The Conner Conspiracy

He was an aviation classic: independent, stubborn, savvy. And he was convinced powerful forces were out to ruin him. Did that include government informants and federal agents? Gus Conner will never know.

"You can't just look at the symptoms," he says before leading his listener down a dark corridor of speculation built on an incredible premise. "Let's assume the U.S. government is behind drug trafficking in this country. What better place to base it than here in Miami? What is the best outfit to run a clandestine drug operation? The CIA, of course! But now let's say you have a guy here at the airport who doesn't want to have anything to do with it, who is hard-nosed and honest to boot. You have to get rid of him. An honest man is damn dangerous to have around, and Gus was honest."

To believe the theory, one has to discount a March 22, 1987, Miami Herald article that reported that the State Department decided to stop using Conner Air Lines because the small carrier was incapable of transporting the desired amount of supplies to the contras. Jablonowski, Conner's maintenance director, says only that "contract problems" led to a parting of ways in late 1985, but he emphatically denies that Conner Air Lines was incapable of handling the job.

While Hemming was delving into the CIA connection, several people at the airline, including Conner and his wife, began to notice that they were being followed. Conner's widow says the tailing by several men and women began in June of last year and became blatant during the next two months. "They wanted you to know they were following you," she insists. "They would drive real close to you and then way behind. If you tried to approach them, they would just drive away." She and others began noting tag numbers of the cars following them. "We ran checks on the license-plate numbers and came up with some strange names and addresses," Geneva Conner says before reciting a short list: "Retired policemen. A halfway house over on the Beach. And a lot of leased cars. Nothing really conclusive."

A mole planted at an airline, reports of late-night meetings with mystery men, contra supply flights, and tailing operations A whether it all adds up to an elaborate conspiracy against Conner by the FAA and the CIA depends on whom you talk to at Conner Air Lines. While Howard Davis and others are convinced some federal plot was afoot, Matt Jablonowski, who says he was never followed, is by nature skeptical and suggests that some sort of collective hysteria gripped the company during Conner's final summer. "Look, we've had troubles with the FAA for years, since the beginning of Conner Air, and yet nobody was following us before," Jablonowski argues. "All of that began when Hemming arrived."

He adds that despite Conner's belief in the FAA's "hidden agenda," his boss thought Hemming was going too far in looking for spooks in the woodwork. "Gus saw that Gerry was feeding him things that were wrong in order to lend weight to all this conspiracy stuff," Jablonowski says. "More conspiracy meant more surveillance, more investigations, more work and money for Gerry. One example was when he saw this pilot we were watching pass something through a fence to a person he identified as another agent. There were no other witnesses. It was always like that when there was something really strange going on. Only Gerry would see it. "

On August 14, 1992, three days before his death, Conner, who had spent years surrounded by spooks both real and imagined, finally determined to confront the one haunting him most. He had just overheard a radio transmission in which the suspect pilot employee said something about going to "headquarters," a term not commonly used in civil aviation. Conner excitedly hatched a plan to discover who the pilot really worked for. He quickly dispatched employees to at least two locations: the airline company that employed the pilot, and an unguarded gate where the pilot had previously been seen leaving the airport. Conner himself played a hunch.

He grabbed two Smith and Wesson .38 caliber pistols, a stun gun, a crowbar, binoculars, and a disposable camera, loaded them into his wife's 1989 Cadillac, and headed for the place he believed was "headquarters": the Miami office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. There was no governor on the car this time, or for that matter on Gus Conner.

Where he parked is a matter of dispute. Conner's widow and friends maintain that he pulled into a public lot within sight of the DEA offices. But DEA information officer Jim Shedd says agents found him parked in a restricted lot adjacent to the DEA building, an unmarked block of steel and glass in the Koger Center on NW 53rd Street near 87th Avenue. Security is tight because of the obvious threat to DEA agents from drug traffickers.

"Mr. Conner was out in the parking lot where he shouldn't have been," says Shedd. "It's within our prerogative and rights to protect ourselves, since we've had numerous threats. We've gotten a lot of people out here taking photos of agents. Rightfully so, he was approached and questioned as to what he was doing there."

Considering his history of arguing with federal officials, it isn't surprising that Conner ended up in an altercation with the DEA agents who approached his car. Conner later told his family and friends only two men were involved, but agent Gary Wade insists he was accompanied by three colleagues as he walked out of the DEA office that day to question Conner. Wade says he and two of those agents, whom he declines to identify, approached the Cadillac while another agent waited slightly farther away.

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