4 Used F-14 Jets Seized at California Airports

Federal agents seized four F-14 Tomcat fighters in San Bernardino County on Tuesday -- three from airplane museums -- after investigators determined the jets were not demilitarized and were improperly sold or transferred to private companies, including the producer of the TV show "JAG," authorities said.

When the jets were retired in the mid-1990s at the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu, Navy officials failed to ensure that the aircraft were stripped of military hardware, according to a court affidavit filed by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

Three of the fighter jets then were sold, in "unauthorized deals," to an Oxnard scrap company for $4,000 or less apiece, and one was acquired as a prop for the military drama "JAG," according to the affidavit and federal officials.

The proceeds from the sales went to a Morale Welfare and Recreation Fund for a squadron at the Ventura County naval base, according to the federal affidavit, filed by ICE Special Agent Joshua Barnett.

On Tuesday, customs agents and officials with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service seized two of the fighters from the Yanks Air Museum and one from the Planes of Fame air museum, both at the Chino Airport. Investigators learned about the F-14s during an undercover sting operation when they were investigating the potential sale of jet fighter parts to Iran, according to the affidavit.

A fourth jet, originally acquired by the producers of "JAG," was seized from an airport in Victorville where it was housed. The plane is owned by an El Mirage aviation company.

"The investigation has not uncovered any evidence that these planes have been plundered for parts by people with nefarious motives," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for ICE, "but the fact that they were not properly demilitarized certainly presents a potential vulnerability."

Federal officials fear that parts from any decommissioned F-14 could find their way onto the worldwide black market, Barnett stated in his affidavit, adding that "Iran is the only nation to still have the F-14 in its active fleet."

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said no one had been charged with a crime, but said the investigation was continuing. "There are some issues related to statute of limitations, and we're examining those issues."

Defense Department officials have determined that the F-14s should have been destroyed by an authorized contractor when they were taken out of military service between 1996 and 1998, according to the affidavit.

Instead, the officer in charge of demilitarizing the planes "improperly and without authority" released three of them to an Oxnard company, California Public Recycling, for disposal as scrap metal, even though the parts that made up the fighter jet were specifically barred from release to scrap metal recycling programs, the federal court document alleged.

Stephen Winter Leslie, the Navy officer named as the person who allegedly authorized the sale of at least three of the planes in 1999, on Tuesday declined to discuss the case.

"I don't think I'm authorized to speak on that," he said when reached in Hawaii. He did confirm that he is in the Navy and was involved in the sale of the planes.

Marc Keenberg, a consultant to California Public Recycling, confirmed that the company received several military airplanes at that time but described them as "already in scrap condition."

"One or two of them had already been wrecked," he said, "and one was wrecked and burned. They had been stripped and cannibalized at the base; I don't think they had the engines on them, and to be transported the wings had to be cut off."

Keenberg said the recycling company sold the planes to another scrap yard and lost track of them after that.

The producer of "JAG," said his company went through proper military channels when it acquired the retired F-14 -- just as it did when shooting scenes on aircraft carriers -- and said he had not been contacted by investigators.

"They didn't sell us one. They gave us one, and they removed the engines," said Don Bellisario, whose company now produces the military drama "NCIS." "The Navy said to us, 'We can give you an old aircraft, but we have to demil [demilitarize] it before we can give it to you.' I just assumed that's what happened."

The Navy also "broke its back," meaning that the F-14's fuselage was sliced in half and then welded back together, Bellisario said. Unable to fly, the jet was used as a prop for shots on the ground -- and had to be towed around, he said.

That plane in 2005 was sold to the company Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, which was storing the F-14 at Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville.

Mark Thomson, president of Aviation Warehouse, said the company also bought the other three F-14s for $5,000 apiece from a middleman, who was facilitating the sale for California Public Recycling in Oxnard. They later were sold to the Yanks airplane museum in Chino for $50,000 apiece, Thompson said.

Thomson, 65 of Adelanto, said he was outraged by the seizure of the planes and plans to fight the government's actions.

"When I bought the planes, everything was 100% totally legal and aboveboard," said Thomson, whose company provides props for movie television productions.

Thomson said he was interviewed by federal agents in November 2005 and explained to them how he obtained the planes and showed them canceled checks and other documentation. When they left, he believed they were satisfied and that he would have no trouble.

Thomson said the government's allegation that the planes presented a security risk is "ludicrous."

"We are very careful that they are not let out to someone outside the country or with any mischief in mind," Thompson said.

During the 17-month investigation, former Navy Chief Warrant Officer Mark Holmes told authorities that his Point Mugu unit -- known as VX-9 Detachment -- handled the sale of fighter jets. He said one of his superiors instructed him to contact scrap dealers to see if they were interested in "picking up F-14s for scrap," according to the court affidavit.

Holmes said the officer in charge set the price for the aircraft between $2,000 and $4,000. The checks for the planes were placed into a fund identified as the VX-9 Morale Welfare and Recreation fund, the affidavit stated.

There was no documentation of the sales or papers showing that the planes had been demilitarized, federal officials said.

Investigators said that the owner of the Yanks museum, Charles Nichols, was not cooperative when Navy officials visited the museum in April 2005 and asked to inspect the cockpit of one of the fighter jets, according to court records. The two Navy officials discovered live explosive charges in the plane, possibly intended for use when pilots eject, which they said could endanger visitors.

Nichols declined to comment Tuesday. Representatives from Planes of Fame could not be reached for comment.

Navy officials referred all questions to the U.S. attorney's office and said they were cooperating with the investigation.

Federal officials are dismantling the planes and will ship them to a military yard in Tucson for storage and "final demilitarization."


Times staff writers Jonathan Abrams, Sara Lin, David Haldane and Times researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.

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