By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Even before the problems with the FAA worsened, Conner's irascibility was laced with suspicion. "Gus was always a little paranoid," asserts his old friend Art Ford, who remembers that as far back as the late 1950s Conner was adding security systems to his home and office and worrying about phone taps. Suspicion paid off in at least one of Conner's stories, retold by Ford: "In the early days, Gus had an airplane come in one rainy night and he started to walk out to it. One of the airport police tried to stop him, and Gus explained that he owned the airplane. But I guess the other guy was a little gung-ho, and they had an argument. Well, the first thing after that Gus went down and had a governor put on his car so that he couldn't go over 30 miles an hour, because he knew that the airport police would be after him. Sure enough, the next day he was given a speeding ticket going into the airport and that governor was pretty good proof that he was innocent."
If in the old days Conner's suspicion of authority helped him stay one step ahead of the FAA, by last year it was serving only to heighten the confusion and stress of his legal struggle to save his airline, with its six planes and three full-time employees. His mistrust of the FAA reached the point where he began to suspect some deeper motive for it all, some sinister cabal huddled behind the pages and pages of bureaucratic complaints. "The vengeful and malicious actions of the FAA officials provide ample evidence that they acted with wanton disregard of my constitutional and civil rights," reads a letter dated March 24, 1992, from Conner to then-Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card, "and they sacrificed a 45-year-old operating and productive economic entity on the altar of a hidden agenda."
Conner had concluded that the "paperwork commandos," as he liked to call FAA officials, were no longer playing games but raising a knife over the jugular of his life's work. "I have always operated within the confines of the Federal Aviation regulations, as I will in the future," wrote an obviously vexed Conner. "I am convinced, however, that certain individuals within the FAA are conducting a vendetta against me and are operating beyond the law A perhaps by direction."
Conner found a sympathetic ally in Howard Davis, who had flown for Conner Air Lines in the 1960s, when he was not organizing paramilitary missions against Fidel Castro. The guayabera shirts covering Davis's middle-age paunch give him a languid air that belies his action-packed past. A U.S. citizen who met many Cubans while attending college in Miami, Davis was one of those early supporters of the Cuban revolution who felt betrayed by its turn toward Communism. Although he had flown arms to Fidel Castro's brother Raul, he later became an active member of the the International Penetration Force, or Interpen, one of several Miami groups dedicated to using paramilitary tactics to overthrow the Castro regime.
Davis understands run-ins with federal officials. In 1969 he was one of eight people tried and convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Act and carted off to the federal detention center at Eglin Air Force Base. The Port-au-Prince Eight, as they were called, were working to help overthrow the Haitian dictator Franaois Duvalier in exchange for guarantees they would then be able to use the liberated island as a base of operations against Cuba. They were detained by U.S. authorities on Grand Bahama Island after a covert flight to bomb Duvalier's palace with fuel drums. Papa Doc survived the raid, but six people living in a wooden hut near the palace reportedly did not.
When Conner called him in Chicago in the spring of 1992 to talk about the FAA problems, Davis pledged to help any way he could. "We were old friends and stayed in touch over the years," sighs Davis, who is now president and general manager of Conner Air Lines. "I guess Gus called me because I had a background in covert flying and security operations." Davis could not come to Miami at the time, so he put his old friend in touch with Gerry Hemming, a self-taught legal expert and intelligence buff who was also deeply involved in Interpen's Cuba adventures and whose name appears in books on topics ranging from the secret war against Castro to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Both Davis and Hemming served as paid consultants to Oliver Stone's conspiracy-laden film, JFK.
Before that Hemming had served eight and a half years of a 35-year sentence for drug trafficking.
The six-foot-seven-inch Hemming, hired by Conner as a security and legal consultant, leapt into the FAA bout with the aggressive enthusiasm of a professional wrestler. With Conner's approval, he checked the hangar office for phone taps and listening devices, and hired a legal team to help him mount challenges to the FAA's actions. But Hemming's real contribution, according to airline employees, was to add fuel to Conner's suspicions of conspiratorial foul play.
Today Hemming, who looks like Burl Ives on steroids, adamantly refuses to speak on the record about his work at Conner Air Lines. However, at least part of that can be reconstructed from the accounts of others at the company. One thing is clear: Hemming belly-flopped into a deep pool of mistrust and apprehension. Conner, his business future on the line, was focusing his growing suspicion on a pilot who worked for him between 1987 and 1990. Conner and some of his workers suspected that the pilot had been sent to the airline to investigate it, suspicions reinforced by a friend who purported to have senior intelligence contacts in Washington and who provided Conner with "information" that the pilot was on the payrolls of both the DEA and the CIA. (The pilot refuses to speak to New Times except to allege that Conner Air Lines asked that unspecified crimes be committed as part of the job, which was partly responsible for the pilot's departure from the company in 1990. Geneva Conner and others at the airline say they have no idea what the pilot is talking about.)