Pubdate: Thu, 17 Jul 2008
Source: Bladen Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2008sBladen Journal. Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.
Author: Erin Smith


ELIZABETHTOWN - Many folks may know Doug McCullough as a judge on the
North Carolina Court of Appeals, but some may not realize that his job
as a former federal prosecutor helped to disrupt a major drug
smuggling ring that operated in eastern North Carolina in the late
1970s and early 1980s.

The ring included members of the operation making smuggling runs into
Bladen County by air.

Bladen County Chief Deputy Phillip Little was one of the investigators
involved in the case and reminisced about the case with McCullough on
a recent Friday afternoon.

"Between 1978 and 1979, we had one of the local timber company
airstrips being used for smuggling. There was some activity there that
wasn't above board," said Little.

According to Little, the timber company was innocent of any wrong
doing. An employee of the timber company went in to check on the
timber stand and found a disabled plane on their air strip that wasn't
a part of the timber company's fleet of planes, said Little. During
the investigation it was learned the plane was abandoned by the smugglers.

"Timber companies with large tracts of timberland would put in an
airstrip for fire fighting purposes and so they could fly in employees
to check the timber tracts," said Little.

According to Little, the sheriff's office placed the air strip under
surveillance and Little, posing undercover, made contact with one of
the smugglers, James Thurmond of Georgia.

"The timber companies were just innocent by-standers," said

According to Little, at the same time the investigation was taking
place regarding the smugglers' planes using the timber company air
strips, the U.S. Customs had a plane that flew into the county and
disappeared. He and Mike Lowder went to the air strip they knew about
in the vicinity of where the plane disappeared, but found nothing.
While they were at the air strip, they heard a plane take off, tipping
them off to a clandestine air strip that had been constructed.

"The air strip was deep in the woods and the people involved would fly
in and out," said McCullough.

The second case involved Robert McKee from Nebraska. The types of
planes involved in both cases were a Cessna twin engine plane, a
Lockheed Lone Star and a DC 4.

McCullough helped to prosecute both cases and won guilty pleas from
all of those arrested.

"It was simply good old-fashioned detective work," said McCullough of
the investigation. "Mostly, by the time they had the cases
investigated we normally would get guilty pleas."

The most well known case McCullough was involved with was the federal
prosecution and subsequent conviction of former Panamanian dictator
Manuel Noriega.

The Coast Guard had an interdiction on July 4, 1982 of about 29,000
pounds of marijuana, according to McCullough. After four years of
investigating the case, McCullough's office was able to get an
indictment on some of the members of a drug smuggling group that
operated between Tampa and the Grand Cayman Islands who were caught
smuggling two loads into Morehead City. According to McCullough, two
of those arrested flipped and became the first non-Hispanics to
implicate Noriega.

At the time, the DEA and CIA were using Noriega for intelligence
gathering on Fidel Castro and others, said McCullough.

"President Reagan said to indict him," said McCullough.

Noriega moved to barricade himself in Panama. President George Bush
Sr. actually toppled him, said McCullough.

Noriega was eventually prosecuted and found guilty.

McCullough, who retired as a federal prosecutor, has written a book
about the Noriega investigation and trial entitled "Sea of Greed."

McCullough is also seeking re-election to the North Carolina Court of
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin