Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Twenty-nine years ago, a plane crashed just outside Fredericton, setting off one of the strangest tales in Maritime history. It involves chance encounters, an opera-singing smuggler, members of an armed revolutionary force, spies, Pablo Escobar, a jail break, and more than 500 kilograms of cocaine. Award-winning journalist Andrew McGilligan tells the story for the first time.
An assault rifle,.22-calibre pistols, an Uzi machine gun, tear gas, a grenade, electric stun guns, throwing stars and machetes — what a group of trained killers brought to Fredericton, New Brunswick, to execute a plan on behalf of one of the world's most violent and notorious criminals. Why they came and what happened is a wild tale involving a plane crash, bad luck, fortunate encounters and cocaine — lots of cocaine.
However, we must start at the beginning, when a man straight out of central casting stepped foot in Terminal 2 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on December 16, 1988.
THE MAN WITH A PLAN
"He was sitting in an interview room office wearing a blue-knit polo sweater, acid-wash blue jeans, Italian Fila running shoes, a gold Rolex watch, and Ray-Ban sunglasses.” This is how author and reporter Peter Edwards first described Douglas Jaworski in his book, The Big Sting, which documents a police operation that would eventually lead to Fredericton.
Jaworski had approached an RCMP officer inside the terminal with an unbelievable opportunity.
His pitch was simple: would the Mounties like to nab key players in the world's most notorious drug cartel?
The target of Jaworski's plan was the Medellin cartel, then led by one of the world's most deadly and wanted men, Pablo Escobar. A fixture on the nightly news in the 1980s, Escobar was famous — or infamous — for trafficking millions of kilograms of cocaine into North America, masterminding bombings throughout his native Colombia, building his own prison and even being elected to political office. At the height of his career, it's estimated that the “King of Cocaine” supplied 80 percent of the cocaine that made its way to the United States. His organization routinely shipped between 70 and 80 tonnes of the white powder per month. At its peak, his net worth was about $30 billion. In other words, Escobar was not a man you crossed without knowing the repercussions.
Jaworski had deep connections with the cartel. His knowledge of aircraft and flight plans had made him invaluable to the Medellin cartel's smuggling operation.
Edwards spent about 200 hours interviewing Jaworski for his book. Initially Jaworski came across as a smart, outgoing, and confident person. “But I later also concluded that he had trouble when he didn't have control of a situation,” Edwards says.
He was also very cunning, and one interaction between the veteran reporter and his subject underscores this point. Jaworski was often late for meetings, and Edwards told him he did not appreciate it. “After that, he went out of his way to be polite and even brought me office supplies and gifts for my family,” Edwards says. “He made a point of quickly evaluating people and determining their major wants and weaknesses. He determined I was a family man. Others he determined were more motivated by material things or status. He liked to know what buttons to push with people.”
It was that confidence, cunning, and ability to read people and situations that endeared him to the cartel and made him rich, but which left him with few options.
The motivation for the Canadian-born Jaworski when he approached the RCMP officer was simple: he wanted out of the drug business. Retiring from the Medellin cartel, though, was not the same as a leaving any other successful corporation. Instead of a gold watch, Escobar preferred a “Colombian necktie,” a brutal act where a victim's throat is slashed horizontally and the tongue pulled through the open wound. He had given new meaning to the term “severance package.”
Faced with going on the run for the rest of his life, getting the unfashionable necktie or assuming a whole new identity and entering witness protection, Jaworski chose door No. 3.
What took place next was an elaborate RCMP sting operation that culminated in a plane loaded with 500 kilograms of cocaine making its way from Colombia to Keswick Ridge, a small rural community about 20 kilometres from Fredericton.
There's good luck and there's bad luck.
Colombian-born Medellin cartel pilots Fernando Augusto Mendoza Jaramillo (aka Pinguino, Spanish for “penguin” due to his gait) and Jose Ali Galindo Escobar (aka Jay) were to experience both on April 3, 1989.
Pilots of a plane with 500 kilograms of cocaine on board had best make a perfect landing. Unfortunately, for Jay and Pinguino, that's not how it went. As the pair prepared to land at Weyman Field near Keswick Ridge, bad luck struck in the form of a tree.
During the pilots' trial, Cpl. Joseph Hine of the RCMP recalled watching the plane land. “When the plane was on short final approach, it struck a tree off the end of the runway and shortly thereafter they appeared to touch down very hard on the airstrip,” Hine testified. “The aircraft appeared to have made a successful landing for a short time; however, it began swerving left and right. One of the landing gear legs appeared to break off, and the aircraft ended up on a snow bank alongside the runway.”
The pair wasn't hurt, and the cargo was intact, meaning the bad luck had been followed by some good.
