CANADA

FLIGHT INTO DANGER

ARMED U.S. AGENTS CHASED A PLANE INTO CANADA— AND OTTAWA COMPLAINED TO WASHINGTON

RIC DOLPHIN April 3 1989
CANADA

FLIGHT INTO DANGER

ARMED U.S. AGENTS CHASED A PLANE INTO CANADA— AND OTTAWA COMPLAINED TO WASHINGTON

RIC DOLPHIN April 3 1989

FLIGHT INTO DANGER

CANADA

ARMED U.S. AGENTS CHASED A PLANE INTO CANADA— AND OTTAWA COMPLAINED TO WASHINGTON

It was a mysterious flight from the beginning, and it ended in a Canadian diplomatic complaint. After a twin-engined Rockwell Turboprop Commander 980 landed on March 12 in Sorel, Que., 70 km northeast of Montreal, another aircraft arrived carrying three U.S. Customs officers. The armed officers forced the two-man crew of the Commander and the airport manager to lie facedown on the Sorel airport parking lot while they searched for a suspected cargo of illicit drugs. It was one more incident in the continuing battle to stem the unrelenting international traffic in deadly narcotics, but in this case no drugs were found (page 44). And late last week, External Affairs spokesman Robert Peck told Maclean ’s that the Canadian Embassy in Washington had “expressed concern” to the U.S. State Department over a possible “violation of Canadian sovereignty.” At the same time, he said, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark, who was out of Canada on vacation, was kept informed of the diplomatic steps that were being taken.

Peck said that External officials and other Canadian authorities will investigate the incident further this week. According to some RCMP officials, it is the first known instance of

U.S. officers entering Canada by plane to apprehend suspects. “I can’t recall another situation involving an aircraft,” said Vancouver RCMP Staff Sgt. L.D. Stovem. “There will be an awful lot of discussions about it.” Still, Montreal RCMP Staff Sgt. Jacques Grilli told Maclean ’s that the U.S. authorities had followed proper procedures in informing Canadians. U.S. Customs officers notified the department of national defence that the officers were entering Canada and asked for permission to take action if necessary, Grilli said, but the Mounties were not informed immediately.

A high-ranking RCMP official, who asked not to be named, told Maclean’s that U.S. law enforcement officers are expected to contact Canada Customs or the RCMP before entering Canadian territory for enforcement purposes. Under those circumstances, the U.S. Customs plane would likely have received permission to tail the Turbo Commander in Canadian airspace, the officer said, and police on the ground would have been notified to meet it when it landed. He added, “Within half an hour, there could be police on every lighted runway across the country.” Asked whether proper procedures had been followed in the Sorel incident, Ottawa-based RCMP Assistant Commissioner Marcel Coutu said: “AU I can say is that this case has just happened. I am not in a position to assess all the details yet.”

According to U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Administration sources, the pursuit began when U.S. air defence radar picked up the Turbo Commander off the south coast of Florida—a common route for cocaine smugglers from South America. Two U.S. air force fighters were ordered into the air, and they radioed customs officials to assume the pursuit. The suspect plane had not radioed a flight plan—as required by American aviation regulations—and bore counterfeit Canadian registration markings. Apparently to avoid American interception, it was flying northward offshore at 28,000 feet. It entered Canadian air space over Nova Scotia.

At Sorel, airport manager Robert Ethier said that an unidentified French-speaking man phoned at 9:45 p.m. to say that a plane would be coming in to refuel. After the call, Ethier waited in his office until the Commander touched down at about 11:25 p.m. The two occupants of the plane, both men in their late 20s, were about to drink some coffee when the U.S. Customs plane landed. The two men ran from the office, said Ethier, and were quickly confronted by the armed officers. Ethier said that an officer ordered him out of his office and threatened to shoot his boxer dog if it did not stop barking.

One of the officers also jabbed a rifle into the ribs of Ethier’s son Carl, 20, who said that he had run across the airfield from the family’s house, fearing that his father was being abducted by terrorists.

Meanwhile, the other two officers were searching the plane and the area for drugs.

Ethier said that his nose was bloodied from being forced to lie facedown on the pavement, even though he had identified himself as the manager of the airport. Quebec provincial police, summoned by Carl, were the first Canadian authorities on the scene, Ethier said, arriving at about 12:10 a.m. At that point, he added, the U.S. officers read the two suspects their rights—as required by U.S. law— in Spanish. At about the same time, a U.S. Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter, which Ethier

said contained two American military men in camouflage clothing, also landed. Grilli said that RCMP officers arrived on the scene at about 12:20.

Both U.S. and Canadian authorities interrogated the two suspects and Ethier in the airport office until after 6 a.m. Ethier claimed that the Turbo Commander was in view from the time it landed until the U.S. Customs officers arrived. A report in the Montreal Gazette quoted RCMP sources as saying that contraband cargo had been unloaded from the plane into a small dark truck and taken from the airport before the U.S. officers arrived. But Ethier said that he did not see that activity, adding that a red dump truck left the parking lot hurriedly when the customs plane landed. Ethier also said that he heard police officers speculating that the plane may have dropped its cargo over Nova Scotia—a distinct possibility, according to one senior RCMP official, who said

that the landing in Sorel might have

been planned to divert attention from an air drop.

The two occupants of the Commander were charged by Canadian police with a variety of relatively minor infractions, including illegal entry and bringing a stolen plane into the country. Diego Jose Carniza, 27, a Cuban-born resident of Miami, and Hector Chrisostomo Sedeño, 28, a Venezuelan-born resident of Colombia, both pleaded guilty to all the charges and paid $23,000 in fines from American cash—variously estimated at $20,000 and $30,000—that they were carrying. Last week, immigration authorities deported them to their countries of origin. The plane, worth approximately $700,000, was seized by the RCMP, who said that they do not expect it to be claimed.

Still, questions remained about the procedures that the U.S. officers observed when entering Canada and on the g ground. One high-ranking Otja tawa RCMP officer told Mac lean ’s that there was plenty æ of time during the chase to I make proper contact. And he 1 added that U.S. drug enforce" ment officers can be excessively enthusiastic. “They get overzealous and forget about borders,” he said. “They reason that they’re on the side of good, the other guys are on the side of evil, so you just take ’em down.” But it still remains to be seen from further investigations by Canadian officials whether the Sorel incident has ended with the diplomatic protest.

RIC DOLPHIN with DAN BURKE in Montreal and ROSS LAVER in Ottawa

DAN BURKE

ROSS LAVER