Marijuana smuggler reveals operations
By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor
A floatplane load of marijuana seized near Lake Koocanusa last August was only one of at least a half-dozen similar drops in northwest Montana and northern Idaho last summer, an admitted drug smuggler acknowledged in court proceedings last week.
Donald Cramer, 61, of Rathdrum, Idaho, was in court for a hearing to determine the status of a motor home and camper trailer registered in his name and alleged by authorities to have been used to provide a "staging area" for the smuggling. If District Judge Michael Prezeau rules that the property was part of the operation, the motor home and trailer could be sold with proceeds to be used by the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office for drug law enforcement.
Cramer pleaded guilty in December to federal conspiracy charges and agreed to testify against an accomplice, David E. Newcomb, 55, also of northern Idaho. Newcomb was found guilty in federal court in Missoula last month on drug charges. Both men remain to be sentenced.
Cramer testified Thursday that the smuggling operation started last June and included four or five helicopter drops of marijuana across the border from Canada to northern Idaho before switching to floatplane drops on Lake Koocanusa. The first load that came into Montana was on Aug. 7, Cramer testified. The second was on Aug. 17.
Federal Homeland Security agent Ben Donahue testified that the plane on Aug. 7 was spotted by a Forest Service fire lookout, but the smugglers got away. The second plane was also spotted coming into the United States, and this time a pickup truck carrying 414 pounds of marijuana was stopped near Libby Dam.
The truck - which has been seized in federal proceedings - was owned by Cramer but driven by Newcomb. Cramer said he paid Newcomb $5,000 out of his $12,500 share to drive the marijuana to Chicago.
"The time he got caught was the first time he did anything," Cramer said.
Cramer said the drops moved from helicopters in northern Idaho to a floatplane in Montana because of problems on the Canadian end.
"They were arguing up there about getting paid," he said.
Cramer, who has been employed as an electrician in Spokane, said he bought the motor home last June with $15,000 cash. The money came from selling his share of a business venture involving the manufacture of wooden pallets, he said.
He said he had sold the camper trailer to a friend, who had not yet registered it in his own name.
"He was a friend of mine, so it didn't seem to matter," he said.
Both the camper and the motor home were parked at a campground near the lake.
"It was my understanding that they were using that location as a staging area because it was kind of a central location to the landing zones and the lake," Donahue testified.
Cramer denied that, however, and said he had simply been using the motor home for camping and fishing trips that had nothing to do with drug smuggling.
"I never stayed in that thing to wait for a plane or anything else to show up with marijuana," he said. "We never stayed overnight when we did it."
Cramer admitted having been at the campsite the night before the Aug. 17 drop, but he said he just sat around a fire with some other people and never went into the motor home or camper. He said he drove back to Idaho that night, then returned to Montana early in the morning.
"We always went straight in," he said. "I had the timing, I had the satellite phone, I had the coordinates."
Cramer said he received around $50,000 for smuggling last summer. He said he has already provided federal authorities with an accounting of where the money went. About $30,000 went to co-conspirators while most of the rest was used to buy the pickup truck driven by Newcomb and to rent a storage site in Idaho, he said.
Donahue testified that Cramer originally admitted to helping bring about 10 loads of marijuana into the country, including some helicopter loads into Montana. He may have been trying to protect a friend who was involved in the operation and was later caught, Donahue said.
At Thursday's hearing, Cramer denied that any helicopter loads came into Montana. He testified that coordinates marked on maps that were seized by authorities represented hunting and fishing spots.
Forest Service law enforcement officer Dave Helmrick, however, testified that he traveled to three of the coordinates and found that two had been used as helicopter landing sites during forest fires and the third was a burned-out area that would also make a suitable place for a helicopter to land.
Prezeau gave Cramer's court-appointed defense attorney, Martin Judnich, until Friday, March 9, to file a response to issues raised in Thursday's hearing.