After The Progressive Review ran a brief item on Daniel Hopsicker’s documentary on Mena, we received a message from William Bear Bottoms, who appeared in the film, complaining that the movie distorted the reality of Mena and the role that he and Barry Seal, the drug trafficker for whom he flew, played in it. We then commenced a two-part on-line conversation with Bottoms that is published below. For reasons of libel we have deleted a few names.
To those unfamiliar with the story, it should be noted that Bottoms is one of the most controversial figures to have come out of the Arkansas scandals. There are those who put little credit in his testimony, calling him a disinformation agent of the CIA; others believe that his story is substantially or at least partly true. There is considerable evidence and testimony counter to Bottoms’ claim of non-involvement; disputes over these issues have long raged over the Internet. It is worth noting that, in any event, Bottoms’ story covers a time period prior to 1987.
Curiously, one of those with whom Bottoms appears to have established some rapport is Russell Welch, who was long an undercover Arkansas state police officer observing activities at Mena. Among independent investigators, Welch is well regarded as a straight shooter — one of the few admirable figures in this whole sordid story. Among other efforts to dissuade him from his surveillance he was on one occasion sprayed with the deadly poison anthrax. We attempted to start a on-line conversation with Welch but he felt that the media had treated him unfairly and declined to answer our questions.
In the Hopsicker film, Bottoms and Welch are shown meeting for the first time. Almost from the start they seem to have established some rapport, which continues, witness Welch’s receipt of our questions from Bottoms before we even contacted the lawman. And at the very least, both men are both critical of Hopsicker.
The reader is warned that we are not, by publishing Bottoms’ story, endorsing its veracity. Simply as a matter of oral history, as a convenience to researchers and as a fascinating tale, we pass it on. — Sam Smith
Conversation between Sam Smith and Billy Bear Bottoms, October 1997
Thank you for your note. I have been following your discussions with various persons on the I-Net with a mixture of interest and perplexity. I would like to understand your position more clearly and it would help in writing future stories if you could answer the following questions as succinctly as possible. Thanks for your assistance. — sam smith
You’re very welcome. I will answer your questions. If I don’t know distinctly the answer, I will say so. I will relate what I know to be fact.
Did Barry Seal engage in drug trafficking? If so, to what extent and what was his geographical area of operations? Did this include Arkansas and specifically Mena? If not, who murdered him and why? Was the IRS in error in attempting to recover taxes from drug profits they thought Seal had accrued?
Yes, Seal was a transportation specialist for the Medellin Cartel. Early on, we used the Gold Button Ranch in Northern Belize as a refueling point. We soon began carrying enough fuel for non-stop flights to Colombia. Colombia is where we picked up all of the cocaine and in fact I was the pilot who did all of these flights. Seal remained stateside to orchestrate the airdrop to the helicopter and then the loading into trunks of cars which took the drugs to Miami or Los Angeles. All of the drugs were brought to Louisiana. We used Mena only as a repair, modification, storage, diversion, and hideout facility for our aircraft. Two Senecas, and two Piper Navajo Panthers.
Seal was the sole witness for the governments case against all of the Medellin Cartel. Jorge Ochoa was in jail in Spain and our government was trying to extradite him to the US on Seal’s name. Escobar and Gacha were directly targeted via Seal’s Nicaraguan Sting [see below]. These people orchestrated Seal’s murder (hit). Seal was their single most damaging witness against them.
The IRS was in error only by the amount they were trying to collect, but only because Seal overinflated his earning because he was trying to increase his notoriety. He thought that would help in his attempts to get out of trouble. It backfired on him via this case. He testified in a trial in Las Vegas that he had made about 50 trips of 300 kilos each. His transportation fee was $5,000 per kilo. We actually only made about 25 trips. [The transportation fee works out to $1.5 million a trip or $75 million for 50 trips; half that for 25]
What exactly was the CIA doing at Mena? Did you see there — or meet there with — Bill Clinton, Oliver North, Felix Rodriguez or any member of the Bush administration ?
We never had any dealings with the CIA except for the CIA installing a camera in Seal’s C-123 during the DEA Nicaraguan sting. The CIA connection stories are false. We never met with any of these people nor had anything to do with anything other than our drug transportation for the Medellin Cartel. Seal flew to Washington when he couldn’t get the government to let him become an informant to get out of trouble. He met with members of Bush’s anti-drug task force. They connected him with Ken Kennedy, who assigned Seal to DEA agents Bob Joura and Ernst Jacobsen. He put the Nicaraguan Sting together. The government blew the case ala Ollie North. The rest of the allegations are untrue.
What is the relationship of the Hasenfaus plane shot down during the Nicaraguan war and Mena, the CIA and Barry Seal? What was the mission of the plane at the time it was shot down?
Seal bought the C-123 from a “Trade A Plane” ad. Harry Doan owned the airplane. Seal used the plane twice during the Nicaraguan Sting. Afterwards, it sat stored at Mena for over a year. There is definitive proof this aircraft was not moved or used as alleged by L.D. Brown or Chip Tatum. This proof is by my knowledge, Russell Welch, and Al Hadaway et al. Seal advertised the plane for sale. Seal finally sold the plane back to Harry Doan for $250,000. A few months later, Doan sold the airplane to Southern Air Transport via SAT check for $450,000.Several months later it was shot down in Nicaragua. I have no personal knowledge as to the mission of the aircraft nor did Seal after we sold it. I delivered it to New Smyrna Beach to Harry Doan. We had nothing to do with it after that.
