July 22, 2009 Edition

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Local officers make drug bust

Walnut Ridge Detective David Burnside (foreground) weighs a block of marijuana as WRPD Chief Leslie Gates (right) prepares to hand him another duffel bag full of the drug while Hoxie Police Chief Glen Smith records the weight of the individual blocks. A total of 418.6 pounds of marijuana were found on an aircraft that landed at the Walnut Ridge Airport on Monday.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt
Gretchen Hunt

Walnut Ridge Police Chief Leslie Gates and Hoxie Police Chief Glen Smith discovered approximately 420 pounds of marijuana on Monday in an airplane that had landed at Walnut Ridge Regional Airport's Swindle Field to refuel.

Gates said he received word from the Lawrence County Communications Center to return a call concerning a tip.

The call was from Homeland Security regarding a plane that was planning to land at Walnut Ridge and had been flagged as suspicious upon leaving an Arizona airport.

Because his officers were on other calls, he requested assistance from Smith, and the two took an unmarked vehicle to the airport. While conducting surveillance, Gates said they noticed two male subjects exit the aircraft, which was a 1977 model 310 Cessna.

"We noticed that they were acting nervous, and their actions did seem to be suspicious," Gates said.

While Gates was on a followup call with Homeland Security, Smith went into the terminal building and made contact with one of the men from the plane and then went out onto the runway to speak to the pilot.

"When I got off the phone with Homeland Security, I went out to the airplane as well," Gates said.

"We could smell the marijuana as we approached the plane," Smith said.

After receiving consent to search the plane, the officers discovered what they already knew was there.

"When Glen opened the door, the plane was full," Gates said. "The seats had been removed to make room for the drugs, and the marijuana was just stacked in there."

The plane was flying from Arizona to Pennsylvania and had already made one fuel stop in New Mexico. The pilot, Heath M. Gephart, 35, and passenger Mark David Sweigart, also 35, were both from Harrisburg, Pa.

Gates said the pilot had a previous drug conviction. Both men were arrested for possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. They were transported to the Lawrence County Jail and were scheduled to appear in court today for a bond hearing.

Federal officers from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) out of Little Rock and Homeland Security out of Hammond, La., also responded to the scene.

Gates said the WRPD confiscated some cell phones, a navigation system and some other miscellaneous personal items. The department has also filed paperwork to seize the aircraft.

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