A large cube van and a black pickup truck arrived shortly after the botched landing. The pilots left in the pickup while the occupants of the other vehicle began removing cocaine from the plane. This crew, supposedly recruited by Jaworski, would move the drugs to the next location. To Jay and Pinguino, a potential disaster had been averted.
The flight would have been considered successful if not for one detail. Everyone on the ground was an RCMP officer, and Cpl. Hine had documented every minute on video. The pilots’ luck had swung back to bad.
All of this had been set up in advance by Jaworski and the Mounties. The Colombians had been looking for new places to land undetected. The East Coast of Canada was appealing due to its proximity to Montreal, a hub for distribution, and the eastern United States with its major cities, including New York.
RCMP Sgt. Mark Fleming was one of the undercover officers on the scene. He recalls how the crash landing changed everything. Because the plane was irreparably damaged, the pilots were forced to stay around Fredericton instead of refuelling and heading back to Colombia. “If it wasn't for the crash, they [the pilots] would have never come back,” Fleming says.
For the moment, though, the pilots were the unsuspecting guests of the Mounties. Undercover officers ferried Jay and Pinguino around Fredericton, and they eventually settled at the City Motel, where they could relax and rendezvous with Jaworski. After the meeting, according to Edwards’ book, “the pilots rounded out the day with naps, then steaks, a quick shopping trip at a local mall, St.Hubert barbecued chicken and a move to yet another motel, just in case the police were around.”
The next day, on April 4, the pilots flew to Toronto, where they would wait to return to Colombia. The cartel needed to arrange to slip them back into the country safely. The Mounties needed to delay their arrest until Escobar's distribution network had been uncovered by following the drugs unloaded from the plane.
The drugs were successfully tracked to a townhouse in Montreal. On April 5, police conducted a raid and arrested numerous Colombians tied to the Medellin cartel. Later that same evening, the two pilots woke to a battering ram smashing through the doors of their rooms at the Constellation Hotel in Toronto. They were arrested without incident and sent back to Fredericton, where their accommodations would be decidedly less hospitable.
THE SINGING PRISONER
The stone building on 668 Brunswick Street in Fredericton is a popular destination for children today. It's home to Science East, an interactive museum with three floors of experiments and exhibits. Before educating children on school trips and summer camps, it had another purpose with a much different clientele and name — the York County Jail.
Jay and Pinguino were sent here after their arrests in Toronto. While far from the most dangerous criminals to ever take up lodging in the jail — it housed serial killer Allan Legere and cop killer Anthony Romeo — the pair provided some interesting moments.
“I'm not sure where he got the guitar,” says the former warden of the York County Jail, Paul Stewart, referring to Jay. In those days, there were different programs for inmates and one involved music, which is where he likely got the instrument. Jay put it to good use.
“Every once in a while, we would get watermelon brought in,” Stewart said. “Every time we got it, he [Jay] would sing. He had a big, booming voice. He could sing like an opera singer in Spanish.”
For the most part, Jay and Pingouin were ordinary inmates and didn't cause any difficulties. However, they would occasionally talk of their chosen profession. “They told us some stuff, like how they would get $150,000 a flight, but they didn't give us too much,” says Stewart.
What did set them apart was their employer. Not only did they work for Pablo Escobar, but Jay was related to him, and family was important to the Medellin cartel.
Then there was their visitor. Pinguino, a married father of two, had his wife travel from Colombia to visit him in lockup. At least that's who she said she was. “If it was his wife, she was gorgeous,” Stewart says.
Initially, Stewart resisted having her enter the jail for a visit, but she wouldn't be denied and received permission from the Justice Department. “She cased the joint," Stewart says. “The guards were enthralled by her, and she likely saw some things she shouldn't have. She knew where the doors were, the set-up of the jail, and she knew we had no weapons and none were allowed. It was my understanding she went back and gave the cartel the layout and information.”
This was something straight out of a 1950 crime noir novel, but this wasn't fiction. The people receiving her information were part of one of the deadliest organized crime syndicates of all time. They had ruthlessly killed hundreds of people in Colombia, and now they were setting their sights on Fredericton.
A SERIES OF RANDOM ENCOUNTERS
On September 13, 1989, a group of Latino men pulled into a convenience store near Edmundston. When one asked to use the phone, the cashier noticed others in the group transferring items from a van to a white Buick. She called the RCMP and passed along the information. In turn, they called the Edmundston city police. Four men were arrested without incident, all Colombian nationals: Eulojio Manzano Bustamante, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Wilmer Ramon Zanabria, and Tito Sanchez Ruiz.
