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Man sentenced for smuggling 299 pounds of pot on plane

Published September 2, 2009

BIRMINGHAM — A man who landed a plane filled with nearly 300 pounds of marijuana at an airport in Kansas has been sentenced to five years in federal prison.

Aaron Hartwell, 43, who rented a house on Southlawn in Birmingham, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana in May, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas.

Hartwell’s attorney, Christopher Michael Joseph of Joseph and Hollander P.A. in Topeka, Kansas, said Hartwell pleaded guilty to a significantly reduced charge from the original, which had a maximum sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

“In the plea agreement it was specifically noted the he was pleading guilty to the allegation that he was what you call a ‘blind mule.’ That means he flew people and their luggage not knowing specifically that there was marijuana or proceeds in it, but being deliberately ignorant. In other words, he didn’t ask,” he said.

Hartwell was arrested March 25, 2008, after landing a piper PA-46 turbo aircraft at the Salina Municipal Airport to refuel. The plane, which departed from San Diego, Calif., was scheduled to complete its trip by landing at an airport in Waterford.

Prior to Hartwell’s arrival, the Saline County Sheriff’s Office received a tip from the Air Marine Operation Center in Riverside, Calif., that the plane had a suspicious history and was suspected of being involved in the transportation of narcotics.

When the plane landed, deputies from the Saline County Sheriff’s Office asked Hartwell to produce the Federal Aviation Administration documents for the plane and the flight. While Hartwell looked for the documents, a deputy walked his drug detection dog around the perimeter of the plane and observed an alert for the presence of drugs near the plane’s door, which was left ajar.

Deputies, along with the drug dog, entered the aircraft for further inspection and found three black suitcases and a black duffel bag containing 204 pounds marijuana packed in a “brick-like” manner. Investigators later discovered 95 additional pounds of marijuana hidden in a compartment in the nose of the airplane, for a total of 299 pounds.

Hartwell is one of several people charged with drug trafficking offenses following the discovery of the marijuana on the plane. Antonio Inocentes Jr., who police said assisted Hartwell in distributing marijuana in Michigan, was sentenced to 51 months in prison. Elias Gabriel Sais, whose fingerprints were found on the packaging of the marijuana, is set for sentencing Oct. 27, and Joe Anthony Martino, a passenger on the plane at the time of the arrest, is scheduled for sentencing Dec. 1.

Jim Cross, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas, said the location of Kansas at the geographic center of the nation makes it a crossroads for the movement of drugs.

“There are more than 140 local airports and landing strips in Kansas, which provides drug traffickers with an opportunity to transport drugs via private aircraft. This case illustrates the problem — and what we are doing about it.”

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