Sunday, June 06, 2021

Former smuggler who survived 1979 'pot plane crash' in Charleston tells his story

 Jerome Lill

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (WCHS) — Sunday marks 42 years since the infamous Charleston "pot plane crash."

In 1979, a cargo plane carrying about 13 tons of marijuana crashed at what is now Yeager Airport.

Now, decades later, the last surviving member on board, Jerome Lill, has returned to Charleston to tell his story in his first TV interview.

“I crashed this airplane DC-6 here 42 years ago -- June 6, 1979," he said. "Lot of stories about that plane. Most of them weren’t true."

The former smuggler grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and got involved in the marijuana trade and at one point crossed paths with drug lords like Pablo Escobar. Lill's trip to Charleston started in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1979 where the plane took off at 5 a.m. the day before the crash. It did make a stop in Colombia for a pickup.

“Escobar owned all the property and the private strip. We got there and landed on a dirt runway and all these Colombians came with these trucks stuffed with bales and fuel," Lill said.

The plane was loaded down with 26,000 pounds of marijuana bales. Planners of the trip were looking for a small airport that they could land at night and be in a central location to reach states like Ohio and New York. The Kanawha Airport, now known as Yeager Airport, was the perfect target. Two trucks would be waiting for them on the runway, but things went south when the pilot dropped the hydraulics by mistake.

Lill said rumors have swirled that the plane overshot the runway or that the plane was too overloaded with cargo, but he said it was the hydraulics. Lill was not the pilot of the plane, but he was one of the four on board.

“We started to veer off to the right to the side of the runway, but David muscled it back," he said. "When we got to the end of the runway, the only words said by anyone was, 'Oh , S,' and that was it.”

The four on board were injured, but took off running from the scene. Lill said he remembers the bales of marijuana rolling down the hill hitting him during his run.

“It was quite a dramatic jog, and I was in the woods for seven hours, and then the fiasco began," Lill said.

Once the four gave in and were arrested, word got around about the marijuana. The quiet Keystone Drive area suddenly became known as "Happy Holler."

Robert Harrah, who has lived on Keystone Drive all of his life, was 20 years old at the time.

“We were real famous for a little while," Harrah laughed.

Police tried to burn what they could, but they were dealing with tons of product.

“There was bales of marijuana that rolled off the hill laying in the ditches," Harrah said. "It ended up growing in my aunt’s gutters on her house. The hillside was crawling like ants with people going up, putting it in the trunk of the car, going back and getting more.”

The phenomenon continued well into the months-long trial. Each person involved got a different sentence, but Lill ended up serving about two years before getting out on bond. It did not take him long to end up back in prison as he continued smuggling.

Now, he’s in Florida. He is sober, and he’s an author of a new book titled "Final Approach." It details his life as a drug smuggler and the crash, but also his redemption. He is hoping his message will resonate with people who are stuck in a bad place.

“God saved my rear end," Lill said. "And anyone who has all these drug problems or suicide or anything like that, you don’t got to go that way.”

As he stands next to his friend Tim DiPiero, the former prosecutor who helped put him prison, he feels his life coming full circle. However, he knew in order to complete it, he had to come back to the mountain.

“If I had to go through all that again to be able to do this and say this stuff, I’d take it again, but I don’t want to do that," Lill said.

He plans to donate proceeds from his book to help fight the drug crisis, especially in West Virginia.

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