A short time later, a rented Plymouth pulled into a gas station just outside Fredericton. The gas station attendant just happened to be a newspaper reporter for The Daily Gleaner, Richard Duplain, who worked the pumps as a second job. “I had been working at The Daily Gleaner for about 10 years at the time and for several months working part time for the late Merle Cougle at the Silverwood Irving,” Duplain says
He filled up the vehicle. The passenger, a Latino man named William Jose Rodriguez, didn't want any of the promotional apples he offered, but did give him a one-dollar tip, a loonie he has to this day. Duplain also took note of the licence plate number. “Rodriguez tweaked my curiosity because it was a day or so before a scheduled preliminary hearing for the pilots,” Duplain says.
As fate would have it, an off-duty Fredericton police officer pulled in for some gas a few minutes later. “I mentioned what I had seen and provided him with the licence number. He immediately made a telephone call and all hell broke loose.”
On September 14, police in Saint John, New Brunswick, were waiting when a man pulled into a car rental business to renew the rental of his vehicle. Rodriguez was arrested without incident.
After the arrests, the file made its way to the desk of RCMP Sgt. Mark Fleming. The suspects had been arrested with an array of weapons ranging from.22-calibre pistols to an assault rifle and a Uzi machine gun. Adding to their firepower were tear gas, a grenade, electric stun guns, throwing stars and machetes. Also in their possession were two sets of directions to St. Stephen, a town located on the New Brunswick-Maine border. These were written in Spanish on the back of a warranty for a rubber boat.
Fleming's first thought was that the five men had been set to take delivery of a second cocaine shipment. However, they were carrying seven passports, two more than they needed. Two of the passport photos shocked him. “The minute it hit me, the lights went on,” he says. “They weren't another crew coming to offload a shipment; they were there for the pilots. I immediately went to see my superiors.”
With the suspects behind bars, an attempt to break the pilots out of York County Jail had been thwarted. What police didn't know was that the escape plot had nearly become operational —twice.
THE BLOODBATH THAT NEVER WAS
With a family member in jail and the seizure of the drug shipment, Pablo Escobar wanted to put an end to this chapter of his business — one way or another. He assembled a team to break Jay and Pinguino out of jail or, failing that, end their lives and any chance of their cooperation with police.
To do this, the cartel had put together a crew that had a history of violent crimes, including bank robberies, and had worked around the globe. Members also had connection to FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Leading the way was Julio Cesar Bracho Sucre, a man with four other know aliases, including William Jose Rodriguez. The crew was split into two groups, one on each side of the Canadian-American border.
The first group, led by Bracho Sucre, were to break the pilots out of the jail using whatever force was necessary. To achieve this end, the crew had a van with tinted black windows and an array of weapons. To say they would have had the upper hand on the unarmed guards of the jail was an understatement.
“There was a joke that the guards at the Fredericton jail would shout, ‘Stop or I'll shout stop again’ if anyone with a gun showed up,” according to Edwards. Stewart paints an even bleaker picture: “American officials had contacted us and said to be aware of a possible threat,” the former warden said. “I was told I needed to get my family safe and to be careful.”
On two separate occasions a van containing Bracho Sucre and his team, along with their arsenal, pulled up alongside the York County Jail. The plan was to cut the fence, blow a hole through the side of the jail and break out the prisoners. Anyone who got in the way would be collateral damage.
“Those kinds of people, in my mind, have no conscience,” Stewart says. “They were sent to do a job, and they would have killed any of us.”
From there, Fleming says, the pilots would have been taken to a secluded area in Hanwell, just outside Fredericton. There, they were to switch vehicles and drive to St. Stephen and then cross the St. Croix River in the recently purchased rubber boat. The other group would be waiting on the Maine side of the river to take the pilots to Miami and put them on a flight to Colombia.
On two occasions, the breakout was called off. The men in the van radioed their counterparts across the border, but those on the American side were not ready. The van simply pulled away without anyone the wiser. The occupants of the van would not get a third chance.
The plot had been foiled, a potential massacre averted, because a convenience store attendant was alert, and a reporter was making ends meet working at a gas station. “It was a miracle the jailbreak plot didn't succeed, given the heavy firepower of the criminals and the lack of weapons for the guards,” Edwards says. “I wondered what might have happened if the reporter had been paid well enough at his newspaper that he didn't have to moonlight pumping gas at night.”
Fleming believes Fredericton would have seen an attack beyond anything the city had ever experienced. “It would have been a bloodbath. Even if they [the guards] had time to radio police, there still would have been a shootout or at the very least a high-speed chase. To this day, it just blows my mind. The jailbreak plan was out of this world, something you see in the movies.”
Was Tito Sanchez Ruiz an unsuspecting pawn in the jail break scheme or part of the crew trying to set the cartel pilots free? To this day, his lawyer, Danny Watters, believes it to be the former. During the trial, Watters would dub him the “Accidental Tourist,” playing on the 1988 film of the same name.
