The Conner Conspiracy
A photograph from the late 1950s captures the image of an attractive woman, her face turned from the camera in order to gaze at a young but already balding Francis Augustus Conner. He is standing in front of the low-lying military buildings that used to line the area just north of the old terminal at Miami International Airport. Abandoned after World War II, the buildings were leased by Conner and others like him who were starting up so-called unscheduled air cargo companies. Using surplus military aircraft, dozens of small companies employed some of the best pilots recently discharged from the armed forces to build thriving businesses that would fly cargo in and out of Miami for anyone, any time, on routes crisscrossing the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
In the photograph, Conner does not return the woman's gaze, but neither is it lost on him. A cigarette dangles from his lips as he strikes a pose A head cocked to one side, lips smirking A and tries to stare right into the camera. He would have the look of the insouciant wise guy were the sun not forcing him to squint. It's that hint of vulnerability that lends the photograph a lighthearted edge, suggesting that in those heady days, macho posturing was just harmless fun.
There's nothing funny about another photograph taken decades later. A cheap flash camera throws its yellowish light onto an old man's bald head, mottled with age, as he sits in a heap at a desk and displays the badly skinned backs of his hands. The hands frame a face drawn tight around fearful eyes that look as though they may never blink again.
The photograph was the last one taken of Conner, who died two days later, on August 17, 1992, when his damaged heart finally quit beating. His death at age 68 was tragically common: an early-morning groan in the bathroom, a fall to the floor, loved ones rushing to see what had happened. Less common, and more disturbing, is the tale told between those two disparate photographic images, the story of "Gus" Conner's plunge from the bright postwar skies to a darkly ominous world of nightmares.
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Conner's hands were injured during one of his many confrontations with perceived enemies. Shortly before the photograph was taken, he had physically struggled with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, who had thrown him to the ground and handcuffed him. It was his last battle with federal officials, and perhaps the most extreme, but it wasn't uncharacteristic.
During Conner's last years, the Federal Aviation Administration watched his airline with the intensity of a hawk locked onto prey. The FAA viewed the airline, its ornery owner, and his laissez-faire approach to aviation as a dangerous pocket of resistance in the bureaucratic slipstream. Conner reacted with open hostility and a stubborn determination to continue flying by the standards he had set for himself early in his career. He saw himself as a man betrayed by the very government he had so diligently served, first in the war and later through his airline's many contracts with the U.S. military.
Those contracts had sent his planes around the globe, including into the mid-1980s quagmire of Nicaragua. Along the way, Conner encountered people whose business involved secrets A how to keep their own and how to discover those of others. Conner's corner of the airport grew from a tropical backwater to an important hub of U.S. intelligence activity. The CIA and the DEA became as familiar as the FAA.
Conner prospered while adroitly avoiding the murky world of clandestine operations. But in the end, when his aviation company appeared to be threatened by the equally labrynthine world of government bureaucracy, he searched desperately for a simple explanation. Instead of an answer, however, Conner found himself immersed in a convoluted, paranoid plot involving former intelligence operatives, convicted felons, drugs-for-arms swaps, late-night meetings with unidentified men, government conspiracies, and finally his own wounded hands and overburdened heart. It was a bizarre tale spun by people around Conner as much as by him. Some of it was provably true, some of it patently false. Most of it was enigmatic and frightening, and eventually its numerous strands became so inextricably tangled that whatever parachute might have been left for Gus Conner had no chance of opening.
When World War II erupted, the young and adventurous Conner wasted no time leaving his family in rural Quitman, Georgia, and joining the Navy with the dream of flying combat missions. He ended up gripping ladles and spatulas rather than flight controls. "They learned that he had worked in the restaurant business before he went into the Navy, so they put him into the kitchen," says Geneva Conner, his widow.
Conner hung on to his dream after the war and pursued it in Miami, which was becoming an important civil aviation center. Geneva, who had just moved here, unwittingly entered the world of cargo jockeys when, walking with her girlfriends by a swimming pool one summer day, she met her future husband. "He was very good-looking in his younger years," says a smiling Mrs. Conner, who after 46 years of living in Miami has still not lost the lilting accent of her native Memphis. "I took one look at him and that was it."
Conner told her from the beginning their life would be one of hard work, saving money, and above all collecting airplanes. "His first love on earth was airplanes, and that's why he built what you see here," says Mrs. Conner, surrounded by the wall maps, photographs of old planes, and dusty aviation manuals that decorate the hangar office of the company she inherited. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'You leave my airplanes alone and we'll get along real good.' He made it real clear."
