Considering all the facts behind the case of Polk County’s infamous pot plane landing in the early days of August 1975, you can see it was a miracle they were able to get the plane down at all.
Even through all the planning and the great amount of time they took to arrange everything, it all came down to the guts of the pilot — Bob Eby.
Here’s what Eby was able to do: he took a plane from a scrap yard in the middle of the desert outside of Tuscon, Arizona, and got it to fly again before it was loaded up with goods. He then took off from a regular airport, flew half the day to a makeshift airstrip in Colombia which he’d only been to once. He then flew into Fort Lauderdale with the first load of drugs to be sold between Michigan and Atlanta.
Then not long later, he turned around and did it a second time — but with the added problem of landing on an additional dirt runway recently carved out of pulpwood pine forests in Polk County.
Eby had to land the plane on a shorter than normal runway for the restored DC-4, on a muddy landing strip.
All this flying from a guy who at the time just flew for fun. He’d worked on boats at the time just before the two smuggling runs.
Raulins learned an important lesson after the fact: large plane loads were not the way to go when it came to smuggling marijuana. By this time they’d already been arrested, taken to court and had their charges dismissed because of problems with the prosecution’s case.
By that point he’d already taken many trips between Colombia and the United States. He was finally caught again in the mid 1980s and his days of drug-running were brought to an end.
But this is the story before all that. Raulins, his group and even the plane itself would become part of the ongoing and sometimes convoluted history that makes up the War on Drugs around the globe.
The first trip to Colombia
Before they could even consider getting the plane from Arizona to Colombia, they had to find someone willing to sell them a lot of marijuana for as little money as possible.
On a previous sailboat excursion — carrying a load of marijuana — Raulins was motivated in part by his need to make contacts with someone who had wholesale weight of the drug available, so long as a buyer could come and pick it up.
When he returned to Colombia, Raulins took along with him a Spanish translator named Maria. They flew into Barranquilla airport and began their search for a man they only knew as Francos.
“Maria and I stayed in a little three story hotel in Riohacha while we were there,” Raulins said.
They took to driving around in the back of a cab asking around for him for days, with only an address and a first name to go on.
“It took forever to find this guy, but he wasn’t the contact. he was just a guy who worked for the contact,” he said. “When we found him, we were literally running around in a cab in the slums of Barranquilla and just asking around for this guy’s name. It was literally down to that.”
“Finally the guy said ‘I’m Francos’ and he took me to meet the real contact, and we went down there on vacation,” Raulins added.
He was able to negotiate with the actual man in charge, a named Alberto, who negotiated the sale of as much marijuana as he could get. They were also given a shopping list of goods the group wanted to have delivered from the U.S. on the first flight onto a makeshift landing strip.
On Raulins’ side of the deal, there were ten people involved in the first trip.
“These guys go out and start buying everything from bras and panties to chain saws,” Raulins said. “Mostly women’s stuff. Of course the men wanted guns but that was a no no from the beginning. I’m a pot smuggler not a gun runner.”
When they landed on the first trip to the village where they were buying their load, around 500 Guajiros natives lined each side of the runway and waited for the plane to taxi and stop. Raulins said the scene turned into the “biggest Christmas party ever.”
They were Santa Claus come to the rain forest on a Sunday afternoon — complete with a dune buggy for the chief’s sons to drive. Despite troubles getting it off the airplane and at one point the dune buggy landing on the roll bars after falling off a truck, Raulins said the chief’s sons cranked it right up and begin to tear up and down the runway while the plane is reloaded with marijuana.
Then, as if it were business as usual, the plane taxied back to take off and they successfully completed their first smuggling run in the DC-4 to Fort Lauderdale without any trouble. Initially, Raulins had the idea of carrying the pot in duffel bags labeled U.S. mail and have trucks with it printed on the side but thought better of the plan when they realized it wasn’t worth the additional work.
“When you’re doing something like this, you’re always trying to be sneaky,” Raulins said.
So the first trip, they decided to fly back into the states in a normal way, since then the only law they might be stopped for was coming back in without checking at a port of entry after leaving the country.
The infamous landing in Polk County
Raulins said there were risks involved with using a large plane.
For instance, even though the tactics of the government in the War on Drugs at the time weren’t as sophisticated as they are today — there were still opportunities for them to get caught at just about every turn.
Radar made their plane visible day or night, no matter what speed they were going. Ships patrolled the seas and were able to look above and see the lower flying aircraft trying to avoid detection.
There were also tracking planes as well, a real concern for landing a plane like their DC-4 at a real airport like Fort Lauderdale.
Sure, they could come in under the cover of other flyers heading back home from a weekend trip to the Caribbean. This is why Sunday was a popular day to fly out and return to the United States for the group. Air traffic home would help them blend in with those who are just gone for a short time.
