A Rohnert Park man who was the subject of an Arkansas manhunt last week after fleeing from deputies in his airplane said Saturday the incident was just a stupid mistake that snowballed out of control.
But running from the law appears to be a hard habit to break for Dennis Franklin Hunter, who spent four years on the lam before a 2002 arrest for operating what was then the largest indoor marijuana plantation in Humboldt County history.
Hunter says the two incidents are unrelated. They occurred 15 years apart. But in both cases, Hunter ran when confronted by law enforcement officers, triggering massive manhunts that eventually landed him in a heap of legal trouble.
Hunter, 40, was sentenced in 2005 to 6 years in federal prison for the Humboldt bust, where agents in 1998 discovered 12,000 plants on his sprawling property east of Eureka near Willow Creek.
He now has a family, owns a local company that sells planter boxes, and completed his probation in that case less than a year ago, he said.
But when deputies tried to approach Hunter on Monday at the Saline County Airport in Arkansas, where he had stopped to refuel on a business trip to the East Coast, he did the same thing he did in the Humboldt hills in 1998 — he bolted. He now faces aggravated assault and fleeing charges stemming from the incident.
"It was just a bad decision that got worse and worse and worse," Hunter said.
Hunter is not the prominent real estate developer Dennis Hunter, though Arkansas media reports suggested he was. The developer is 70 and lives in Santa Rosa. Dennis Franklin Hunter said the two are not related.
The whole thing started Monday evening when Saline County deputies said Homeland Security officials asked them to detain Hunter when he landed at the airport southwest of Little Rock. When they got there, Hunter had already touched down and was refueling his 2001 Cirrus, a small, single-engine fixed-wing airplane.
When he spotted them, he jumped back into the cockpit and hastily took off before even reaching the runway. The assault charge stems from deputies' claim that the plane's wing nearly hit one of them as it rolled away from the fuel pump, according to sheriff's officials.
Hunter said Saturday it was possible Homeland Security officials wanted him questioned because his plane is out of compliance with a safety regulation and therefore wasn't properly registered. His plane is equipped with a parachute that is supposed to be replaced every 10 years, but a new one costs about $20,000 and he hadn't done it, which may have been the reason for the inquiry, he said.
"It's really stupid and I'm foolish for that shortcut," Hunter said.
But it's unclear whether that is the reason or if federal officials had other reasons to want Hunter detained. Saline County sheriff's officials said no one was available Saturday who could comment on the incident.
Hunter said he saw and heard deputies ordering him to stop, but panicked. They were never in any danger of being struck by his plane, he said.
Hunter took off, but he didn't get far.
Deputies said Hunter left behind a credit card slip with his name on it in the fuel pump. A short while later, Hunter set the plane down on a rural road near the town of Stuttgart, about 60 miles southeast of Little Rock. He said he landed because the engine wasn't running properly and because he realized officers may very well be waiting for him at the next airport, he said.