Geneva Conner stayed at home and raised two girls while her husband raised a lot of runway dust. Beginning with four pilots, one secretary, and two leased Douglas C-47 aircraft, he first operated as an international contract cargo carrier between New York, Miami, and Caracas, Venezuela. After incorporating his business as Conner Air Lines, Inc., Conner expanded his horizons to include flights to points throughout the United States, the West Indies, and Central and South America. Conner liked to tell people later that he and his company were instrumental in helping the government develop a method of using civilian aircraft to transport military supplies and personnel on scheduled routes around the world. Most of those who knew him say he was a true patriot, willing to help his country in any way he could. He was also an astute and tight-lipped businessman who worked long hours, benefited from several government contracts, and plowed his profits back into new airplanes.
Conner even spent free time in his hangar office. He used a bottle of Ballentine's scotch to draw pilots and technicians from his and other companies to an evening happy hour. The men would trade airport gossip and stories set in places like Barranquilla, Merida, and San Juan. Tippling had the usual effect of making everyone more voluble A except Conner. "He mostly just listened," recalls Art Ford, one of Conner's oldest friends, who worked for him as a pilot in the 1950s and 1960s. "He would only have a couple of drinks and sit quiet while the other boys talked. That way he'd get all the information. I accused him one time of doing just that and he kind of laughed about it."
Ford, an air force captain during World War II, says Conner was never part of the true brotherhood of men with flying in their blood. "You see, I liked to be up there," the 81-year-old pilot explains, motioning upward beyond the low ceiling of his house near Everglades City. "Gus wasn't interested in flying as much as the business of wheeling and dealing in airplanes, and he was real shrewd and mechani-cally inclined. He would buy an airplane nobody else wanted and have it operating in no time."
When Conner did fly, it was usually on missions to retrieve airplanes he had purchased, many of them in such disrepair that they had to be "glued together," as Ford puts it, before any attempt to send them aloft. Improvised repair of planes was common around the northwest corner of the airport, where Conner Air Lines moved in the late 1960s, along with other cargo carriers. The area soon earned the nickname Corrosion Corner because of all the rusty military surplus airplanes parked on the tarmac.
Matt Jablonowski, Conner Air Lines's director of maintenance, has heard enough wing-and-a-prayer tales to take them with a grain of salt. "The stories tend to get embellished over the years," Jablonowski chuckles, "but you have to be careful about doubting too much. I remember Gus telling me about a Curtiss C-46 he and another guy were trying to fly out of San Juan when one of the tanks in the wing exploded and raised the wing up about twice as high as it should be. Gus claimed that he drilled holes in the wing and used thread bolts to pull it together into an airfoil shape. They called it the Frankenstein wing because the bolts were sticking out, and they said they flew it up to Miami that way.
"My first reaction was, 'Yeah, sure guys, why don't you just have another scotch?' But then months later I was cleaning up one of Gus's old warehouses, going through a pile of old wings, and sure enough A well, I don't have to tell you what I found at the bottom."
In addition to his maintenance responsibilities at Conner Air Lines, Jablonowski recently has taken on the additional duty of guarding the memory of his dead boss. For example, he points out that even though Conner, like many other cargo company owners in the early days, had to repair airplanes with whatever was handy, he was knowledgeable enough to pull it off on most occasions and recognize the limits on others. There were even limits to happy hour: Conner would never let himself or any worker get near an airplane until twelve hours after putting the cork back into the bottle. "Gus knew that people who have a couple of drinks and mess around with airplanes can suddenly find themselves missing a hand," Jablonowski notes.
But Conner wasn't above pranks, such as those occasions when he and Art Ford would take off from Miami and Conner would try to scare his friend by suddenly shutting down one of the plane's engines. Ford laughs at the incidents now, but at the time he was furious. The stunts pulled by Conner and other cargo cowboys also failed to amuse Federal Aviation Administration officials given the unpleasant job of trying to regulate and police the unscheduled carriers. "Everybody in the unscheduled area had disagreements with the FAA," Ford remembers. "Right after the war, when they started this unscheduled business, the FAA just wasn't prepared. They didn't have any regulations. As soon as we'd do something they thought was improper, why, then they'd put a regulation down. Then we'd figure out a way to get around it, and they'd close the loophole. It was a cat-and-mouse deal for a long time. And there was animosity between us and them."
