The $18 Million Ice Fishing Drug Bust

Bar Room Banter
The $18 Million Ice Fishing Drug Bust

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good, and take notes as we look at how friendly ice fishermen foiled an elaborate drug-moving operation.

It’s estimated that over 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl this weekend, making it the most viewed live event of the year. With so many Americans glued to their flat screens, it seems like the perfect time to get away with something nefarious—at least that’s the logic Colombian drug dealers used on Super Bowl Sunday in 1980.

It was that evening at sunset when a group of South Dakota ice fishermen saw a four-propeller airplane drop into a wheat field near the bank of the Missouri River. Worried that they just witnessed a crash, the five anglers set off in a pickup toward the scene. The plane’s touchdown was far from an accident, though.

Rather, the DC-7 was parked in the middle of an impromptu airstrip that was marked by lights hooked up to car batteries. The Good Samaritans were already suspicious, but the plane crew’s conflicting stories threw up more red flags. One person said something about engine issues and being lost, while another muttered that they were low on fuel.

“Nothing was adding up. The pilot kind of had that attitude like he wished we would leave,” said Don Goetz, one of the ice anglers, in an interview with the Rapid City Journal.

Shortly after the encounter, the crew fled the scene and disappeared into the hills. Concerned that they might return, the anglers pulled the pickup in front of the landing gear and deflated the plane’s tires to prevent it from taking off. While waiting for law enforcement to arrive, the fishermen started doing some investigating of their own.

Inside the gutted jet they found floor-to-ceiling stacks of marijuana bales filling every cavity but the cockpit. The estimated street value of the mountain of drugs was $18 million (or $57 million today, accounting for inflation), making it the biggest drug bust in South Dakota history. Although the plan unraveled quickly, the drug pushers had been plotting this drop for over a year.

Here’s how it was supposed to go. The crew of three would leave Colombia and make a non-stop flight for South Dakota, carefully navigating around any major metropolitan areas to avoid heavily monitored airspace. The plane would land in the dark at a discreet location that had been scouted by some locals, a ragtag group composed of a minister and furniture factory owner who were promised $30,000 each for their help. After landing, a fuel tanker would refill the plane and a fleet of semis full of hay bales would load the marijuana. Then, the plane would fly 3,000 miles back to Colombia while the semis would drive 400 miles to Minneapolis.

Everything was planned out to the hour, but a strong southerly tailwind caused the plane to land two hours ahead of schedule. This costly mistake meant that the low-flying plane was clearly visible to nearby walleye anglers out for the evening bite.

“South Dakota people are friendly folk and have a tendency to help people in distress,” wrote R.T. Lawton, an investigator who worked on the case, in a 2018 blog post. “In concern for the plane, they immediately put down their fishing poles and drove over to assist these unfortunate downed souls. Turned out, the aircrew members were not grateful for this offered assistance.”

I’ve personally witnessed “Midwestern nice” while ice fishing many times over, but usually that means a fellow angler pulling me out of a snow drift, telling me what bait is hot, or offering a cold beer. In this instance, it resulted in the Super Bowl of drug busts and a fisherman’s tale that’s worth repeating.

Feature image of drug plane investigation on Missouri River.

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