Robert L. Vesco was an financier who fled the United States to evade arrest in 1973 after allegedly looting $224 million from a mutual fund (and after illegally donating $200,000 to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign). Vesco initially went to Costa Rica but eventually wound up in Cuba, where he was thrown in jail in 1995 for a plot to defraud that country’s pharmaceutical industry.
If you are one of the few of the younger generation who may have not heard of Captain “Ike” Eisenhauer, it’s time you did, this is a Real history lesson, so standby to learn folks…Captain A.L. “IKE” Eisenhauer, is a World famous author, known to aviators worldwide, to be the one who flew the privately owned multi-million customized Boeing 707 all over the globe for renegade genius financier Robert L. Vesco back in the 1960s and 70s . Famed world movers and shakers like Richard M. Nixon, Juan Tripp, Howard Hughes, Arthur Godfrey, King Juan Carlos of Spain were no strangers to “Ike” and the “Silver Phyllis” (the moniker Ike hung on the 707). I recommend you read his bestselling book “The Flying Carpetbagger”… Now my friends gather around and sit down and let this fine story teller tell his tale I promise you when he is finished you will be back waiting for his next one with a big grin and wide-eyed anticipation…
PRAY FOR AN EARTHQUAKE
Unless you were the Captain of a pirate ship inspecting each chest of captured booty being loaded on board, Captains of aircraft are only interested in the weight of cargo or baggage stuffed in the holds of their aircraft. Where the items are placed affect the critical balance and performance of the machine and everything must be placed and secured in a specific location identified as a fuselage station with its weight recorded. The final resolution of the loading results in a mandatory document called a “Weight and Balance Report” provided to the crew before departure. Naturally, for security reasons and the safety of the aircraft, items classified as HASMAT (hazardous materials) by law, cannot be put on board. But, often items the Captain and crew are totally unaware of are slipped into the loading process. I got caught.
In my particular case, as the Captain of Robert L. Vesco’s private Boeing 707 constantly flying internationally, I relied on some of his designated “flunkies” to move his personal baggage and cargo to and from the aircraft with one of my crew monitoring the process and noting the weight of each item, not necessarily what’s in them. Crates, filing cabinets and boxes do not reveal their contents. Commercial airline Captains and flight crew could care less what’s in the hundreds of bags carried on each flight. With today’s security inspection they assume nothing is lethal or illegal. But nothing is perfect and smuggling is an art. So much of an art that the other side is winning, we are losing.
When Vesco became an international fugitive looking for a friendly base of operations he pulled out all the stops to impress the right people. This not only included such high rollers as the President or Prime Minister of a newly targeted host country, but also friends and relatives of the elite, including royalty. With his own private jet far more lavish than the jet of the President of the United States, the personal amenities he offered, in addition to the millions of dollars to sweeten any pot, were much more than any reasonable politician could object to. After all, in my opinion, they are all the same breed.
When Vesco was on the lamb to escape the wrath of an SEC investigation and his open defiance of its bureaucratic blood hounds hot on the trail of Nixon ‘s alleged involvement in financing the Watergate fiasco, it became obvious that Vesco’s Boeing was used like a taxi cab and I was the taxi driver. We were on the go 24/7. He was expelled from Switzerland, failed to solidify a relationship with Morroco, failed in an attempt to establish a “free trade” purchase of the Haitian island of Gonave with “Pappa Doc,” and his son, “Baby Doc Duvalier,” They became just a few of many actors in the play.
He eventually wore out his five year welcome with Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling, who he financed during his struggle to make Bahama independent from Great Britain, and had to pull up stakes and get out of Dodge. Peron and Argentina was a bust. So was Paraguay. What was left? Costa Rican President “Don Pepe” Figueres was ripe and receptive to Vesco’s overtures and financial war chest. And with the cash to shore up the Figueres family financial ventures, and his revolutionary vision of a new economy, San Jose became the new base of operations for Robert Vesco. With this new alliance came all the perks Vesco needed, including a non-extradition law to protect him from the long arm of U.S. justice as part of the deal.