In Conner's case, that animosity was never sublimated. Jablonowski jokes that his former boss must have punched everybody at the airport at one time or another, but in truth the abuse heaped on pesky FAA regulators was mostly verbal. In the early years, when Conner knew many of the officials, the exchanges were often good-natured. They became more heated as the FAA old-timers were replaced by younger bureaucrats who didn't know Conner and didn't care to. They just wanted him to follow the rules as they interpreted them. Jablonowski restates the case he must have heard Conner make again and again: "Gus was in this business long enough to know why certain regulations were written. Hell, he helped write them in many instances. He knew the intent of each regulation as the guys in the FAA did not, because they were still wiping their noses when the rules were made. So when they would come in and tell Gus that he had to do this or that, he would browbeat them until they left. He wasn't afraid to expose their ignorance."
Jablonowski and others who knew Conner concede that he could have avoided some of his subsequent problems with the FAA by toning down his rhetoric. Howard Davis, another former pilot for the airline, has heard stories demonstrating how ugly Conner became in his dealings with the FAA. "One day this black inspector walks into the office and says something to Gus," Davis relates. "Gus was behind his desk. He immediately called the local office of the FAA and said, very loudly, 'Your nigger's here.' Whoa! I mean whoa! He was no diplomat."
Conner's racist bile apparently drew retaliation from the FAA in the form of pestering, but not until 1986 did the the skirmishes burgeon into full-fledged war. Nearly everyone at the airline claims that was the year the FAA began a campaign of singling out Conner for a series of investigations and inspections that amounted to harassment and that did not end until Conner Air Lines was finally grounded on September 1, 1992. The company's planes have not flown since, and the business is facing an uncertain future pending the outcome of a court case aimed at lifting the FAA's order.
FAA officials maintain they were just doing their jobs. "It's not true that we were out to get Conner," says Eddie Thomas, managing attorney for the FAA's southern regional office in Atlanta. "It's just that to protect the public, we require a minimum amount of safety, and there was strong evidence that Conner Air Lines was not meeting that." Thomas admits that some of the trouble could have been avoided had Conner been more cooperative with Miami FAA agents, but he insists his agency "never got personal."
Conner, needless to say, did take it personally, and looked for ways to fight back. One weapon at his disposal was a video camera. "When the FAA came to inspect aircraft, Gus would videotape what they were doing so that he would have a record," Howard Davis says. "Well, the FAA guys did not like it one bit. They said, 'You can't do that,' and when he replied, 'Oh, yes I can,' they took him to court to stop it."
Conner won the case on appeal to the National Transportation Safety Board. In the 1986 decision, the NTSB not only ruled that Conner could continue taping the inspections, but also demanded that the FAA pay $27,000 of his legal fees. The FAA never forgave him, according to his widow and former employees, who say that continued harassment culminated in the agency's "special emphasis inspection" of Conner Air Lines's records in March 1991, followed by a barrage of letters demanding information about possible rules violations. The FAA examined records of mandatory flights designed to test the proficiency of Conner's pilots. The agency found some of those records "fraudulent, or intentionally false," since many of the tests were never conducted.
The FAA's charges set in motion a complicated legal battle. Agreements between the two sides were reached, followed by more FAA complaints and finally the order grounding the cargo carrier. Conner Air Lines's appeal of that order is still pending in federal court.
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.)
Hemming took up where Conner's Washington-connected intelligence source left off. Conner Air Lines workers say he set up an operation to tail the suspect pilot and monitor the radio communications of another airline office where the pilot was working. Hemming reported some findings to Conner that seemed intriguing but which proved nothing and could not be substantiated.
When he was not snooping on the pilot, Hemming was searching for motives behind the FAA's harassment of Conner, at first taking into account the enmity between a curmudgeonly old-timer and bureaucrats who viewed him as an anachronism who had to go. Hemming discarded that possibility in favor of a much more sinister one involving the CIA and drug trafficking, according to Conner Air Lines employees. At Corrosion Corner, still rumored to be a center of CIA influence, he found a good base on which to build his theory.
