The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 2.
A Talented and Busy Pilot
Prior to the 1977 interdiction in Virginia, Floridian Robert G. Eby was the pilot for a Douglas C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft that landed on Treat Mountain in Polk County, Georgia with marijuana and hashish in 1975. The large four-engine aircraft was discovered near Cedartown on a rough and very short clandestine 1,000-foot airstrip cut into the dense forest. It was linked to at least 3,280 pounds of marijuana and 84 bricks of hashish. Later investigation discovered that the suspect aircraft departed Boca Raton, Florida on August 2, 1975 and was next seen on August 4, 1975 on the airstrip in Georgia. Eby was pending trial for this importation when arrested for the Virginia smuggling venture. This was his second known arrest for air smuggling marijuana.
The abandoned Skymaster was seized and later forfeited to the federal government as its new owner. The Polk County unimproved dirt airstrip was so short, the federal government attempted to find someone to buy and remove the forfeited Douglas aircraft possibly via a heavy lift helicopter or dismantle it on the mountain top for scrap. It was thought too dangerous to attempt to fly it out. The federal government was far more worried about specific aircraft capabilities and liability than was Eby on that night. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a minimum of 3,500 feet would be required for the aircraft to lift-off and fly out of the thick woods.
Seeing an opportunity, a Georgia state representative purchased the forfeited aircraft at government auction for $20,000 and planned to film a movie that included its departure from the mountain top airstrip. The flamboyant legislator, who was a pilot himself, planned to sell tickets for people to watch the aircraft’s departure from the heavily wooded area. He also purchased the land that contained the airstrip for use in his production. With a pilot out of Miami (of course), the C-54 consumed the entire 1,000 feet to achieve 80 knots and become airborne. The World War II era aircraft was flown to the Atlanta area for further inspection of its airworthiness for future flights. It was safe and ready for the movies.
Eby cooperated with the politician in the production of the movie, documenting the landing of the now famous aircraft. The rather low-budget movie, titled In Hot Pursuit: the Polk County Pot Plane, can be found on YouTube today. It is a true 1970s B movie as a cross between “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Smokey and the Bandit” – just not as good.
Eby was also arrested in 1976 in Clewiston, Florida after being linked to an aircraft carrying marijuana. Law enforcement received information that a suspicious Douglas DC-3 landed at Airglades Airport. Responding law enforcement located ten burlap bags of marijuana totaling approximately 287 pounds; nine bags were still on the aircraft and one in a nearby hangar. Eby, Jack Arlington Agnew, Dennis C. Gostomski, and three others were arrested while fleeing the scene. The group had been monitoring local police frequencies and overheard the dispatch call go out. A van and a truck, believed to contain additional marijuana, departed the airport prior to the arrival of law enforcement. This was Eby’s third known arrest for air smuggling marijuana into the United States. Eby’s previous arrests and continuation in drug smuggling was a reoccurring theme for him and many of his associates.
Gostomski was the manager of the hangar where the marijuana and aircraft were located by law enforcement. Gostomski had been arrested approximately a week before the Airglades Airport importation for the air smuggling of over 600 pounds of marijuana into a field 30 miles south of Clewiston. Due to its very rural setting with many farms and ranches with private airstrips, Hendry County was another popular area for smuggling in central south Florida. It was a short drive to both coasts and major highways.
Agnew pleaded nolo contendere and was sentenced to five years in prison for the Clewiston marijuana smuggling venture. During his plea, he reserved the right to appeal a denied motion to suppress evidence and did so in Florida state court. The appellant court reversed the conviction and sentence for Agnew and returned it to the lower court to determine if there were any other reasons to deny his motion to exclude evidence other than the one cited in the court record. He was permitted to withdraw his guilty plea. Within the same appeal, Gostomski’s nolo contendere plea and two-year sentence were affirmed since the marijuana was in plain view in his hangar.