My flights with Vesco’s 707 in and out of the U.S., during this period, were not restricted so long as he was not a passenger. At this time in his life he was successful at evasion of the outstanding warrants issued for his apprehension and felt secure in his new Costa Rican home. After all, the price he paid, and continued to pay, made it worth the investment. An added bonus with his close relationship to the Figures family included the “ol buddy” bonus between Costa Rica and Panama, where long time personal friend and fellow revolutionary, Omar Torrijos Herrera, was its powerful dictator. This gave Vesco two basses of operation free of the fear of extradition for him and his many shady international associates and he used the security of both banana republics at will.
In 1972, during one of my frequent flights to San Jose, Costa Rica, an incident occurred that influenced my personal relationship with Costa Rica. This particular incident could only be the direct influence of two “flunkies” I had inherited to handle the loading of luggage and cargo put on board the Boeing as I flew between foreign destinations. In this particular incident the “flunkies” were Donald Nixon Jr, (nephew of President Richard M. Nixon) and Marti Fefueres (son of the President of Costa Rica). I was arrested immediately after landing. As usual, after landing I was directed to a parking spot located away from the main passenger terminal at San Jose’s Jose Marti international airport. This day was no different from the countless times I parked, unloaded my passengers and waited until the convoy of trucks positioned themselves under the belly of the Boeing where the baggage compartments were located. Their job was to simply off load the cargo and load the trucks. Then they would scurry off and leave the airport through a service gate. What was always a question in my mind was that the trucks never went through customs inspection but just proceeded through the gate, past the guards and out onto the main highway leading from the airport. But, what the hell, who was I to question a routine that was probably arranged for by the right Costa Rican political connections. Of which Vesco was probably a major player. But on this day, something unusual happened proving how wrong I was.
While I was standing at the stop of the portable steps used to reach the main cabin for unloading passengers, long after all the passengers departed, I saw Marti Figueres, son of the Costa Rican President, and Don Nixon, Jr., nephew of U.S. President “Slippery Dick” Nixon, both frequent passengers, wave at me from the last of the departing trucks. I waved back happy to be rid of these two bastards for at least of couple of days. Moments later, a car sped up to the steps and out rushed an obviously irritated official in uniform. He raced up the steps shouting at me, pulled his 45 from its holster and shoved the weapon into my stomach. “Captain,” he shouted, “you are under arrest!” Now, I have been arrested before but nobody ever shoved a loaded 45 caliber automatic into my gut. I don’t think anybody really knows how they will react until they are faced with the situation. I know guns. I have a reasonable collection from when I served as a “special deputy” in New Jersey years back. In fact, I graduated from the police training Academy, was a sworn officer, fire arms instructor for the state police and member of a combat pistol team. I respect weapons but not necessarily some idiots who brandish them for questionable reasons, like some “gaucho” in a uniform with a nervous trigger finger. Suddenly, filled with anger at this unexpected aggressive action and not knowing what to expect from this uniformed intruder, I reacted. My adrenalin surged and perhaps out of fear rather than reason I clamped the wrist of his hand holding the weapon with my left hand and shoved my right palm over the front of the automatic moving the slide back toward the hammer. This trick prevents the automatic from firing and for security I slid my hand further back on the automatic putting the web between my thumb and fore finger between the hammer and firing pin. Now I had my right hand firmly wrapped around the weapon and went on the offense. This maneuver will not be found in any of the police training manuals I had used. Twisting his hand and yanking firmly the weapon ended up in my right hand or he would have busted his wrist. I grabbed him by the neck of his uniform and snapped him close to me and gave him a sharp head butt to get his attention, I shoved the automatic under his chin and pushed it upwards into a startled, wide eyed face. I don’t remember the exact words I screamed at him but I do remember the frightened bastard wet himself as I let him go. I guess you might say I, “scared the piss out of him,” Because just moments before he almost did the same to me. I waved him back down the steps with his weapon in my hand as I shouted, “Vaminous, you fucking bastard.” He didn’t even get back in his car. He took off across the ramp running towards the terminal building but looking back over his shoulder he could see me eject the clip from his gun and throw it at his car. It made enough noise to get the attention of my crew under the belly of the Boeing securing the baggage doors. I told them what had just happened to a comment of, “NO SHIT.” They told me that they heard something going on but didn’t know what it was. I was glad they didn’t witness their Captain acting like a wild man because I had lost it, and things could have gone really bad if either one of us had gotten shot. I don’t think they had ever seen me shaking and so furious despite the many stressful experiences we had around the world. But, it didn’t end with him running off. Ten minutes later two more cars pulled up to the Boeing. This time half a dozen uniformed officials cautiously approached and asked if they could see the Captain. I nodded and the senior member of the group came up the steps and almost apologetically requested me to accompany them to the Director’s office in the terminal. I obliged. When we entered the office of the Director he announced, “Captain, I have to place you under arrest.” “Sir,” I replied, “on what charge?” “For smuggling,” he replied. “I have many reports of cargo being unloaded from your aircraft for many weeks without clearing customs.” I knew I had been set up. But, by who? I didn’t know the political factions in this country but I do know that the opposition to President Figueres was active in it’s effort to defeat him in the next election. What side were these guys on? Were they with the President or against him? After all, up to now everything was fine. But, not today! I knew I was in trouble and only Vesco could bail me out because I was headed for the county jail in short order.
