Drug busts at small Kansas airport a sign of times

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY (BestGrowthStock) – Planes on cross-country flights often refuel at the small airport in Salina, Kansas, which bills itself as “America’s Fuel Stop.” The airport is also getting a reputation as a depot for drug dealers.

In late September, police and a drug-sniffing dog greeted a charter jet and found two suitcases containing 105 pounds of cocaine with a street value estimated at $2 million.

A month ago, authorities discovered $5.5 million in suspected drug-related cash packed into a dozen suitcases on a small Cessna jet at the airport, which serves the city of 50,000 in the flat, farming region of central Kansas.

As security measures at major airports grow ever tighter due to concerns about terrorism, the United States’ 5,000 smaller, general aviation airports have become alternatives for airborne shipments of illegal drugs, officials say.

“There’s a belief they can stop at airports that might not have commercial service and sneak through,” said Timothy Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.

“It’s only a matter of time before good law enforcement and intelligence gathering leads to arrest and the discovery of drugs,” Rogers said.

The Salina Municipal Airport has exceeded 80,000 takeoffs and landings on its four runways in recent years, though only 2,800 passengers traveled on the few commercial or charter flights serving it in 2009, according to airport statistics. But fuel suppliers at the airport sold almost 4 million gallons of fuel to more than 12,000 business jets and government-owned aircraft.

Passengers and baggage are not routinely checked when airplanes stop at Salina and other small airports, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) makes requests of local police to perform inspections when investigative tips warrant it, a DEA agent in the region said.

The agency also requests occasional random checks of arriving planes, said Darin Thimmesch, a DEA agent in Wichita, Kansas.

The majority of illegal drugs shipped into the United States comes in over roads and highways from Mexico, but investigators keep an eye on the skies and airports as well, Thimmesch said.

“They are using any and every means and methods to get stuff from point A to point B,” he said.

When drugs or cash proceeds from drug deals are transported by air, the pilots may or may not be in on the deal, Thimmesch said.

In the recent cocaine bust in Salina, a passenger was arrested, but neither pilot was implicated. Some accomplices were arrested three weeks ago in Los Angeles, Thimmesch said.

The source of the $5.5 million in cash confiscated last month is still under investigation, he said.

Salina Mayor Aaron Peck said the busts are merely a sign of the times and that residents do not view the confiscations as having anything to do with them.

“You certainly don’t like for those types of activities to be associated with your community or airport, but that’s the times we live in,” he said.

Local police have developed a solid reputation for staying on top of drug activity and working with federal law enforcement agencies, he added.

(Editing by Andrew Stern and Jonathan Oatis)

Drug busts at small Kansas airport a sign of times