But if their plane was picked up when it was leaving from South America to the shores of Florida, it could be tracked by a tail plane. They’d follow a plane right to where it landed and help authorities keep up with the location of the smugglers. Then law enforcement would arrive to make an arrest and seize any drugs coming into the country.
“The only way you got a tail plane on you is if they knew you were going,” he said. “That’s why we decided to build our own airstrip out here.”
His logic was that if even a tail plane were ever to follow their DC-4 back into Georgia, they would land in such a remote spot with crews ready to unload the marijuana. That way it wouldn’t matter, no one would be able to get out to their landing strip until well after they were gone.
Raulins talked to a friend he called Dave — who was wealthy and older by several years — who had bought land in the area around Treat Mountain and kept it for pulpwood. The two went to look at it together.
For their purposes, it was the perfect place to clear a landing strip and bring in the DC-4. Eby flew into Atlanta and joined Raulins to take his own look at the property. When he looked at the area they deciding it could work. They’d have to clear a few thousand feet of space out of the trees to land and take off again before anyone knew what was happening.
They got help from a friend’s uncle with bulldozers to clear the land.
“So, I’m out in the woods for the next three weeks watching them play on their little tractors,” Raulins said. “We left trees in the middle to be taken down at the end so it didn’t look so much like an airstrip. Neighbors would come by and ask what we were up to and we would say we were cleaning pasture land.”
On the Thursday before the infamous trip, Eby returned to see the progress. Even though they only had 1,500 feet of the strip cleared because of rainy conditions in the days before, their pilot gave the thumbs up to move ahead.
Before he left, Eby pointed to the highest tree at the approach end of the runway and asked to have a light placed at the top. Lights for 1,000 feet were strung along each side of the runway, all powered by a generator.
They were ready for the Sunday night delivery.
They worked in two teams on this trip. Mike, Raulins partner in the venture, and his four friends flying down with Eby to Colombia from where they had the plane still in Fort Lauderdale that Sunday morning. The second team was Raulins and four of his friends at the landing strip with truck to unload the marijuana.
Before rain ruined the prospects of taking off again, Mike’s load of marijuana was going to be picked up by purchasers coming into town. They’d take what they bought from a hiding spot away from the landing strip in the woods. Raulins would have his group take his load directly to Atlanta.
So with 7,000 pounds of marijuana on board, they flew back from Colombia and landed the plane in the middle of the night, right in the middle of nowhere in Polk County on a muddy strip.
Raulins said he knew by then there was no hope of recovering the plane from the woods. The runway too wet and short for takeoff to be possible. So they loaded the marijuana and boxes of hashish onto trucks and left before daybreak.
During the landing, one of his friends Rick Hodge carried the light up into a tree to provide the plane a reference for where the trees ended and cleared runway space began. Hodge fell out of the tree not too long after Eby landed the plane and was lucky to not be severely injured, he said.
They almost got away with it, if not for a change in their original plan.
During the landing, Raulins stood as a lookout near the road with a two-way radio.
He waited a long time for his partner’s half of the load to come rolling out of the woods. That was well after his half of the marijuana was driven away toward Atlanta and waiting buyers.
At this point, Raulins can only fully account for what happened to him.
His partner’s load took longer to get out of the wooded area than expected and eventually they got to a point where they are going to separate. At that point Raulins said he drove past a patrol car on the side of the road looking at a car hood on the side of the road. He didn’t think much about it at the time, and drove on and got to Buchanan.
When Raulins and the group from Michigan made it out of the woods, the officer that spotted the pair of trucks thought they were involved in illegal moonshine smuggling. That officer called ahead to others to investigate Raulins’ Blazer and the truck.
Eby and Raulins’ friends had already cleared out of the woods.
Raulins was stopped in Buchanan, directly across from a police station at a red light. He said the officer never got out of the car, just rolled down his passenger side window and ordered Raulins to pull over and step out of his truck.
The others were stopped as well, and five in all were arrested that night. He sat in a cell and after 30 minutes and watched as the driver of his partner’s truck was hauled into jail as well.
“I acted like I don’t know him and when the officers all leave I whisper out of the side of my mouth, ‘the truck’s empty, right?’ He says, ‘No. And there’s three other people in the back.’”
The other three were eventually brought into jail as well. They spent a week in the Haralson County Jail.
All told, 12 people were arrested by the time everything was said and done.
They were in big trouble. It was all over the news for days and even though they were caught with 3,500 pounds of marijuana and hashish, they got out on bail.
While preparing for trial, Raulins said the group worked together to continue smuggling operations, changing tactics from using large planes to smaller ones.
In the meantime, a legal battle was underway as Raulins and his partners faced indictments from the federal and state government. Raulins said his attorney Al Horn helped get them off. He raised questions about the legality of the stop and search of their vehicles since they’d been pulled over on the suspicion of being involved in a moonshine operation.