Now, for the rest of the story. Over hearing several phone conversations between the Director and unknown others, I heard the name Vesco and “Don Pepe” mentioned several times. I imagined I was going to be driven off down town to some facility and detained until some solution was reached. After all, I did resist arrest and threaten a uniformed official. But what the hell, that could have been handled with a wink and a handful of cash like I did so many times before. However, this seemed to be more involved, politically involved. Something beyond my understanding. Maybe Vesco’s Captain was going to be made an example of how the gringo Vesco flaunted Costa Rican law. Enter the power of SPIRIT and the wondrous effect on man.
It began with slight awareness that the floor in the Director’s office was shaking. Then the intensity increased as I saw a crack in the tile appear followed by pictures falling off the wall and crashing to the floor. I stood up to see my chair dancing across the floor as cracks appeared in the wall and ceiling with plaster falling to the floor. Not having experienced it before, I didn’t need a degree in archeology to come to the conclusion-EARTHQUAKE! The whole building began to shake. The previously calm group of men in the room suddenly started to shout in their native tongue and rush for the door and out of the terminal building. I just walked to the door almost being trampled by the Director as he shoved past me. It looked like everyone in the room had suddenly forgotten about me. The hundreds of passengers on the balcony and sitting in the terminal jammed the exits trying to get out —fast! I joined the flow. I dodged the crap falling from the ceiling and got out of the shaking terminal building along with the crowd. I scurried across the ramp toward where the Boeing was parked. I saw cracks in the surface of the ramp that were not there before. The Boeing just rocked but nothing appeared to indicate any immediate danger to it. She was just wagging her tail and shaking like a wet puppy just out of the pool. I certainly couldn’t move her. She just had to ride it out. What could I do anyway? I didn’t see anybody coming after me so I gathered up my crew and our bags and we waited until things quieted down. Then we checked the aircraft over, locked her up and split. Finding an available taxi outside we jumped in and headed for the Irizu hotel,which was the San Jose crew base. I imagine quakes have happened before in this paradise. But, not to me. And most certainly not in the circumstances I had been in before this quake hit.
How did it all end? Two days later, after many phone conversations, I was summoned to the office of some big shot. He went to great lengths to explain and apologize for an obvious misunderstanding. In addition to his apology he issued me an identification card making me a Captain in the Costa Rican civil guard due all the respect and authority of the position by direction of the President. What more could I expect? He assured me that nothing like what had happened would ever happen again. Thanks Vesco. Thanks “Don Pepe.” Every time any of my previous adversaries saw me I was greeted with a salute. Now, I was one of them. Anyway, as time went on I could virtually count on respect and extra special courteous treatment from every uniformed member of the Civil Guard. After all, I had become an officer in this black shirt brotherhood.
I don’t know WHY the earthquake happened just at the right time. But, just maybe, was it my silent prayer for deliverance from my predicament that memorable day?
Vesco’s Boeing was purchased from Pan Am, it was just like the one pictured above