Many of the Corner's denizens accept reports of drug trafficking by the CIA as self-evident truths. Allegations of CIA involvement in the drug trade date from the late 1960s, when the agency maintained close ties to several Asian heroin traffickers. During the Iran-contra affair, more allegations surfaced, some of them involving Southern Air Transport, a Miami-based airline once controlled by the CIA and contracted in the mid-1980s to fly supplies to the contra rebels fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua. Southern Air provided the plane that was downed in Nicaragua on October 6, 1986, an incident that helped unravel the White House's secret support for the rebels. The company's planes also clandestinely flew missiles to Iran in 1986. In addition, Southern Air was linked to a CIA scheme allegedly involving the transport of weapons to the contras and cocaine to the United States. (Company officials have denied the guns-and-drugs allegation and no legal action has ever been taken against the firm.)
Southern Air Transport's offices are located less than a block from Conner Air Lines. The two carriers occasionally borrowed each other's equipment and personnel. And Southern Air's president, William Langton, reportedly knew Gus Conner well. (Langton's secretary said his travel schedule would not permit him to be interviewed for this article.)
In building his conspiracy theory, Hemming was able to draw on more than Conner's friendly relations with and close proximity to airline working for the CIA.
Like Southern Air, Conner's company was ever ready to serve the United States government. And like its neighbor, it had flown contra supply flights. Records from those flights show that between August and November of 1985, two Conner DC-6s flew several trips from New Orleans to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where the contra supply efforts were based.
Geneva Conner, who kept the airline's files, says that her husband made only "aboveboard" deliveries of humanitarian supplies, which were permitted by federal law. (In 1984 Congress banned military aid to the contras, a prohibition ignored by Lt. Col. Oliver North.) Matt Jablonowski, who was on Conner Air Lines's first contra supply flight from Miami to Tegucigalpa via New Orleans, remembers the extreme security precautions that awaited the airplane at the New Orleans airport: "We were met by just about everybody with an earphone and a dark suit and glasses that you can imagine. They even had a SWAT team in the parking lot. They even led dogs through every inch of the airplane and tore apart the cargo before it was loaded. I don't know who they thought they were going to meet."
Jablonowski adds that the cargo was "no big deal, just boots and Pampers and baby food, things like that. No guns." A U.S. Customs air cargo manifest from a later flight appears to confirm his statement. Dated August 27, 1985, it lists the plane's cargo as "617 pieces of relief goods and supplies."
But Conner was flying at a time when other cargo carriers were illegally transporting arms to the contras. Furthermore, some of those same airlines were involved in transporting cocaine back to the United States, according to sworn testimony provided to various congressional committees. Nearly everyone who knew Conner will volunteer at some point during an interview that he was never involved in drug trafficking. "Gus just wasn't the type that would ever countenance any kind of drug operation," says Howard Davis, Conner's old friend who took over management of the airline after his death. "But I believe that this was one of the things that people representing the government wanted him to do back in the contra days."
Davis alludes to a series of late-night meetings in 1985, reportedly held in Conner Air Lines's hangar, between Conner and several unidentified men who may or may not have been representing the government. He declines, however, to reveal who told him about the meetings or what transpired during them. The secret, he says, died with Conner. "Unfortunately, when they came to talk to Gus, he would shoo everyone out of the office," Davis adds. "There were no other witnesses."
The far-fetched theory that made the rounds at Conner Air Lines A and which company employees say was promoted by Gerry Hemming A holds that when Conner refused to fly CIA-backed drug missions, the agency retaliated by calling friends at the FAA and telling them to get rid of the obstacle. The FAA supposedly complied by intensifying its investigation of Conner in 1986. A man who knew Conner for years and who refuses to be identified says that even before Hemming's arrival, Conner received "some damn good information" that indicated a multiagency conspiracy. Conner Air Lines officials claim the man has substantial ties to the intelligence community, but like Hemming, he will not discuss his evidence or its source. What he will do is give advice to anyone planning to dig deeper.
"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.
"I asked him what he was doing in the lot, and he said he was waiting on someone," Wade recalls. "When I asked who he was waiting on, he said he couldn't tell me. He said, 'I'll know them when I see them.'"
"That's not a good enough answer for us," Shedd adds.
"Not nearly good enough," Wade affirms, "especially when we could observe binoculars on the front seat and a camera in his lap. Obviously he wasn't there just to wait on someone. At that point we identified ourselves as federal agents and asked him to step out of the car. He refused."
Wade says he then opened the door and tried to pull Conner from the car: "I reached in and grabbed him not harshly, not gently, but firmly by the arm and gave a tug on it and said, 'You're going to have to step out of the car.' And I pulled him to get him out and get control of the situation, which was getting out of hand. He had started to struggle to get away from me."
