Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

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Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by ERIC » Mon Jul 04, 2016 5:44 pm

The True Story of What Happened When A Plane Loaded with 6,000 Pounds of Pot Crashed in Yosemite
By Greg Nichols
Men's Journal ... ke-w209503

Jon Glisky believed someone was trying to kill him. The thought was festering when he called his wife from a hotel in Las Vegas. Pam Glisky had just had surgery on nerves in both feet and was slow getting to the phone.

"What took you so long?" he ribbed, cracking a smile over his John Wayne jaw.

Glisky was in that still purgatory between runs, with too much time alone with his thoughts. After the call, he mailed a package to his wife — a toy tea set for their six-year-old daughter. Later that evening he went to dinner at a steakhouse, where he bumped into an old Army buddy. They stayed up late drinking expensive scotch and reminiscing about Vietnam — the purloined jeep they airlifted to their hangar in Quang Tri, their close calls flying helicopters under fire. Glisky laughed and put away several glasses of whiskey, but beneath the easygoing exterior he was on edge. He'd discovered a damaged oil fitting on the left engine of his plane. He didn't think it was routine wear and tear.

Buying High: How to Get Rich on Pot Stocks
The next morning Glisky taxied down the runway at McCarran airport with his colleague and sole passenger, Jeff Nelson. They were in a twin-engine beast called a Howard 500. The Howard carried 1,500 gallons of aviation fuel for long hauls at high speed. After wheels-up, Glisky turned south, toward Mexico. He crossed the border and flew into Baja California, where he landed on a marginal airstrip. Later that night, under cover of darkness, a crew loaded his plane with 6,000 pounds of Mexican red-hair marijuana. The pot was a strain of potent sinsemilla cultivated by an American syndicate known as Mota Magic. The Washington-based crew Glisky flew for bought the premium weed in tightly packed 40-pound burlap bales. Some of the bales were marked frijol, the Spanish word for "bean."

Glisky and Nelson took off before dawn on December 9, 1976. After crossing back into U.S. airspace, they flew just off the coast of California, where anyone tracking the plane would assume it was an executive aircraft ferrying hotshots to San Francisco or Seattle. Halfway up the state, Glisky killed his running lights and turned sharply inland, hitting the deck to drop off radar. Cutting across the sparsely populated farmland of the Central Valley basin, the plane reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in minutes. Under the luminous orb of a gibbous moon, the Howard 500 hugged the rocky alpine slopes like a ghostly manta ray gliding up the continental rise.

Before becoming a drug smuggler, John Glisky, right, flew helicopters in the Vietnam War.

Ron Lykins and a co-worker finished their shifts at Yosemite's famed Ahwahnee Hotel and loaded the car for a couple of days off. The plan was to meet up with another two friends on the trail and snowshoe out into Yosemite's backcountry. Winter was slow after the holidays, nothing like the human crush of spring and summer. There was no traffic in January, and the granite-carved 1,169-square-mile park felt imbued with a sunny, snow-kissed solitude. In 1977, California was in the second winter of its worst drought in a hundred years, so snowfall had been light. The roads leading to the high-elevation passes were mostly open, and the backcountry was covered in less snow than usual.

The crew at the Ahwahnee was tight, a hive of young, turned-on souls drawn to that wild, rock-shattered valley where God seems to have lost all sense of proportion. Most of the year, waiters lived in 12-by-12 canvas tents with other low-level park employees. The tents were reasonably plush — oil heaters and plank flooring — and employees enjoyed free showers and cheap hot meals in the cafeteria, courtesies they sometimes extended to the hippies and climbers who came by the busload from San Francisco and Berkeley or up from Los Angeles to get weird and enjoy nature's splendor. There was the postcard version of Yosemite — station wagons and happy families — then there was the far-out reality of California in the 1970s. Waiters at the Ahwahnee, one of the finest lodges in North America, bounced between the two.

