Agents question Bonanza pilot, search for ‘dope and cash’

October 21, 2010

Robert Riddlemoser knew there was something wrong as soon as he stepped out of his airplane during a fuel stop in Pueblo, Colo., on Oct. 1.

A hose was dangling from the cowling of his newly turbo-normalized Beechcraft Bonanza. Better go inside the FBO and call a mechanic.

Preoccupied with the glitch, Riddlemoser walked toward the building with his passenger, an employee. Riddlemoser gazed ahead vaguely as several vehicles pulled up to the FBO. He observed that six or seven men dressed in street clothes were standing there, too.

“I didn’t think anything of it until they didn’t move from our path,” he recalled. “I was freaked out about this hose.”

One of the men in their path asked him if he was the pilot and his companion the co-pilot of the Bonanza. The man said, “We need to search your plane, and we need to go through your bags.”

Then the men introduced themselves: The Drug Enforcement Administration, Pueblo Police Department, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement all were represented in the group, he said. They’d been notified by Homeland Security that there was a problem with his Bonanza, tail number N6202V.

“What if I say no?” Riddlemoser asked.

“We’ll have a search warrant within an hour, they’ll bring the dogs out, and we’ll get what we want either way,” he said they told him. He asked what they were looking for.

Cash and dope.

Riddlemoser let them go through the bags. They didn’t find anything. Next they wanted to search the airplane. He gave assent. They found some prescription medicine and were satisfied with explanations.

Riddlemoser, who runs a precious metals and gold business, mentioned that he carries a gun.

Why do you carry a gun?

“Because I can, and because I was carrying a large amount of gold,” he said.

They asked where the gun was.

“In the bag you just searched,” he said.

He showed them where to look, in one of the bag’s zipper compartments. There they found the gun.

“It was crazy,” Riddlemoser recalled in a recent interview with AOPA. “I was hungry. I wanted to go and eat.”

The search proceeded, and Riddlemoser excused himself and went into the restaurant for lunch with his employee. Meanwhile, the FBO had called for a mechanic to fix what would turn out to be a battery-acid overflow hose that had worked loose.

The officer Riddlemoser describes as “the lead detective” came over and sat down. Soon he took a telephone call. Then he asked the pilot, “Are you a convicted felon?”

“My record is clean,” Riddlemoser said, continuing his narrative in an interview for this article. “This is how ridiculous this thing was.”

They were still sitting there an hour later when the officer received another telephone call. He ended the call, and told Riddlemoser, “OK, you’re cleared to go.”

The day of his eventful fuel stop in Pueblo, Riddlemoser, 42, of Terrell, Texas, had been flying under visual flight rules, with some radar flight following, from Palm Springs, Calif., to Schaumburg, Ill. There he would drop off the employee, go home to Texas for a few days, and then return to Schaumburg and California in a whirlwind of Bonanza flying.

Stunned by the standoff, by now he had been on the ground in Pueblo for about three hours. So when he walked back out to his airplane, he was surprised to see one of the officers, and a dog, standing there. The law officer was removing inspection panels from the airplane.

This made the mechanic—Riddlemoser said that the fellow had just arrived and “was trying to figure everything out”—indignant. The mechanic insisted that the man put them back on, if he wasn’t the Bonanza’s owner. The man did.

Riddlemoser and the employee put all their belongings back into the Bonanza, and Riddlemoser went inside to pay the FBO for the gas. “Then I just sat there for about 45 minutes, trying to clear my head. My training says, ‘Don’t fly when you’re stressed out.’”

The landing in Schaumburg, near Chicago, was the most difficult landing that he had ever experienced. “They don’t call it The Windy City for nothing,” he said.

It would be an understatement to say that Riddlemoser’s experience in aviation has been brief but exciting. But that was true even before Pueblo. He soloed on his birthday in September 2009, bought the Bonanza, and passed his private checkride in the airplane in June.

He became a pilot in part because, when traveling on the airlines in his work with precious metals, “I really got tired of TSA asking why I had a lot of gold and silver bullion.” Also, his brother is a fighter pilot in the Air Force, so Riddlemoser said he decided to give flying a try.

Now piloting the Bonanza frequently on business, he has accumulated almost 300 hours, and is working on an instrument rating. “It’s probably the most challenging thing I have ever accomplished, and it feels good.”

In the last two weeks, emotions have swung from anger to what he describes as “just unbelievable concern.” Law enforcement officials have not explained anything to him except to invite him to come sit down with them and talk. Officials contacted by AOPA also have declined to comment.

Riddlemoser has tried to do his own detective work, with few clues to go on. The law enforcement officials told him that he was “associated” with two men serving double-life sentences in connection with the smuggling of tons of marijuana, and money laundering. He says he wasn’t associated with them.

One long-shot theory he developed concerns a second tail number he has reserved but is not yet registered. It makes use of the letters R and Y from his daughter’s name, as does his automobile’s license plate. The last aircraft registered under the now-dormant N number, a Decathlon built in 1995, was once based in Hawaii, where one of the convicted drug traffickers lived. The aircraft was exported to New Zealand; in 1996 the drug dealer was arrested in France, according to news reports.

That’s all he has been able to come up with so far.

Riddlemoser knows about the well-publicized detention in Santa Barbara, Calif., of John and Martha King, the well known flight-training entrepreneurs, on Aug. 28. They had been flying an airplane with a reissued tail number flagged as suspect by a security entity called the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). When the Kings arrived in Santa Barbara, law enforcement was waiting, guns up. Photos of Martha King deplaning from the Cessna 172, with her hands up, sent waves of shock and horror through the pilot community.

Riddlemoser doubts that his Bonanza fits that picture. He is checking the chain of ownership, although he knows the identities of the most recent two owners. He says the airplane was once a demonstrator for the manufacturer.

He contacted the Kings—whose training products he uses—and was pleased when John called back within 24 hours. The Kings met with U.S. Rep. Brian P. Bilbray about the Santa Barbara incident on Oct. 14.

John King thinks it is likely that Riddlemoser came to the attention of authorities as a result of a law enforcement alert about his aircraft. “They had some notice that he was going to be there—how did they know?” he said. “It appears to me that they were tracking his N number.”

Since the Kings’ own scary confrontation, he said, they have heard numerous accounts of erroneous challenges of pilots. “We’re finding that this is pretty frequent.”

King—who when asked in an interview said neither he nor Martha King was ever asked to show a pilot certificate during the confrontation in Santa Barbara—recommends that any pilot facing their predicament should cooperate, to the fullest. “There is plenty of time for argument after the fact.”

He’d like to see more balance struck in law enforcement between zest for security and respect for “protecting the rights of private citizens who aren’t breaking the law.”

Otherwise, he asks rhetorically, “Is this really the way we want to run our society?”

Riddlemoser still feels under a cloud. He hopes the FAA can keep bad registration numbers from getting back into circulation. And he wasn’t happy at being told, “You got a free pass this time,” when the Pueblo interviews ended.

He consulted an attorney, who wasn’t big on the idea of his following up on the matter.

“He said they had gotten some bad information, and it was not the first time a federal agent went after a private citizen on a bogus tip,” Riddlemoser said.