He trafficked across the country using small airports and exploiting some security blindspots
BETH WARREN | LOUISVILLE COURIER JOURNAL | 8:46 pm EDT October 3, 2020
Robert Carlson, a California businessman who dreamed of becoming the cocaine king of the skies, used private jets to funnel a billion dollars’ worth of cartel drugs through smaller airports across the country — exploiting a security blind spot.
He did it over and over again, profiting off a rarely policed mode of transportation. And when he was finally busted in 2017 in Lexington, it wasn’t because of the X-ray scanner or drug-sniffing dog. That level of security at private and secondary airports just isn’t there.
Instead, an informant tipped off federal agents and blew up one of the nation’s largest airborne domestic smuggling rings — one in which Carlson moved drugs for three years for the Sinaloa Cartel.
A closer look at Carlson’s case — provided through federal court transcripts and interviews with prosecutors and agents — exposes gaping holes in security at the majority of the nation’s more than 2,500 general aviation airports, where there are no Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.
Kenneth Martinson, a retired Homeland Security Investigations agent who is considered one of the godfathers of plane smuggling cases, said the task of policing private planes “does fall through the cracks.”
“The next time you look up and see one, wonder to yourself: ‘Where’s it going? Where’d it come from, and what’s on board?’
“There’s a good chance it could be illicit narcotics.”
TSA — created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — focuses on securing flights at the nation’s 440 major airports that host commercial fleets such as Delta and American Airlines. If TSA agents find drugs during screenings of passengers or luggage, they alert police.
These security measures don’t exist at the majority of the secondary airports, which host much of the nation’s 200,000 general aviation aircraft — more than half of the world’s private planes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dmitriy Slavin explained the risks to the Eastern Kentucky judge overseeing Carlson’s case.
“Nobody is scanning your luggage,” he said. “You get on, you fly over, you get off. You move your drugs. That is a huge problem because it’s so easy, and it’s very difficult to stop, just because of the nature of these small airports.”
In just a four-month period in 2017, Carlson moved $60 million in drug profits out of Atlanta to California, said Thor Whitmore, an Atlanta-based Homeland Security Investigations special agent.
“And that’s just out of Atlanta,” he said. “The Carlson case was a big eye-opener.”
Agents say the majority of drugs spread across the country are hidden on trucks or tucked into packages sent through the mail, so law enforcement officials focus their efforts on policing major highways and screening mail. They also concentrate on drug searches at Mexico border crossings.
It’s impossible to quantify the volume of drugs on board private planes that are never searched.
The Drug Enforcement Administration cautioned in its 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment that, with cocaine “more and more, traffickers are utilizing private airplanes and secondary airports” that have less security. The DEA also warned that traffickers use personal planes to fly marijuana produced in states where it’s legal to states where it’s not.
Hiding drugs on jets isn’t new. Agents noticed the trend as far back as the 1970s.
The Carlson private plane drug ring is one of the largest of its kind since the 1980s, when the crime was depicted on the popular TV show “Miami Vice,” said Whitmore, a federal agent for 27 years.
After the 1990s, traffickers shifted toward moving drugs on land to avoid police crackdowns on aircraft. But during the past few years, police began to notice an increase in private aircraft drug cases.
Despite a continuation of the deadliest drug epidemic in the nation’s history, there still hasn’t been a significant push to prevent the spread of drugs using private planes.
Experts cite two main reasons: a lack of security resources and an ask-no-questions culture enjoyed by the jet set.
A debate underway for decades centers on how to increase security to screen for bombs, drugs or other contraband, while maintaining the privacy and convenience expected by elite travelers.
Congress’ think tank, the Congressional Research Service, noted in 2009 that discussions about imposing restrictions have been “highly contentious.”
“That’s what attracts people to either owning their own aircraft or chartering a private plane, to avoid that scrutiny because it’s a hassle,” Whitmore said. “They don’t stand in a long line and get frisked.”
Some members of Congress are themselves pilots, and others frequently use private jets.
And pilots and the general aviation community have a strong lobby, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA, the world’s largest aviation organization, with 330,000 members. It stresses freedom over restrictions.
“The AOPA is the NRA of flying,” Martinson said. “They’re a powerful voice, and they are heard.”
