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Thu, Mar 09, 2006

Marana Police Report No Leads In C182 Theft

Owner Believes Drug Runners Stole His Aircraft

Ten days after the theft of a 1966 Cessna 182, N3199F, from a locked hangar in Marana, AZ, local police report they still have no leads on who may have taken the aircraft. In fact, the only evidence left behind by the thieves are fingerprints lifted from a tow bar and the hangar door.

The aircraft's owner, Merle "Duane" Wetherbee, has his suspicions on who may have taken his prized aircraft, though.

"It's a drug runners airplane of choice," said Wetherbee to the Marana Northwest Explorer.

According to police reports of the crime, Wetherbee and pilot Bill Thrown last saw the aircraft (file photo of TYPE -- similar to the actual aircraft -- above) February 27, after fueling the airplane for a planned business trip the next day and locking it in the hangar.

That trip never took place. When Thrown arrived at the airport at 7:30 am on February 28, he found the hangar door open, its padlock gone... and the Skylane missing.

An instructor who arrived at the airport at around 6 am that morning told police the pilot-operated runway lights were on when he got there... and the FAA picked up an airplane, believed to be Wetherbee's, beginning at approximately 5:50 am. The aircraft later disappeared behind the Tucson mountains, before reappearing near an airfield south of Tucson.

The aircraft dropped off radar about five miles north of the border town of Nogales.

Officers have spoken with a handful of people who were at the airport during the hours the plane went missing. No one saw anything suspicious, they said.

The Marana Airport (AVQ) is home to more than 300 aircraft, and is surrounded by an 8-foot-high fence accessible at three points. Gates protect those areas, each accessible only with a code unique to each gate. Owner-supplied padlocks guard the enclosed hangars.

"I have no idea how to make an airplane more secure," Wetherbee said. "I'm pretty comfortable (saying) that it went to Mexico, and will be used in some sort of illegal activity."

Airport officials say they'll soon be changing the access codes.

While Marana, perhaps, offers a tantalizing location for aircraft theft -- about 60 miles from the Mexico border, a half-hour flight in a Skylane -- plane theft is hardly an epidemic at the airport. Only one other plane has been stolen from the airport in the past 10 years, according to current airport director Charles Mangum.

Last year, a total of 11 aircraft were reported stolen in the United States and Mexico, according to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute.

Two of the 11, however, happened to be Cessna 182s stolen from Arizona airports.

Despite the ongoing investigation by state and federal officials, Wetherbee expects never to see his airplane again. Furthermore, he only had partial insurance on the $120,000 plane. Wetherbee says he expects to lose about $40,000 to $50,000 because of the theft.

FMI: www.marana.com/police.html, If you have any information on the theft, please call (520) 88-CRIME

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