According to Wade, Conner not only pulled back but also reached into a pouch he was wearing around his waist and tried to pull out one of the guns he had brought with him. "He [Conner] reaches in and grabs the gun and starts to pull it out," Wade recounts. "I'm in the line of fire. I mean, he's not pulling out the gun to give it up. He reached in and grabbed it and started to come out with it. The agent on my side of the car shouted, 'He's got a gun! He's got a gun!' And another agent came through the passenger side of the car and grabbed his wrist and holds it so he couldn't get the gun out. The guy on my side of the car grabbed the gun and takes it away from him. He saved my life, very simply."
The agents were finally able to pull Conner from the car and force him to the ground, where he was handcuffed and searched in "textbook" fashion, Wade says, adding that the agents found the two guns but no concealed-weapon permit for either of them. When they discovered Conner was taking heart medication, they asked him repeatedly if he wanted a Dade County medical team to examine him. He refused.
Conner told his friends and family a different story, later typed out at the airline office. In his version, the agents never identified themselves but simply approached his car and told him he would have to leave. Conner responded that he was under the impression the parking lot was public. When he refused to leave, the two men asked him to get out of his car. Conner agreed, but before he could comply, the agents wrestled him from the driver's seat, threw him to the ground, not once, but twice, and pummeled him with punches and kicks. Conner said he did not resist, but tried to fend off repeated blows to his head, neck, and body. In his account of the incident, Conner never went for either of the guns in his car even though he thought he might be the victim of a kidnapping attempt. One of the guns was on the seat, he told his wife, and one was indeed in the pouch around his waist. But the DEA agents did not find that gun, he said, until they had him inside the headquarters. The concealed-weapon permits were in his wallet, he claimed, at least until the DEA confiscated them. Finally, Conner contended, the DEA agents never expressed any concern regarding his health.
About the only points of concurrence in the two versions are Conner's hands. Both sides agree they were lacerated when the DEA agents took him down. "I'm sure his hands did get skinned up a bit," Wade says. "It was Miami in August. It was hot and it was a blacktop parking lot. But he was treated no different than any other suspect."
No different, that is, until the DEA decided whether to charge and incarcerate Conner. The record of Conner's final confrontation with federal officials resembles the latter part of his life: it is filled with contradictions, confusion, and shadowy areas that will probably never be illuminated. Chief among the unanswered questions is why the DEA, after forcibly subduing an armed and suspicious man, and then interrogating him for three hours, allowed him simply to leave. Spokesman Jim Shedd says the explanation is simple. Conner had allegedly committed serious offenses A assaulting a federal agent, refusing a reasonable request from a federal agent, and carrying a firearm without a permit. But he had done it all on a Friday, and had he been jailed he would have had to wait until Monday before he could see a federal magistrate for a bond hearing. "Taking into consideration his age and his physical condition at that moment," Shedd says, "it was not a wise move to take him to jail."
The decision not to charge Conner with any federal crimes was made during conversation between Wade and a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney's Office. In that conversation, Wade says he notified the prosecutor that Conner was found with concealed weapons and no permit and that he had refused to leave a restricted area. But Wade admits he failed to mention that Conner allegedly had attempted to draw a gun on federal agents. He explains that he was not aware Conner had grabbed his gun until after he discussed the incident with the other agents involved, a discussion that didn't take place until after he had spoken with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
But how could he not know Conner was attempting to pull a gun from his waist pouch if, as he said before, the other two agents accompanying him, one of them on his side of the car, both saw the weapon and one of them even shouted, "He's got a gun!"? Wade answers that "in an arrest situation, you can't watch both hands of a suspect if he is not facing you."
Before trying to pull Conner from the car, Wade says he called Metro- Dade police and an officer arrived while the agents still had Conner in the parking lot. The subsequent police report, which describes the encounter from the agents' point of view, notes that Conner was "in possession of several firearms and weapons." But it fails to record Wade's contention that Conner attempted to pull a gun from his pouch.
And regarding the matter of a weapons permit, the report states, "Concealed weapons permit on file." (Conner's family and friends say he had the proper permits for both pistols.)
Other questions about the incident remain unanswered. For example, Wade says he summoned a Dade County emergency medical technician who examined Conner at DEA headquarters. Under normal circumstances, reports of such examinations are routinely filed with the central records office of the Dade County Fire Department. But clerks in that office say they cannot locate any report pertaining to Conner.