**The ‘Loco gringo’**Robert Walter Carlson, Jr., 50, is an extreme example of how a criminal can easily find and capitalize on security weaknesses at secondary airports across the nation.
He was driven by greed.
Carlson had an $8 million mansion, drove a red Ferrari and socialized with Hollywood’s A-list. He claimed to have once befriended neighbor and legendary actor Dick Van Dyke.
But his job as a computer networking specialist couldn’t sustain his luxury lifestyle.
So he cooked up a scheme in 2014 to cart Northern California marijuana on private planes, according to federal records reviewed by The Courier Journal. He met a Mexican drug smuggler associated with the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful cartel empires.
Carlson realized he could make more money and lessen the risk of getting caught by moving cocaine instead of a suitcases full of pot, which is bulky and smelly. So he asked the cartel associate to vouch for him and introduce him to cartel leaders in Mexico.
Carlson arrived at a four-star hotel in Guadalajara in early 2016 and was greeted by a man who appeared to be a police officer on the cartel’s payroll. The man said Carlson wouldn’t be harmed but had to be blindfolded.
The cartel was looking for new opportunities to move cocaine and other drugs after repeated police stings on U.S. highways like Interstate 10, a major drug corridor that stretches from California to Florida. Cartels like to team with U.S. citizens, especially a “gringo” who could blend in with other wealthy passengers on private jets.
Carlson boasted that he could be the “FedEx of the white skies,” promising a network of private pilots who could offer a faster turn-around time to deliver cocaine and fly back to California with drug profits. By land, it often took weeks. Carlson could do it in two days.
Carlson also could lessen the risks of a drug bust. If the cartel sent drugs from Mexico on a private jet, it would have to clear a U.S. customs search. Carlson could avoid that scrutiny by picking up cartel drugs driven across the border to California and then making only domestic flights.
Sinaloa members and Carlson celebrated their billion-dollar partnership over tacos and bottled Coca-Colas in a tiny restaurant in Los Mochis, a coastal city in the cartel-controlled state of Sinaloa.
Back in the U.S., Carlson hurriedly built his network. He partnered with Katharine Matthews, a Hollywood socialite who partied in the same social circles with pop stars like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber, actor Leonardo DiCaprio and rapper Snoop Dogg.
Carlson recruited others wanting quick cash, including several pilots, a model, a chef and an Army combat veteran, records show.
Carlson knew there was a sharp contrast in the scrutiny for those flying private compared with passengers stepping foot on a commercial flight. There’s no photo ID required, no ticket confirmation, no pat-downs in security lines. And there’s no baggage screening.
On a small private aircraft, passengers typically don’t even have to give their names. Even if pilots fill out a manifest, they don’t have to ask to see identification to verify passengers are giving their real names.
And, on a private plane, the pilot can refuse to allow law enforcement on board — something Carlson knew and exploited.
To further lessen the risks of getting caught, Carlson offered to pay a dozen pilots extra to fly the drugs across the country. Only one said no. Carlson looked for those who complained of money problems. He stayed away from “law nerds” who followed rules.
Carlson also forked out hush money to ground crews that fueled planes and unloaded luggage.
Along with owning various planes, Carlson used chartered jets, too. Sometimes, he made drug runs unbeknownst to the plane owners and pilots.
Carlson and his team made drug deliveries at noncommercial airports in Atlanta; New York City; Bessemer, Alabama; and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Michael Romagnoli, a group supervisor for Homeland Security Investigations in Northern Kentucky, led the Carlson probe and discovered how the drug ring flourished for so long using secondary airports.
“It’s not a security lapse,” he said. “There is no security. There’s no dogs. No police. No TSA.”
Over time, Carlson became reckless, bragging that he ran drugs for a Mexican cartel. He once took a woman he met on a dating app to Mexico for their second date to meet cartel members. Ultimately, someone Carlson confided in tipped off police.
A few weeks before his arrest, Carlson started flying methamphetamine.
His cartel fixer sent two meth shipments destined for Lexington, known internationally for horse farms and thoroughbred racetracks.
Carlson, now in prison, quipped while testifying during his co-defendants’ trial in March: “I got paid for the first trip. On the second trip, the only thing I got was this orange jumpsuit.”
