Columbus OH April 1 2017 Pilot Sylvain Desjardins and passenger David Ayotte were the only two aboard the twin-engine turboprop that left Grand Bahama Island on Wednesday, bound for Windsor, Canada.
But they were not alone.
About 2,400 miles to the west, in Riverside, California, the Piper Navajo was being watched, like many closing in on U.S. borders, especially from the Caribbean.
When the plane experienced mechanical problems and diverted from its flight path toward Athens, Ohio, the U.S. Customs and Board Protection Air and Marine Operations Center and other federal and local agencies went into action.
The Department of Homeland Security notified the Athens County sheriff’s office and OU police that the pilot planned to land at Gordon K. Bush Ohio University Airport. The airport is not a port of entry with a customs station. Officials told the locals to hold the plane for federal authorities.
Homeland Securities investigation agents and Customs and Border Protection agents based in Columbus hurried southeast to Athens. Homeland Security said a database search revealed that both men had prior drug convictions in Canada.
The plane landed about 2:30 p.m. and the pilot told OU police and Athens County deputies who met the plane that mechanical problems necessitated the emergency landing.
The California center notified Desjardins that his plane was going to be searched. Desjardins consented to the search, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Columbus.
Agents found more than 290 pounds of cocaine hidden aboard the plane’s tail section.
The amount likely is the largest cocaine seizure in southern Ohio, said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman in Columbus.
On Thursday, Desjardin, 47, and Ayotte, 45, learned from U.S. District Magistrate Norah McCann King that they face between 10 years and life in prison if convicted of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute. The two men are Canadian citizens with addresses in Mirabel, a suburb of Montreal.
The only records that could be found Thursday in Canadian courts was for Desjardins, who has a criminal record in Quebec that includes convictions for drug trafficking. In 1998, he was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to possession of heroin with intent to trafficking.
In 2002, he was charged in connection with a marijuana-growing operation. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to producing marijuana and to a possession charge. He was sentenced in 2005 to 14 months in prison.
Both men are being held in the Franklin County jail pending a detention hearing on Monday. A preliminary hearing to determine whether there’s enough evidence to proceed with the prosecution is scheduled for April 13 in federal court.
The discussion in federal court on Thursday was translated into French for Ayotte; Dejardins understands English.
Glassman applauded the quick cooperation of federal agencies and local authorities that led to the seizure and the arrest.