Lykins and his friend parked where the plows had given up clearing the road and donned their snowshoes. Setting out, they laid down a straight stitch through the meandering trail, taking the quickest possible route up the mountainside. They were about eight miles out when they lost track of the diamond blazes branded into the trees to mark the trail. Out front, Lykins came into a gently sloping bowl. At its center lay Lower Merced Pass Lake, a six-acre blip of water that didn't show up on many maps. As Lykins scanned the trees for some sign of direction, he spotted something incongruous. From way off it looked like a bridge suspended between two snow-draped conifers. He was almost underneath it before he realized it was an airplane wing. Hydraulic oil was still dripping from frayed lines and soiling the snow below. There was no other debris or any sign of wreckage in sight, as though the plane had dropped its wing and somehow continued on. They thought about hiking to the lake, but it was getting dark so they decided to set up camp. In the morning two friends who had followed their tracks came snowshoeing along, already high on acid, and together they headed to higher elevations.

Winter was always quieter, but Yosemite's rangers kept busy year-round. There was always someone who needed rescuing, always a group of "nontraditional visitors," the Park Service term for hippies and rock climbers, smoking dope or camping out of bounds. One afternoon that January, a waiter from the Ahwahnee strolled into the ranger station to report a downed plane.

When it crashed, Glisky's Howard 500 contained 6,000 pounds of dope.

"Do these guys know where they were?" Tim Setnicka asked a fellow ranger as he dragged a finger across a map of known crash sites on his office door. Setnicka, who ran Yosemite Search and Rescue, wasn't much older than the kid who reported the crash. He was part of a new generation of rangers who mixed rock climbing, backcountry camping, and scuba with advanced law-enforcement techniques. The Danger Rangers, as they were called, had been trained in everything from reconnaissance and undercover work to traditional coroner's duties. They were the law in Yosemite, which operated as a city-state in the middle of California's rugged wilderness.

Setnicka dialed the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to ask if anyone had reported the plane missing. He gave the dispatcher the number off the wing, which the waiter had written down. That set off a chain reaction. Before the Park Service could get a team of rangers together, four other federal agencies were vying for access to the crash site. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration were interested in the downed aircraft; the DEA and Customs wanted the cargo they thought was onboard. Customs sent a Vietnam-era Huey from San Diego to shuttle agents and rangers to the crash site. The sound of the aging chopper thundered against the walls of the mile-wide valley as it landed in El Capitan Meadow and departed for the backcountry. Everyone in Yosemite knew something big was up.

From the air, the debris trail of the downed Howard 500 stretched three-quarters of a mile and pointed like an arrow toward Lower Merced Pass Lake. Covered in ice and a modest dusting of snow, the lake was a bald patch in an undulating white landscape. Stripped of one wing and most of its tail, which came off in the trees, the plane's fuselage had cartwheeled through the ice. More than a month had passed since the December crash, and the lake had frozen over, entombing the plane — and anyone who was onboard. Several burlap sacks lay strewn along the shoreline. Some of the sacks had ripped open on impact, leaving a chunky vegetal trail in the snow.

Since the plane was on Park Service land, Yosemite's Office of  Law Enforcement coordinated the investigation. A well-coiffed regimental ranger named Lee Shackelton took the lead, ordering his rangers to fan out alongside gun-toting Customs agents to gather marijuana and pile it near the chopper landing site on the frozen lake. A few bales stuck out of the ice like decaying stumps. The total haul was close to 2,000 pounds. Representatives from Customs and the DEA helped catalog the evidence.

"It became a recovery of drudgery because we used chainsaws to cut out these bales of marijuana, which were frozen," remembers Setnicka. "They're heavy, they're broken apart, they're wet. The chainsaws were cutting ice, you know, so the chainsaw blades don't last long. The most obvious ones we cut out, and then we had to fly this marijuana back."

Then the rangers used the chainsaws to open a hole for Yosemite's dive team. High-elevation diving is taxing under normal circumstances, but these were the worst conditions that the Park Service's lead diver, Butch Farabee, had ever seen.

"The water was murky because of the aviation and hydraulic fluids," Farabee recalls. "Visibility was pretty minimal. When the plane went into the water, all these bits and pieces of aluminum broke off and floated to the surface. They got frozen in place, so now you had a couple feet of metal hanging down, and you had stuff on the bottom as well."

It was darker than the inside of a cow, one diver told Setnicka. Twisted metal and wire hung like booby traps in the shallow lake. The divers recovered several bales of marijuana bobbing under the ice, which they passed back through the oil-slicked hole. A commercial diver was brought in from Fresno to try to recover the bodies, but even he couldn't penetrate the gnarled underwater wreckage around the cockpit.

