This is the second part of the Polk County Pot Plane story
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 Tucson, 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 Francos 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 its 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 was 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 a 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 was 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.