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.