When Carlson’s plane landed on the second trip to a small airstrip in Lexington in April of 2017, state troopers and federal agents were waiting.
Acting on a tip, police watched the passengers move suitcases from the plane to a black BMW and drive off, ignoring a red light. Police stopped the car, and a drug-detecting dog sniffed out 40 pounds of meth.
The dog also sniffed out three suitcases on the plane stuffed with an estimated 80 kilos of cocaine — the second-largest cocaine bust in Kentucky history. Those drugs had been destined for Atlanta and Miami.
Carlson planned to spend the night at a luxury hotel but ended up in a jail cell.
The investigation led to the conviction of Carlson, Matthews and five others, including a man who helped launder the money and a pilot who had to forfeit his million-dollar jet.
“In this case we arrested the rich, the elite, privileged people that were exploiting this method of travel,” Romagnoli said.
Carlson pleaded guilty in 2017 to trafficking 5 or more kilos, though he estimates he moved hundreds. His attorney, Patrick Nash, declined to discuss the case. He is waiting to see if the judge will agree to reduce Carlson’s sentence of 16 years and eight months in a federal prison, where parole is not an option.
Carlson spent several days detailing his three years of drug smuggling to prosecutors and police. Many of those secrets remain hidden in sealed court documents.
Using Carlson’s information, investigators continue to drill down to identify and prosecute the local distributors who bought drugs from Carlson in Lexington, Atlanta, New York, Miami and other cities. And they’re trying to work their way up the chain to the cartel suppliers in Mexico and cartel associates in the U.S.
Gorman, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, helped send Carlson to prison and is already looking for his next airborne drug smuggling case.
“On any given day, in our skies, there is probably contraband moving from coast to coast,” he said.
“There’s guns, aliens and drugs.”
An orange grove of drugsSecuring the nation’s 2,500 secondary airports, and intercepting illegal drugs remains a challenge.
Customs agents seized 67 kilograms of illegal drugs on private planes in fiscal year 2019, compared with nearly 57 seized the previous year, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
That’s just a small percentage of the volume traffickers move on private planes, agents said.
A senior DEA official, who spoke on background, said the agency focuses more on international flights moving larger amounts, up to multitons of cocaine to North and Central America from the Andean and Southern Cone regions. DEA relies on other federal agencies, like Homeland Security Investigations and the Federal Aviation Administration, to target smaller shipments on flights within the U.S.
A rogue network of private jet pilots were nabbed in Lexington with Sinaloa Cartel drugs bound for Kentucky, Georgia and Florida. (Courtesy Homeland Security Investigations Kentucky)COURTESY OF HOMELAND SECURITY INVESTIGATIONS
Whitmore said Homeland Security Investigations doesn’t have the manpower to police all secondary airports.
“TSA, that would alleviate a lot,” he said. “But it would just kick ’em down to smaller airports to avoid it.”
Some airports are so small they don’t have towers or staff at night. There also are countless airstrips in cornfields, deserts, pastures and backyards that are never registered with any federal agency. Florida agents found two prop jets that landed in tandem in an orange grove northwest of Orlando in 2010 with $800,000 worth of marijuana.
Since TSA doesn’t have the resources to screen at the majority of the smaller airports, the agency released guidelines on security measures, but they aren’t mandatory. And they were developed in collaboration with the AOPA and several other aviation associations.
Christopher Cooper, AOPA’s director of regulatory affairs based in Washington, D.C., said most pilots are honest and willing to help police root out those who aren’t.
AOPA partnered with TSA in 2002 to create a secure hotline — 1-866-GASECURE — to encourage airport managers, pilots and ground crew to report possible dangers or crimes.
TSA’s Transportation Security Operation Center staff have received 336 calls to the hotline since 2018, said TSA spokesman R. Carter Langston.
Homeland Security also has eyes monitoring aircraft at the Mexican border and on international and domestic flights through the Security’s Air and Marine Operations Center.
Also, the FAA is working to train local, state and federal agents on suspicious behaviors at noncommercial airports, said Steven Tochterman, a veteran FAA special agent who helped on the Carlson case.
“The bad guys are always looking to exploit the loophole,” he said.
“And we’re trying to shut it down.”