There were also several evidence issues in the case.
“The federal prosecutor made a big deal about bringing in a bale of pot and a brick of hash that was supposedly found on the ground below the door of the plane,” Raulins recounted. Finding those would have given police the clue they needed to search the plane and trucks, but there was a problem.
“Al had a good time with the bale of pot, smelling it and making a jester like this is the really good stuff ... But Al had a method to his madness. He was inspecting the bale the whole time and when he sat back down he whispered to J.J. (another attorney on their case) ‘there’s no mud anywhere on the bale.’ Everything would have had mud on it that night.”
It was issues like that that caused the case to fall apart. Another piece of evidence was a video taken from a Georgia State Patrol helicopter where they purportedly discovered the plane. But the problem was the video showed a man in denim with a sidearm leaving the plane, likely a law enforcement officer who was already there. First federal prosecutors decided not to take the prosecution any further. Then it was left up to the state, who also decided not to go further as well.
The plane flies back out
Just as crazy as the story of the plane was flying in, so too is the brief history of the plane’s departure from Polk County.
Briefly, The DC-4 that landed in the Treat Mountain area was eventually visited by thousands then confiscated and auctioned off by the government. Then it sat for a while as its new owner, a state representative and a director and producer named Jim West figured out how to get it out.
He had to buy the land from Raulins’ investor friend who owned the property. Eventually with the help of a pilot named Jim Thurman they flew the plane out of the woods of Polk County.
It was part of the film that West made titled “In Hot Pursuit: the Polk County Pot Plane” that feels much like Smoky and the Bandit — but with a plane. Those who want to watch it can find it on Youtube. As far as the research has taken Raulins, he said it was his understanding the plane was now in a museum in California.
Raulins later tracked down both Eby and Thurman and got them to talking. They learned they all ran in the same smuggling circles at the time.
“It was kind of ironic in itself that he ended up using it way later on the airstrip that we built down there with the Guajiros,” Raulins said.
Raulins didn’t stop his smuggling operations until he was finally caught in 1987. By then, the tactic for getting marijuana into the country was via air drops from the same kind of small planes they were using after the DC-4 was left in the woods near the Haralson County line.
He would work with pilots, then have to find others as they went off on their own, were killed during operations or got tired of the lifestyle.
Prior to the run that really got him into trouble with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the federal government, he did a single trip back and forth between Texas and Colombia for a group of buyers he didn’t work with again.
They were upset about a broken tail wheel, and all went their separate ways. The Texas group eventually got caught and he got dragged into it. He served a year in prison in 1984 on those charges but then went back to his usual ways.
By then, he had a pilot working with him using a Beechcraft King Air, a two-engine plane that could comfortably hold around 1,200 pounds without any issue. They flew to Colombia but horrible winds there and back on a Sunday they barely made it to a refueling stop Raulins had permission to use on a resort island off the coast of Belize. Both engines ran out of gas by the time they landed on that strip.
The delay forced them to return on a Tuesday instead of a Sunday and people were out of position.
He then ran into an old friend at the airport in Peachtree City, who remembered him acting funny when she walked up to him and said “hey Marty, how are you doing?”
Airport workers found the plane in disarray following the trip. The investigation began and that friend eventually pointed authorities in his direction.
So when all was said and done, Raulins was forced to turn himself in for four years in prison. The night before he self-surrendered to the Federal Correctional Institution at Lompoc in California, Raulins partied too hard and got tangled up in another bad situation. His cousin and a friend from Colombia needed a pilot and asked Raulins to talk to the man.
“That 10 minute phone call cost me another four years,” he said. “Eight or 10 months later they got busted with cocaine in New York.”
Raulins always considered himself a fit man even getting on into his 60’s, and even before his cancer diagnosis he was the type of guy to walk five miles a day with his dog, then go play 18 holes of golf.
He eventually settled down after spending time in prison and became successful in regular business. After he retired he was diagnosed with cancer, and his whole life turned upside down with treatment.
“Literally for a year I didn’t want to get out of bed I was so sick,” Raulins said.
A melanoma tumor was removed during his treatment for cancer and he went through radiation treatments. He then went through another battle after his cancer metastasized and attacked his liver, spleen and bones.
“I figure I have just a little time left,” Raulins said. “They told me in the beginning that I’d probably end up having immunotherapy treatments in the end. But then the cancer metastasized and on October 3 they were giving me an immunotherapy treatment.”
He suffered through pulmonary embolisms, through weakness so bad friends took him out of his condo in Vinings and brought him into their home.
At that point he decided he wanted to tell his story. He felt it was worth preserving. Maybe one day he’ll see a movie replace the original, just without the original plane.
For now, he believed it was high time that a side of the story not covered the in newspapers at the time finally come to light.
“I wanted the people of Polk County, since it is such a big deal to them to know the true story,” Raulins said.