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An Australian man turned up at the Sonoma County airport with a dream of flying across the Pacific Ocean in a single-engine airplane.

It turns out his plan also involved hauling a colossal shipment of methamphetamine out of Santa Rosa and hopscotching across the ocean.

A tip led Australian and U.S. drug agents to investigate the trans-Pacific plot, eventually jailing three Australian men in their home country and discovering 560 pounds of crystal methamphetamine stashed in a Santa Rosa storage facility. The stockpile of drugs is worth more than $200 million in U.S. dollars if sold on the black market in Australia, Australian police said.

At the center of the case was a 72-year-old Melbourne man who arranged to buy an airplane in Santa Rosa from PropJet Aviation based at the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. The business, which specializes in modifying smaller private planes, was searched with guns drawn last week by federal drug agents.

Company owner Robert Nichols, who said he and his business have no connection to the alleged drug trafficking scheme, recalled in detail the strange interactions he had with the portly Australian man who showed up at his door this spring.

“He said he wanted to fly to Australia,” said Nichols. “He just said because he wanted to.”

The man, who said his name was Hugh Gorman but everyone called him John, gave no other explanation for his plan, an ambitious feat even for experienced pilots, said Nichols. Australian Federal Police haven’t identified the man they arrested by name.

“He called a bathroom a dunny, he called a woman a Sheila — he was old school. This was one of the strangest experiences of my life,” Nichols said.

Gorman had been trying, over the phone from Australia, to buy an airplane from Nichols since October, and the $630,000 deal was finally underway for a single-engine Cessna P210N plane when he arrived in Santa Rosa about April or May, according to Nichols.

Gorman told Nichols he had worked in construction, building bridges, tunnels and other highway structures. Starting with an atypically low deposit of $10,000, he eventually bought the plane from Nichols using a Utah-based firm, TVPX Aircraft Solutions, that specializes in acquiring U.S. planes for foreign nationals, according to the Federal Aviation Administration records.

He spent weeks living out of a room at the Hampton Inn in Windsor while taking a flight course to upgrade his instrument rating qualifications, Nichols said.

That’s when Nichols became concerned.

His worry didn’t stem from the drugs — which he says he knew nothing about — but because the Australian man was a terrible pilot.

Just before the July 4 holiday, Nichols joined Gorman in the cockpit to observe.

“I said, ‘John, pretend I’m not here. Get clearance, taxi, take off, stay in pattern, two touch-and-go landings then we’ll land and debrief,’” Nichols said.

Gorman had trouble starting the engine.

Once powered up, Gorman steered the plane straight toward the control tower with Nichols grabbing the controls to steer them to safety, he said. Once in the air, Gorman struggled to communicate effectively on the radio and he didn’t understand basic instructions from the control tower. He turned left instead of right, headed east instead of west and couldn’t land without Nichols again taking control of the plane.

“He would have crashed it into the ground,” Nichols said.

Regulations require Nichols to sign a final authorization that Gorman, who had an Australian pilot’s license and was seeking a U.S. license, was capable of flying the aircraft.

“I told him at that time, and he got mad at me, I said, ‘If you can’t fly this airplane properly, which we’re having our doubts, you may own the airplane but I’m not going to authorize you to fly it,’” Nichols said. “He says, ‘It’s my plane, mate, I’ll do what I want.’”

That was the last time Nichols saw Gorman.

The next day, Gorman called Nichols and said he was sick and at a hotel in Los Angeles.

On July 5, Australian Federal Police said they arrested a 72-year-old man — presumably Gorman — at the Melbourne Airport on suspicion of conspiring to fly methamphetamine from California to Australia. In the coming days, they would also arrest two other men in connection with the case, including a 52-year-old linked to $2.4 million in cash found stashed in a tractor trailer in Australia.

The alleged conspiracy involved island hopping across the Pacific Ocean and landing at a rural airstrip in the state of Victoria, according to news reports in the Melbourne-based Herald Sun. The newspaper quotes Australian Federal Police Superintendent Krissy Barrett saying “We’ll allege that there was a sophisticated concealment plan for the drugs ... that would have involved the removal of the passenger seats.”

“We think that the drugs were destined to be distributed along the east coast of Australia,” Barrett said, according to the newspaper report.

Police have not revealed any other details about how the drugs got to the Santa Rosa storage facility. Local authorities did not disclose any details about the operation last week.

The plan, as outlined by authorities and Nichols, had numerous flaws at the outset.

Gorman was an unskilled pilot outmatched for an ambitious flight, Nichols said. He also badly underestimated how much weight the plane could carry, exceeding the limit by at least 2,000 pounds, by Nichols’ estimate.

One week ago, the man claiming to be a nephew called again, asking if the plane was ready and making vague statements suggesting the family no longer wanted Gorman to fly. Nichols offered to have the plane shipped to Australia.

On Thursday, two dozen U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local deputies poured into Nichols’ business with guns drawn.

“They said, ‘Get on the floor. Put your hands in the air. If you make one move I’ll shoot you,’” Nichols said. “I did exactly what they told me to do.”

They searched the business for hours, detaining employees and handcuffing Nichols, but by afternoon Nichols and his staff were set free. Nichols said law enforcement officers found no evidence linking his business to the drug scheme, apologized for the inconvenience and told Nichols to give them a bill for the lost revenue that day.

His account couldn’t be verified Tuesday by California-based DEA officials. An Australian Federal Police press release did not mention any U.S. suspects in the case.

“I’m happy they did what they did and confiscated the airplane. Now the airplane won’t be crashed because it would have,” Nichols said. “How could anybody concoct a story like this?”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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