Small plane lands in Vernal with nearly $450K in marijuana, police say

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 13 2013 5:39 p.m. MST

Uintah County authorities, acting on a tip from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, searched a Cessna 182 Skylane after it landed Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, at the Vernal Regional Airport. A police K-9 alerted to the presence of drugs, according to investigators, and four duffel bags with nearly 200 pounds of marijuana were found inside the plane. Police arrested the pilot.

Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

VERNAL — An Idaho man who was arrested after nearly 200 pounds of marijuana was found in his small plane at Vernal Regional Airport may face federal charges, according to authorities in Uintah County.

Randall Patrick Watson was arrested late Tuesday night by the Uintah Basin Narcotics Strike Force and booked into jail for investigation of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.

The arrest came several hours after Uintah County sheriff's deputies received a tip from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — the parent agency for Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration — that an arriving pilot might be transporting drugs.

"Deputies contacted (Watson) when he landed," Uintah County Undersheriff John Laursen said. "In plain view, evidently, were some large satchels."

After speaking with Watson, deputies called a Naples police officer and his K-9 to the airport. During a walk around the Cessna 182 Skylane, the dog indicated there were drugs inside the aircraft, Laursen said.

Strike force members obtained a search warrant for the plane, according to Vernal Police Lt. Keith Campbell, and removed four large duffel bags filled with scores of compressed plastic packages of marijuana from the aircraft.

The four bags weighed a combined 180 pounds.

"The value of these drugs, we're predicting, is about $436,000," Laursen said.

That estimate is based on a wholesale price, Campbell said. Had the seized shipment been broken down into smaller quantities for street sales, the potential retail value could have risen as high as $6,000 per pound, the lieutenant said.

Investigators declined to comment specifically Wednesday on where Watson had been before he arrived in Vernal or where he was supposed to be headed next.

"He was coming from the West Coast, heading east," Campbell said.

Both Campbell and Laursen agreed that Utah was not Watson's intended final destination. They also don't believe Watson, 56, owned the drugs he is accused of transporting.

"The evidence is pointing to the fact that they were not his, that he was a mule," Laursen said.

Watson, who is a part owner of the Cessna, posted bail early Wednesday morning. As a condition of his release, he was ordered to appear in 8th District Court on Dec. 2, although he has not been formally charged with a crime.

Watson's plane remains in Vernal, secured by police with a chain and padlock to the apron at the airport.

"We'll be working on seizure of the plane with our (county) attorney's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office," Laursen said.

email: gliesik@deseretnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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