In the first hours of Tuesday, Sept. 8, a tremendous boom woke Bill and Maya Donnelly at their home on Crawford Street, a few hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexico border in downtown Nogales.
Bill shrugged it off as monsoon thunder, but Maya wasn’t so sure. Nevertheless, both soon went back to sleep.
After Bill and the couple’s children headed off to work and school the following morning, Maya looked out the kitchen window toward the home’s carport and saw splintered wood and other signs that Hulk, their large German Shepherd, had been up to no good.
“I went out to investigate, and sure enough, I looked up to see the hole, and then my eyes trailed down and the big dog’s house was destroyed. It made a hole in that hard plastic doghouse and the bundle was inside...,” Maya recalled.
That bundle contained 23.8 pounds of marijuana, worth an estimated $9,500, that had passed cleanly through the carport roof’s several wooden layers and pulverized Hulk’s home, which he fortunately was not fond of.
“Thank goodness (Hulk) is a wanderer at night and was not in his house,” Maya said, adding: “He was probably at the gate watching the plane go by.”
The Donnellys said the Nogales Police Department officers who responded told them that one of the most likely explanations for the incident was that an ultralight aircraft smuggling marijuana into Arizona from Mexico had accidentally let part of its load go early before dropping the rest further north of the border.
Bill Donnelly said that scenario made sense to him, adding that flying just one bundle seems like “an awful lot of risk for a little reward.”
Ultralights are small, single-seat aircraft for which no licensing or training is required to operate in the United States.
The Donnellys said NPD officers searched their property and other nearby areas for additional bundles but found nothing. The officers took possession of the single bundle.
In the incident report provided by NPD, one of the officers noted that the bundle “had a plastic bracket, taped with black electrical tape,” which had possibly been used to affix the load to an aircraft. The report also states that the marijuana was to be held for investigation by the local HIDTA Task Force.
More than not killing one of the family’s dogs, Bill Donnelly said he was grateful the load hadn’t fallen a little further east.
“Thank God it didn’t land on our house,” he said. “Or over one of the kids’ rooms.”
Drop and go back
NPD Chief Derek Arnson and Sheriff Antonio Estrada said that ultralight aircraft are one of the tools of the local drug smuggling trade, but neither had ever heard of a load being lost in such dramatic fashion.
“Ultralights, we’ve seen those on occasion,” Arnson said. “They’ll take a couple, two, three bundles. You can hear those kind of buzzing. They come at nighttime and they don’t land, they just drop and go back to Mexico.”
In 2011, a sheriff’s deputy spotted an ultralight dropping a load near Ruby Road. While the aircraft got away, law enforcement found 1,753 pounds of marijuana. In a similar incident in 2009, Border Patrol agents and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter successfully apprehended an ultralight pilot in the San Rafael Valley and seized 205 pounds of marijuana.
CBP did not respond to a request for comment on the use of ultralights in Southern Arizona.
Ultralights are not the only aerial smuggling method being used in the area. Taking a cue from medieval warfare tacticians, smugglers are also suspected of employing catapults to heave drugs across the border. In 2011, NPD spokesman Carlos Jimenez told the NI that a catapult-like device was possibly being used to hurl marijuana bundles across the border to Escalada Drive, though the contraption was never found.
The police report on the most recent incident did not mention such a possibility.
Though the plummeting load could have been much more serious, Maya Donnelly said she and her family don’t “feel any less safe.”
Bill said the deductible for their home insurance is a little too steep, so he intends to make the carport repair a family affair.
“At this point Maya and I are going to do it together, and make it a family outing,” he said with a laugh.