FLORIDA, September 16, 2013 — Vernon “Skip” Williams is likely a victim of overzealous and malicious prosecution.
After flying an acquantance, William Hagen, to Texas, Williams and Hagen were returning home to Florida from Texas in a rented Piper PA-28 airplane. Hagen had secretly concealed 65 lbs. of marijuana on board. Also unbeknownst to Williams, Hagen had a criminal history of marijuana distribution.
Coming out of Louisiana where the DVFR flight plan was misconstrued as a VFR plan, Williams encountered a low cloud ceiling. Because he was not instrument rated, he had to duck beneath the clouds in order to use landmarks for navigation. However, flying this low disrupted radio communication to New Orleans International Airport and Williams was directed by air traffic control to communicate with them after he gained altitude.
Having gained altitude, Williams discovered he was out of range of New Orleans International and attempted to contact other airports. Williams then found himself surrounded by two F-16 Navy jet fighter aircraft that had pulled alongside of him and physically signaled him to use radio contact.
At this point, Williams discovered the rented aircraft’s radio had malfunctioned. He attempted to call via emergency channel and found a male voice telling him to contact Tyndall Air Force Base and suggested Williams close out his flight plan upon landing.
The military became involved because of 9/11, which had recently taken place, and because Williams appeared to be headed toward a nuclear power plant. Two hours from Williams intended destination, the F-16’s broke off over the Gulf and disappeared from view.
Williams landed at Crystal Rivers, his point of origin and return destination when his airplane was surrounded by law enforcement, notably the local S.W.A.T. Williams and Hagen were ordered to exit the aircraft and handcuffed.
After it was clear the Williams and Hagen were not a national security concern and the nuclear power plant was never in jeopardy, the two were released. As Williams walked off the tarmac, one of the S.W.A.T. members asked if they could search the plane. Unaware of the contraband in the rear cargo hold, Williams had no hesitation or reservation of what he considered a courtesy to put to rest lingering suspicions and said “Sure, go ahead”.
To Williams stunned surprise, 65 lbs. of marijuana was discovered where it was hidden. Williams glared hard at Hagen who stared at the ground refusing to look in William’s direction. Despite Williams objections, the two were arrested and placed in Citrus County, Florida jail, where Williams telephoned his mother to settle a $250,000 bond.
Hagen remained in jail unable to post his bond.
After consulting several lawyers, Williams settled on a skydiving friend who had a reputation for excellence and dropped another $20,000 to attorney Juan Torres. Williams claims Torres said he usually charges $35,000 but discounted the cost because Williams was a friend. Williams also trusted Torres because he had many years as the head of a Florida public defender office and believed the evidence fell short of the burden of proof required to even go to trial, let alone a returned verdict of guilty.
Hagen, who had spent 40 days in jail, was never charged with any aspect of this event. Williams and Torres were told Hagen was released because the local law enforcement officials knew if they watched him, he would “lead them to big fish” and the prosecutor wished to focus on Williams because of CNN’s reporting on the case.
As events unfolded, news agency CNN had reported Williams flight as a national security threat for flying “over” a nuclear power plant and implied the flight may be associated with the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. CNN kept up the terrorist approach with related footage and the excited and concerned style of anchor reporting.
This news coverage significantly raised the profile of the Williams case. As a result, every local newspaper ran the story with some on the front page.
Law enforcement was correct in one regard: Two weeks after Hagen’s release, he was caught with 45 lbs. of marijuana in a friend’s car trunk. Local press covered the story implicating Williams as a prior co-conspirator by running a headline of Hagen’s arrest as “Try, try again” with the older photo of Williams along with the newer photo of Hagen.
Hagen received a 10 year sentence for distribution. Records show Hagen has been arrested and incarcerated several times for marijuana possession and distribution.
Torres implemented usual defense attorney tactics and attempted to stall the trial date as long as possible. Torres explained to Williams that the state cannot prove knowledge, domain and control or constructive possession and a pilot of a rented aircraft with a passenger determined destination cannot be held responsible for what a passenger has in their ‘luggage’ any more than a bus driver can be held responsible for what a passenger put into the luggage hold.
After more than two years, the state put together its case with duct tape and paste.
NEXT: The strange trial of a man as persecuted as he was prosecuted with the flimsiest of speculative, circumstantial testimony and a judge with double standards.
This story is based on first-hand accounts, court records, FAA information and documented trial transcripts.
Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and psychotherapist.
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