Back in the valley, rangers off-loaded the bales and cataloged them as evidence. Yosemite's jail took up a portion of the second floor of a battleship-gray building that also served as the firehouse. "We closed down one side of the jail and put these bags of marijuana in a cell," remembers Kim Tucker, who worked in the Office of Law Enforcement. "They came in like giant ice cubes, with all that vegetable material and green leafy substance frozen. Over time the bales started to thaw and became runny, just like if you take a package of spinach out of the freezer."

With melting bales stacked halfway to the ceiling, the cell soon filled with runoff. A drain became choked with stems and plant matter. Yosemite's fire brigade occupied the office below. A few days into the recovery, fire chief Don Cross stormed up the stairs. "You gotta do something with this stuff!" he bellowed.

Pot-tinged water was dripping onto his dispatcher's desk. Exhausted rangers began the arduous process of moving dozens of bales from the second-story jail to a walk-in storage freezer in a nearby Park Service warehouse, where it would stay for weeks.

Up at the lake, Shackelton got word that a massive storm front was rolling in. The five investigating agencies had spent nearly a week scouring the area, cataloging the wreck and collecting all the marijuana they could find. A full-blown winter salvage operation to recover the fuselage and the bodies presumed to be inside was out of the question. It would be too costly to bring in heavy equipment to manage the ice and too dangerous to keep working in the finicky weather. Everyone expected that the approaching storm would cut off the backcountry, so Shackelton opted not to leave any of his rangers posted at the lake. The crime scene would stay put until spring. In the first week of February, the Huey carried the last load of rangers back down to the valley before the storm rolled in.

A friend of Ron Lykins' the day they discovered the plane, in 1977.

Jon Glisky's wife, Pam, had an ominous dream. She saw her drug-runner husband's body upside down in the cockpit of his plane. His brown hair danced in the water and that big frame — he was 6-foot-2 — hung weightless in the harness.

When Jon failed to check in after calling from Las Vegas, Pam went to the authorities and told them everything. She was 28 years old, a hundred pounds soaking wet. Gone was the cute, carefree little blonde who zipped fearlessly under low bridges in her husband's plane, who dropped acid and threw clay pots while the men in her life debated smuggling routes. Her feet were still in bandages from her recent surgery. Her daughter was sick — a chronic ailment had threatened the little girl's life since she was a baby. Despite her intuition, her dream, Pam believed there was a chance her husband was still alive.

The DEA had been after Jon Glisky for years. He was a phantom in their surveillance reports. One minute he was in sight of their planes, the next he was gone, vanished into thin air. Despite her cooperation, the DEA gave Pam no information for days. In a desperate bid to locate her husband, she chartered a plane and...

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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by rlown » Mon Jul 04, 2016 7:51 pm

Very cool. where's Mark in the pics? ;)

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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by giantbrookie » Thu Jul 07, 2016 7:02 pm

Wow, that's quite a story. That's a bit of Sierra history and legend I knew nothing about until now.
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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by SirBC » Thu Jul 07, 2016 9:42 pm

That was a fun read. I first heard about this story in the movie Valley Uprising and I remember thinking that the story of the plane full of pot crashing in the Sierra would make for good movie on its own. The article mentions that Vern Clevenger was one of only two people arrested and that he used his money from selling the pot to buy his first Nikon camera, on his way to becoming a landscape photographer. I was just in Mammoth and Vern had a booth at the 4th of July Holiday Show showcasing his Sierra photography with a number of very impressive photos.
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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by John Harper » Tue Jan 03, 2017 12:53 pm

A buddy of mine scored some pot back in 1977 that was supposedly from that plane. Lodestar Lightning it was called, since it came from the crash. We had several pounds of it at the time.


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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by markskor » Tue Jan 03, 2017 2:46 pm

Yes, those were the days...and was there, at Lower Merced Pass Lake! Just a FYI, a few notable gear manufacturers first started out from the profits gleaned from those oily bales. :rockon:
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Re: Dope Lake: True Story of 1976 Yosemite Pot Plane Crash

Post by oldhikerQ » Mon Oct 23, 2017 11:29 am

Thanks for posting. I have been fascinated by this story for years. I know Vern and have lunch with him when I'm in Mammoth. He has talked about this occasionally when I bring it up. I still need to get to Lower Merced Pass Lake some day just to see where this all took place.
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