March 8, 2006 - Merle "Duane" Wetherbee has his suspicions on why someone would steal his plane and fly it to Mexico.

"It's a drug runners airplane of choice," said Wetherbee, whose 4-door, 1966 Cessna 182 plane was taken from Marana Regional Airport the morning of Feb. 28.

Wetherbee rented one of the newer hangars on the airport's west side. He and pilot Bill Thrown locked the plane and hangar on Feb. 27 after fueling the plane for a business trip scheduled for Feb. 28.

The following consists of a version of events, taken from a police report and interviews with Wetherbee and Thrown:

About 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 28, Thrown arrived at the airport and noticed the hangar door open about three feet. The combination padlock used to lock the door the day before was gone.

Thrown called Wetherbee, who notified the Marana Police Department.

Officers talked to a handful of people, including a fuel maintenance worker, a janitor and a medic present at the airport during the hours the plane went missing. All three saw nothing suspicious, they said.

About 6 a.m. on Feb. 28, a flight professor arrived at the airport and noticed the runway lights were on. The lights come on when a pilot punches a button seven times from inside a plane. The lights shut off automatically 20 minutes later.

A plane took off from the airport on Avra Valley Road about 5:50 a.m., according to a police report. The Federal Aviation Administration tracked the plane - which police believe to be Wetherbee's - on radar before it disappeared behind the Tucson Mountains.

The FAA picked up the flight's pattern again around Ryan Airfield, where the plane continued heading south. The FAA lost the plane again five miles north of Nogales.

Officers notified the FBI and the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, who continue to investigate.

So far, they have no plane and no suspects, Marana Police Sgt. Jose Alvarez said.

Detectives hope fingerprints lifted from a tow bar and the hangar door will lead them to the culprit, Sgt. Alvarez said.

"That's all we have," he said.

The tow bar, found inside the hangar, had been connected to the plane the last time Thrown and Wetherbee saw the aircraft - about 11 a.m. on Feb. 27.

One other plane has been stolen from the Marana airport in the past decade, authorities said. The theft occurred before Airport Director Charles Mangum was hired in 2004.

Mangum saw three planes stolen in the early 1990s as an employee with Mesa's Falcon Field Airport.

"The most likely suspect was that they were used for drug smuggling," Mangum said.

To steal Wetherbee's plane, a thief had to pass through a coded gate, a secured hangar and into a locked plane. He would have had to start the plane without a key, something pilots say is not difficult.

A plane can easily be "hotwired," explained Wetherbee, who has flight training himself.

"Any jiggle key that gets in the ignition would start the aircraft," he said. "Then you turn the master switch on and hit the prop."

However, it happens rarely.

Full moons appear more than airplanes go missing. Last year saw 12 full moons and just 11 airplanes reported stolen in the United States and Mexico, according to the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute.

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

"I have no idea how to make an airplane more secure," Wetherbee said.

Anyone who enters the Marana airport must enter through one of three security gates, all with different electronic codes. An 8-foot-high wall surrounds the main business portion of the airport.

Plane owners supply their own combination padlocks for the hangar doors.

Besides himself, only Thrown and airport maintenance workers knew the combination to his lock and had a copy of the plane's key, Wetherbee said.

Five years ago, he founded Arizona Fine Aggregate Business, which makes equipment to process sand and gravel. In January 2005, Wetherbee hired Thrown to be the company's full-time pilot.

Thrown previously worked as a flight instructor at the Marana airport.

Wetherbee usually took business trips in the plane about three times a week, flying to Idado, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, among other places. Thrown flew Wetherbee to Phoenix for a business meeting five days before the plane disappeared.

Others also flew in the plane, including Dan McQuade, a private contractor who does work for Wetherbee.

Marana's airport employs about 150 people and has more than 300 planes stored in its hangars.

While the business office closes at 7 p.m., the airport remains active 24 hours a day. Marana Police officers, Border Patrol and Pima County Sheriff's deputies come in and out of the airport at all hours to check on things.

Someone could take off from the airport and not notify anyone, Mangum said.

"It's no different than driving on the street or in a parking lot," he said. "It's courtesy to get on the radio and announce it, but you don't have to."

If a pilot takes off without giving notification, "you're not breaking any laws, you're breaking etiquette," Wetherbee added.

In the coming weeks, Mangum plans to change the security code on each of the airport's three gates. He continues to have conversations with federal and local investigators, he said.

Wetherbee had only partial insurance on his $120,000 plane. He will lose about $40,000 to $50,000 because of the theft, he estimated.

"The recovery rate on an airplane is nil to none," he said.

It takes 30 minutes to fly from Marana to Nogales. Wetherbee's plane had a full tank of fuel and could go about six hours in the air, he said.

"I'm pretty comfortable (saying) that it went to Mexico and will be used in some sort of illegal activity," Wetherbee said.

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