Financier's Arrest Ties Drug Jets Flown From St. Pete

By HOWARD ALTMAN and KAREN BRANCH-BRIOSO The Tampa Tribune St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport is a focus of an international investigation into the purchase of airplanes by a Mexican drug cartel. Mexican authorities...


Only one of the principals involved in the sale of the jets is talking.

Joao Malago said he has nothing to do with drug cartels.

The Brazilian businessman, who purchased the Gulfstream II in August, said he sold the 32-year-old twin-engine jet to a Fort Lauderdale-based pilot named Clyde O'Connor on Sept. 16. He e-mailed The Tampa Tribune an Aircraft Acceptance form he said contains O'Connor's signature and that of a second man, Gregory Smith.

Malago, who bought the plane with his partner Eduardo Dias Guimaraes for their Coconut Creek-based Donna Blue Aircraft company, said he chose St. Petersburg-Clearwater "because I have a close friend who has a hangar, so the plane was just waiting for delivery."

In telephone and e-mail interviews from Brazil, Malago said he sold the jet to O'Connor for $2 million.

Plane Taken To Fort Lauderdale

On the day the jet was sold, O'Connor and Smith, along with a pilot hired by Malago, flew the plane to Fort Lauderdale. Malago said O'Connor was going to use the plane to fly charters in Mexico.

But eight days later, on Sept. 24, the plane crashed in the Yucatan. Mexican officials are unclear how it crashed.

After the crash, Malago said he was contacted by an official from the U.S. Embassy in Brazil who asked about the jet and the drugs.

"We showed them the papers and tried to show them that everything was done by the law," he said. "We have the money; we delivered the plane. We have a bill of sale. We did everything right, but unfortunately, this one was a mess."

O'Connor has repeatedly refused to comment about the plane. He has owned a number of businesses, including air charters, that have since dissolved. He has also filed for bankruptcy twice, in 1997 and 1998, in South Florida, listing dozens of creditors, including a number of casinos.

Last month, O'Connor was detained by Canadian officials after a Cessna 210 he flew into Halifax Airport in Nova Scotia was searched and authorities found two Derringer pistols he failed to report, according to Laurie Gillmore, spokeswoman for Canada's Border Services Agency. O'Connor acknowledged he misled authorities, paid $3,500 in fines and court costs, and now has a criminal record in Canada, Gillmore said. The guns were confiscated.

No one involved in the sale of the other plane, a DC-9, is talking about that transaction anymore.

In April 2006, the 40-year-old jet sat on the tarmac of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Royal Sons Inc., a registered aircraft dealer based at the airport, sold the plane in March.

Fred Geffon, president of Royal Sons, told the Tribune in May 2006 that the plane - which was once at the heart of a now-litigated effort to persuade people to invest in an aircraft-borne mobile phone service as well as homeland security products - was to be used by a Venezuelan air charter company.

Just after noon on April 5, 2006, the plane took off. Five days later, it landed in Mexico, where authorities seized it, finding 5.5 tons of cocaine in 128 black briefcases marked "private."

The plane roused suspicions with Mexican officials almost immediately after takeoff from an airport outside Caracas, Venezuela, according to Gen. Carlos Gaytan, operations subchief of the Mexican army.

The pilot fled after landing, but the Venezuelan co-pilot was arrested, Gaytan said.

Geffon and Jorge Corrales, the California man who brokered the sale, said they knew nothing about the cocaine. At the time, the men offered different accounts of who purchased the plane.

Geffon said he did not know who bought the jet, but Corrales said Geffon knew who bought the jet, and he obtained permits to fly the plane out of the United States. Geffon, he said, also arranged to have a crew fly the plane to Venezuela for delivery.

Efforts to reach Geffon for comment were unsuccessful. Corrales did not return several calls to his home.

Reporter Elaine Silvestrini contributed to this report. Editor Howard Altman can be reached at (813) 259-7629 or haltman@tampatrib.com

Photo credit: The Associated Press

We Recommend