s known as hyperspectral imaging, which is becoming fairly common in resource management. This powerful imaging technology uses lasers to collect “204 millions samples per second,” according to a 2018 forestry inventory webinar, in order to ascertain information about the plant life below. How this technology can be applied to police surveillance efforts such as the two protest overflights in late May is not fully understood at this time. The DNR is currently processing a public information request submitted by Motherboard for these and other details, and the department communicated it would begin handing over documents next week.

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Federal Aviation Administration records obtained by Motherboard show a fascinating and wholly unexpected chain of custody for N528NR, from drug smuggling operation to government surveillance plane. 

What these documents reveal is truly mind boggling: drug runners created a small fortune running cocaine into the United States using a Cessna plane. That aircraft ferries Congressmen and others around in between drug smuggling flights. The Marshals and their partners seize that property for their own purposes, including transporting prisoners from their war on drugs. Later on, that same Cessna plane is outfitted for surveillance, is flown over Americans engaged in protest and civil unrest.  

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The plane’s story begins with the investigation and trial of Frederick Luytjes (pronounced Lie-Chess), the convicted proprietor of Air America who pleaded guilty to flying 7.5 tons of cocaine into the United States from 1980 to 1984. “Flying out of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport, stripped down planes would leave for Colombia with $1 million stashed in duffel bags and return with 1,300 pounds of cocaine. Authorities estimated that Luytjes made $25 million in five years, laundering much of the profit through legitimate businesses. Authorities testified that Luytjes' employees at times took cardboard boxes filled with cash to local banks for deposit.” 

Luytjes acquired a great deal of property and obviously cash from these exploits. His personal estate, according to the government agents who later seized it, amounted to the largest property forfeiture action to date. Prior to his downfall, “Luytjes raised money for local and national Republican political candidates, had his picture taken with President Gerald Ford, socialized with former Gov. William W. Scranton and often flew Rep. Joseph M. McDade to Washington on Air America planes.” This coziness, between the underworld and those occupying high offices, was surprising to many and prompted those officials to publicly disavow any knowledge of Luytjes’ dealings. 

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The name “Air America” may sound familiar, because it was the name of an airline secretly operated by the CIA from 1946 to 1976 and which contributed to the Vietnam War efforts. The Wikipedia entry explains, “Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, drug enforcement officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon all over Southeast Asia.” Allegations of drug running have haunted the legacy of the CIA’s Air America since the airline folded in 1975. 

In his book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Alfred McCoy argues illicit drugs including heroin were, “transported in the planes, vehicles, and other conveyances supplied by the United States. The profit from the trade has been going into the pockets of some of our best friends in Southeast Asia. The charge concludes with the statement that the traffic is being carried on with the indifference if not the closed-eye compliance of some American officials, and there is no likelihood of its being shut down in the foreseeable future.” During the Vietnam conflict, the majority of the global supply of heroin originated in the Golden Triangle, which remained true until it was surpassed by Afghanistan following the US invasion. 

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Investigators suspected that Luytjes chose the name “to create an impression he was connected with the Central Intelligence Agency,” the New York Times reported in 1986. Luytjes openly claimed to his South American business partners that he was working as a CIA informant. Apparently, his cohorts believed this would provide them some sort of cover for their operations. 

“As part of his defense, Luytjes maintained he was an informant for the DEA and CIA. In one mission, he claimed, he had tried but failed to fly a general and gold out of Nicaragua… A DEA agent and a law enforcement official were among those called by Luytjes to confirm that he had assisted their agencies in investigations.” The Morning Call, a Pennsylvania newspaper, reported in 1986 that “after he was arrested… Luytjes again claimed he was on a ‘high government mission’ and really wasn't a drug smuggler.”  

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Just as appealing as this supposed cover were Luytjes’ professionalism and the quality of his planes. These highly modified aircraft were “guaranteed, in part, by state-of-the-art technology—custom-designed airborne radar detectors, for example, and computerized fuel management systems. In the course of about 40 missions over a four-year period, the ring never failed to make a delivery,” the New York Times reported in 1988. Luytjes used to boast that Air America's pilots could guarantee their arrival times within three minutes. “Nobody else can do that,' he claimed, 'not even Federal Express.’” 

Luytjes was clearly at the pinnacle of the drug running world, largely due to his skills with aircraft acquisition and modification. This is evident by the fact that he sold the very C-123 aircraft that, upon being shot down over Nicaragua, began what’s now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. 

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In video from a 1988 Senate investigation Gary Betzner, another convicted drug pilot, admitted that he encountered the infamous Barry Seal at “an Air America facility in Pennsylvania.” Barry Seal was a military pilot turned drug smuggler turned informant who was ultimately gunned down by a cartel hitman. 

Whether Luytjes was really involved with the CIA or not will probably never be truly settled, but regardless, the drug smuggling Cessna T310R’s strange journey was not finished. 

After Air America was shut down and its assets seized by the state, it became a bonanza among government agencies to try and absorb the plentiful yield of drug money and assets. “The Deputy Attorney General presented an Equitable Sharing award in the amount of $1.1 million to the Attorney General of Pennsylvania… The US Customs Service … request[ed] office machines/equipment, furniture, conveyances, and some items of shop equipment.” The memo goes on to explain that the DEA was also preparing a list of asset requests but the Marshal’s were unaware of what that list would include at that time.   

According to one document obtained by Motherboard, the U.S. Marshals wanted to use the Air America facility to “support air operations of the National Prisoner Transportation System (NPTS) throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regional areas.” The document goes on to explain how use of this facility and the seized aircraft could save a lot of money for their prisoner transportation operations. 

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The Marshals noted that their agency was the only one asking specifically for the facilities and aircraft. “The assets sought for official use by the Marshals Service… consist of a five-building complex… two aircraft [and] two motor vehicles…” On June 2nd, 1987 the Marshals received notice that the Deputy Attorney General approved the transfer of the seized Air America assets. 

At the time of the property transfer from Air America to the Marshal’s Service, the aircraft now operated by the Minnesota DNR had logged nearly 1,000 hours. That total would increase for a few years in service of the Marshal’s Air Operations Division and then even further under the Minnesota DNR. Upon last check of flight history via ADSB Exchange, a flight tracker, the DNR did not operate extensively this summer after circling the George Floyd protests. 

Prior to the adoption of the aircraft by the Forestry wing, the DNR housed the aircraft in their Division of Enforcement, a registration more in line with the previous history of the aircraft. The DNR entered into an agreement with the General Services Administration (GSA) in late 1994 requesting the aircraft for their own purposes. The GSA brokered the deal on behalf of the U.S. Marshals, which made use of the aircraft until it was no longer required. The deal was notarized in 1996.  

It appears efforts have been undertaken to keep the plane shrouded in some degree of mystery. 

In 2017, an official within the DNR’s Forestry division requested a change in tail-numbers, from N37250 to the current sequence. In doing so, the old registration information would not be as easily linked to this specific aircraft and the true history of its origins would remain largely unknown to most observers. Interestingly, the old tail number N37250 currently appears in the FAA civil registry under completely unrelated and deregistered status. The years of operation under the Air America status are simply absent from the registry.