March Trial Looms For Kentucky Woman In Drug Parachutist Case
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Nearly 2 1/2 years after a daredevil cocaine smuggler fell to his death on a driveway when his parachute failed, a woman accused of being his accomplice is going on trial on drug charges.
Agents connected parachutist Andrew Carter Thornton II with nearly 300 pounds of Colombian cocaine strewn from a plane across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia. Bags of the drug were tied to his waist.
″It was an unusual case,″ said Tony Acri, assistant special agent in the Atlanta office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
″The fact that Thornton parachuted in carrying the dope - we haven’t seen that before,″ he said. ″The use of air drops is a common occurrence in smuggling, (but) we had not seen someone parachute out with it.″
Rebecca Sharp and Ruben Soto were indicted on charges of conspiring with Thornton, 40, a former narcotics officer in Lexington, Ky., to import about 880 pounds of Colombian cocaine.
The indictment, unsealed Nov. 9, also charges Ms. Sharp with two counts of traveling from Kentucky to Tennessee to help distribute cocaine, one count of possession and one count of importing one kilogram or more of the drug.
Ms. Sharp, who is free on a $50,000 bond, and Soto also face one count each of aiding and abetting the smuggling.
Soto is listed as a fugitive.
If convicted on all counts, Ms. Sharp, 32, a paralegal from Lexington, could face a maximum penalty of 70 years in prison and a $780,000 fine.
U.S. Attorney John Gill would not comment on the case except to say he expects the trial, set for March 1, to last about a week.
W. Thomas Dillard, Ms. Sharp’s Knoxville attorney, also would not talk about the case, saying ″we’re playing our cards close to the vest.″
On the morning of Sept. 11, 1985, a man found Thornton’s body on a neighbor’s driveway with his parachute billowed beside him.
Duffel bags of about 77 pounds of cocaine were tied to his waist, and he wore night-vision goggles, knives and other survival gear.
The same day a small airplane slammed into a North Carolina mountainside. The government says Thornton had been piloting it and that he and another, unidentified person planned to drop their illegal cargo for later retrieval and distribution. Prosecutors say Ms. Sharp planned to meet Thornton after his jump.
Thornton probably set the plane on automatic pilot before bailing out, agents said.
No bodies or cocaine were found at the wreckage site, authorities said.
But in the following two months, authorities in Georgia found more than 200 pounds of cocaine in bags across the Chattahoochee National Forest. One bag was found near a dead black bear; authorities speculate the animal ripped the bag open and ate the drug.
Listed in the indictment as a co-conspirator was David Williams, who was killed on Sept. 29, 1985, when an airplane he owned crashed in Butts County, Ga., killing 16 skydivers and the pilot.
In an affidavit filed Jan. 22 in federal court in Knoxville, Ms. Sharp said an undercover agent and a government informer, who described themselves as friends of Thornton, told her that her life was in danger.
Agent George Vincent and informer Bertram Gordon asked to meet Ms. Sharp on Sept. 20, 1985, she wrote in papers accompanying a motion to suppress some statements from evidence.
″They told me they thought for sure I knew where (the cocaine) was and ... that this was a lot of money being lost. Vincent implied that Andrew had ripped them off, and I told him that I found that very hard to believe,″ she said.
″They went on to say that if they went back to the Colombians and told them that they didn’t have the cocaine, the next thing the Colombians would do would be to come to Lexington and kill me.″
She said the two men badgered her until she began crying. ″I was telling them various things that other people had told me about Andrew Thornton’s activities, hoping that would satisfy them.″