Inconsistencies such as these have prompted Conner's widow to speculate that the DEA may indeed have been part of a government conspiracy to harass her husband. "I think they knew exactly who Gus was when they approached him in the car," she asserts.
Jim Shedd says that DEA policy prohibits him from either confirming or denying that Conner's airline was being investigated by the agency or that the pilot who worked there for a time was cooperating with the agency. And he exhorts Conner's friends and family to stop what he calls their campaign of innuendo and slander. If they have a complaint, he says, they should take the DEA to court. Geneva Conner says she would like to do just that, but her attorney believes the case is too weak to pursue, that there is no way to prove the DEA's manhandling of Conner on Friday contributed to his death on Monday.
In fact, Conner was a very sick man at the time he died, and he had been hospitalized several times for heart problems. According to Dr. Roger E. Mittleman, the associate county medical examiner who performed an autopsy, Conner died of cardiomyopathy, heart disease. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was a contributing cause. Mittleman says Conner's body had suffered some minor injuries consistent with having been taken to the ground, though not beaten, and the injuries were certainly not lethal. "You could, of course, speculate that Conner's excited emotional state during the incident contributed to his death," he adds. "But this individual seemed to be someone who was cantankerous anyway. So I would be hard pressed to say that what happened to him at the DEA led to his death. We don't know what else he was stressed out about."
Conner spent the weekend at his Miami Springs home, apparently stewing over the DEA incident. He called Gerry Hemming on Sunday to tell him his version of events. He also called his attorney and instructed him to begin preparing a lawsuit against the DEA, according to friends and family. Instead of resting, Conner was preparing for more battles.
Early Monday morning Conner groaned and fell down in his bathroom. One of his daughters, who lives at the house, ran to him and then called for a Dade County rescue team. But it was too late.
Despite his poor health, Conner's death came as a shock to those close to him. "Sure Mr. Conner had been sick," Matt Jablonowski says, "but at that point his health was better than it had been in months. He was losing weight, eating right, drinking less and smoking less. Going to the DEA that day wasn't the last act of a dying man. This man was making plans for the future. I'm sure a good lawyer like Roy Black could convince a jury that what happened to Gus at the DEA that day contributed to his death."
DEA spokesman Shedd grows livid when he hears such statements. "We have never encountered this type of situation, this much paranoia and these many allegations," he exclaims. "And about what? Are they saying that the DEA killed this man as part of a CIA plot? What planet are they from? The DEA didn't tell Conner to come over here with a gun. Somebody whispered sweet nothings in his ear, spun him around a few times, and sent him over here. Who was that person? It had to be somebody close to him in his office."
Gerry Hemming no longer works at Conner Air Lines; Geneva Conner dismissed him two months after her husband's death. In another conspiratorial twist to the saga, Hemming claims he was double-crossed by the legal team Gus Conner hired at his urging. After Conner's death, he says, they began meeting privately with Mrs. Conner in an effort to undermine his authority and destroy his credibility.
Hemming does grant, however, that he wanted to control the investigation of Conner's problems and oversee any legal actions: "I said, 'Gus, you work for me. I'm here to save your fucking business. I'm here to apply every fucking talent I have A as a pilot, as an administrator, and in the intelligence and legal fields.
The whole fucking schmeer. Changing your corporate structure, moving you to Delaware, Virginia, to an offshore holding company A whatever it takes. You've got a mom-and-pop operation here, and that invites retaliation. You've probably got a million dollars in your joint account. You're FDIC'd up to only $100,000. People look at that shit and they figure you're a sucker. I'm hired to save this operation.'"
Matt Jablonowski says Conner was able to see through Hemming's bluster and fight off his bid for control. But he acknowledges that "reliable information" from sources in the all-seeing, all-knowing intelligence community can have an impact even on a strong man like Conner. "Hell, it scares me," he admits. "If I accepted half of what these guys say about our lives being manipulated by this or that group, I think I would probably kill myself."
Standing alone in Conner Air Lines's parking lot as the afternoon turns to evening, Jablonowski takes a deep breath of air, tainted by jet exhaust, as he contemplates his dead boss, friend, and mentor. "Gus was getting real frustrated by all these unconfirmed reports of spooky stuff," he muses. "I believe that when he went out to the DEA that day, he wanted to resolve it once and for all.