After living in Canada from 1969 to 1981, Sanchez Ruiz had returned to his native Venezuela. Eight years later he became embroiled in the events in New Brunswick. On September 13, 1989, he was arrested in Edmundston along with other members of the crew sent to free Jaramillo and Galindo Escobar.
In court transcripts, it is stated that Sanchez Ruiz met with lawyer Peder Oswaldo Acosta in Caracas, Venezuela. It was in Acosta's office that he entered into an oral contract with another member of the jailbreak crew to work as interpreter on a business trip to Canada. The purpose of the trip was to make inquiries about the export of industrial, agricultural and construction machinery to Venezuela.
Watters says he believed this story. Further proof that Sanchez Ruiz was an unwitting participant came from how his legal bills were funded — or rather not funded. The legal costs of other defendants were covered through a lawyer in Toronto working with another in Miami, but Sanchez Ruiz did not receive the same deal. “When I called the lawyer in Miami about getting his costs covered, I was told he wasn't part of the project,” Watters says. Convinced he had an innocent man caught up in a terrible situation, Watters fought to get legal aid for Sanchez Ruiz and continued to represent him before the court.
The Crown had a different point of view: “I felt the protestations of innocence by Ruiz made him out as an “Accidental Terrorist,’” Crown Prosecutor Bill Corby says.
Upon his arrest, Sanchez-Ruiz was driving a van containing two backpacks that held boots and clothing. The first pack also contained a Spanish passport bearing the name Alejo Antonio Barja de Soroa, which had been issued in Madrid on February 11, 1989. The year of birth on the passport had been altered from 1965 to 1955, and the photograph was of Galindo Escobar.
The second backpack also contained a passport, this time a Venezuelan one, issued on November 18, 1987, in the name of Jesus Enrique Colmenares, and containing a picture of Jaramillo. It had been stamped on May 8, 1989, with a Colombian 90-day visa and on May 11 in Venezuela. The problem was that Jaramillo had been a guest of the York County Jail on both dates.
As well, the judge presiding over the case, Justice Ronald Stevenson, had issues with Sanchez Ruiz's testimony, namely the amount of business he had conducted to acquire machinery for export to Venezuela. In his decision, Stevenson stated, “With the exception of mentioning a phone call to the Motorola Company and a reference to an unnamed factory north of Montreal, the Accused was extremely vague about this business activity. He did not mention any other names or addresses, and he did not produce any records or brochures or documents of any kind to substantiate the story.”
Another factor was who didn't testify. When the Crown closed its case against Sanchez Ruiz, Watters asked for an adjournment so two men who had pleaded guilty to conspiring in the jailbreak could testify. The idea was for them to corroborate that the defendant had no knowledge of the plan and was innocent of the charges. However, Watters did not call either of the men to testify. Stevenson stated, “The failure of the Accused to call either of those witnesses gives rise in this case to an inference that their evidence would have been unfavourable to the Accused.”
While he had asked for the adjournment, Watters decided that putting the other defendants on the stand was too much of an unknown. “I just couldn't be sure of what they would say,” he says.
Ultimately, in the eyes of the court, Sanchez Ruiz skewed more in favour of being an accidental terrorist than an accidental tourist. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
The others involved in the breakout plot received 10-year sentences. After serving a portion of their time, all four were sent back to either Colombia or Venezuela. However, they were arrested again in Miami on their way home. The four-count indictment included racketeering conspiracy, harbouring illegal aliens, and two counts of interstate travel in aid of racketeering.
According to Watters, they were then taken from Miami to Bangor, where they spent time awaiting a trial that never materialized. Then, they were sent back to their respective countries. Watters says that the men were later killed in Venezuela, but efforts to corroborate this claim were unsuccessful.
As for Sanchez Ruiz, he was eventually sent back to Venezuela. His whereabouts and well-being are unknown.
With the breakout crew behind bars, the pilots pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 22 years each for their crimes.
It's been described as something out of a B-movie, an unbelievable tale and a case of pure luck for law enforcement that the potentially bloody incident was avoided. In the end, those involved were sent to jail and then deported to their home countries. And Pablo Escobar, the man pulling the strings on the criminal operation, was shot and killed on December 2, 1993, by Colombian National Police, one day after his 44th birthday.
Watters, Corby, Flemming, Duplain, and Stewart carried on with their careers. On occasion, they reminisce about the time the world's most dangerous criminal set his sights on Fredericton.
And the man with the plan, Jaworski, remains in witness protection, one of the few who crossed the cartel and didn't pay for it in blood.
This story originally appeared in Volume 5 of The Maritime Edit magazine. To subscribe, please click here.