This was not Agnew’s first arrest. A former assistant Broward County solicitor, Agnew had been indicted and arrested in 1972. The 22-person federal indictment involved 78 counts in a $150 million mail fraud scheme involving bogus loans. Agnew was also indicted for mail fraud in Kansas and Illinois. He pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud in Miami in return for a two-year sentence concurrent with his charges in other states. In 1978, he was the owner of the Ridin High Ranch in Fort Pierce, where 12,600 pounds of marijuana were seized by police. Agnew and 7 other suspects were arrested for possession of marijuana, but the state case was later dropped due to an illegal telephone wiretapping and improper search of the property leading to the seizure and arrests.
Treat Mountain Reminiscing
On the 44th anniversary of the 1975 Polk County air smuggling arrests and seizure, one of the defendants reminisced in a local newspaper interview about marijuana smuggling, pilot Eby, and the amazing landing. Martin Bert Raulins described his personal experiences from smoking to smuggling marijuana. For his first smuggling venture, Raulins and a friend borrowed a sailboat from another smuggler who was a fugitive at the time to smuggle a load of marijuana. After a long and boring 45-day sailing trip from Colombia, Raulins decided there had to be a better and faster way. That is when he was introduced by a friend to Eby and started to plan.
Eby traveled to the enormous aircraft graveyard and storage site near Tucson, Arizona and purchased the C-54 at an auction. After making it airworthy, Eby loaded the plane with gifts and a dune buggy and flew to a clandestine airstrip in Colombia. Eby picked up a load of marijuana destined for Georgia and Michigan buyers and flew it straight into Fort Lauderdale. The first air smuggling endeavor was successful, but the group was logically concerned about operating in such a busy public airport. There were too many curious eyes at the south Florida airport.
Raulins explained that the group chose to create their own short dirt airstrip on Treat Mountain for privacy and to deter any pursuing law enforcement aircraft from landing behind them. The dirt airstrip was so remote they could escape with the contraband before any responding law enforcement could arrive by land, if they could even find them. Once the forest was cleared for a supposed pasture, Eby approved the airstrip. Eby instructed Raulins to install 1,000 feet of lights along each side of the rough runway and one light on the tallest tree on the approach end to be powered by a portable generator.
Eby and five others flew in the C-54 to Colombia to pick up the Polk County load. Raulins and four others remained at the airstrip to offload the aircraft. The plan was to split the load into two for local and out-of-state buyers. The aircraft successfully landed and skidded to a stop on the muddy airstrip in the middle of the night. After the marijuana and hashish were unloaded, it was decided that the makeshift runway was too muddy to permit the aircraft to successfully take off. The marijuana and hashish were trucked away while the aircraft was abandoned on the mountain, strangely with passports and other valuable evidence left inside it.
Eby and several of the other suspects departed the area with their portion of the drugs. As Raulins was driving away with his part of the marijuana, he drove past a police car on the side of the road assisting a motorist. The police officer, suspicious of Raulins and the truck following closely behind him, radioed ahead for them to be stopped and checked. The police officer suspected that they were moonshiners. Law enforcement in a neighboring county was already busy investigating reports of a low-flying aircraft that may have crashed in the woods. The two vehicles were stopped in Buchanan, Georgia right across from the police station. The drugs were found and the suspects were arrested with a final total of 14 suspects for overall prosecution.
While preparing for trial, some members of the group reportedly continued smuggling drugs in smaller aircraft to evade attention and arrest. According to Raulins, learning their lessons, some used the smaller aircraft for airdrops so they would be empty when they landed.
The suspects were prosecuted on both the federal and state levels for marijuana possession and smuggling. The defense attorneys challenged the legality of the traffic stop as well as several additional evidence issues. Due to the legal challenges to probable cause and the other evidence issues, both the federal and state prosecutors decided to drop their cases.
Like Eby, Raulins returned to drug smuggling after escaping prosecution for the Polk County load. He served a year in prison in 1984 for another marijuana load smuggled from Colombia to Texas. He was involved in one more drug smuggling conspiracy from Colombia to Georgia that resulted in a four-year federal sentence in 1987. Raulins was 70 and ill with cancer in 2019 when he decided to tell his story.
In the next chapter, read more about the Barker Family’s cross-border smuggling techniques.