Why do you think foreign investors became co-owners of the Mena bank in the 1980s?
I have no idea. We had no dealing with them. The only monies involved in the Mena area was monies paid to XX for his technical services. XX had conspiracy knowledge of our operations, but he was only a technical support person. XX laundered a few hundred thousand dollars that he was paid by Seal for his services in Mena area banks. [IRS agent] Bill Duncan found this via the help of an agent with Operation Greenback. We had no personal knowledge of banking activities, nor were any of these activities connected with us in any way.
Can you list in a simple way what you believe happened at Mena and what didn’t happen?
I only have personal knowledge of the Seal operation. What else may have gone on, other than we didn’t see it, is beyond us. The Seal operation as it concerned Mena was simply the use of the facilities as a repair, modification, storage, hideout, and diversion site for our aircraft and Louisiana drug operations.
Can you list in a simple way your points of agreement and disagreement with the following? Film producer] Daniel Hopsicker
I disagree with Hopsicker on every contention he makes. Welch and I told Hopsicker the true story as it related to Seal. Seal’s organization was a drug transportation service for the Medellin Cartel only. We did not carry drugs to Arkansas, ever work for the CIA, ever carry guns or anything to do with the Contras, or launder any amounts of money in Arkansas other than what XX laundered. Russell Welch and I broke ties with Hopsicker because he went beyond our story. Welch and I are the only people who actually know what happened in detail.
. . . Russell Welch
Welch and I disagree on very little. He was on the outside looking in and had suspicions about drug activity at Mena. He fell prey to our diversionary tactics. Welch thinks that we may have carried a couple loads of drugs to the Mena area. He had no proof per se, but his investigation pointed in that direction. That is about the only thing we do not concur on. The rest we are in agreement in that guns were not involved, contras were not involved, huge amounts of monies were not involved, Clinton was not involved. . .
. . . LD Brown
[Brown was a state trooper who worked for Clinton and claims Clinton helped him get into the CIA. According to Brown, after discovering the use of CIA aircraft to bring back drugs, he told Clinton but Clinton was not interested]
Brown . . . never had anything to do with our operations, and he never flew in the C-123.There is definitive proof that he did not fly in this airplane via Welch, Hadaway [another agent], myself and others. . . . He got the details wrong. The crew of the C-123 was wrong. His detailed portrayal of the alleged flights was on was wrong (example, we did not have to dive down and elude radar while exiting the US). Al Hadaway, Russell Welch, and other agents, plus people who lived on and around the airport know that the C-123 did not leave Mena during the year it was stored there. There were no C-123 operations from the airfield..
What were the secret federal contracts to Park on Meter for? I believe there was a National Guard or reserve center near the airport. How was this involved in any of the activities at the airport and vicinity?
We had no involvement with any of this. The only activity I could find out that happened at Mena was that Fort Chaffee used Mena and the surrounding area for war games several times. The CIA assisted with some of these games once or twice. The CIA and other government agencies used the aircraft repair and modification facilities at Mena. This never had anything to do with us.
Regardless of what happened at Mena do you believe that there was sizable drug importation into Arkansas during the period in question?
I don’t know. I know that our operation made about 25 trips of 300 kilos each trip. We carried all of these drugs into Louisiana. The drugs were carried via auto and delivered to the owners i.e. Medellin Cartel representatives. For this we were paid $5,000 per kilo transportation fee. That is the extent of our operation. While we were at Mena, I don’t think any other significant activity was ongoing or happening. Later in our game, there were so many investigators trying to catch us, that if any other activity was going on, it would have been exposed. There were no weapons being hauled in or out of Mena during our tenure. We would have noticed it.
The widow of [former Clinton Little Rock HQ security chief Jerry Parks reports opening the trunk of her husband’s car and finding large sums of money that he indicated had something to do with Mena and Vincent Foster. What do you think that was about?
I have no idea. It had nothing to do with us.
One of the things that interests me about your writings on the subject is their passion. I am curious as to why this all matters to you so much. What difference does it make to you whether Seal brought drugs into Arkansas or whether the CIA used the Mena base to transport weapons and supplies to the contras? Are you personally threatened in any way?
I felt personally threatened by the Leach investigation just prior to the election. That is when I decided to tell my story as a means of protecting myself from getting caught up in all of the hype over Mena. They interviewed me.
How are you employed these days? Are you receiving funds from any government agency?
I work full time for a major chemical company. I am not receiving any funds from any government agency nor am I associated with them in anyway. I was a contract pilot for several government agencies full time from 1984 until1990 [see below]. A few years ago I did some individual contractual work for them which turned into disaster. Since, I have completely disassociated myself from them.
You seem extremely certain of what did and did not happen at Mena. Since you were not there 24 hours a day how can you be so sure events did not occur there without your knowledge?
I am sure events did happen without my knowledge. As it concerns Seal’s operation, I am sure what we did or did not do because Seal and I were the force behind it. You have no idea how close Seal and I were, but this relationship can be related by Seal’s secretary and family. Seal and I think tanked all of the operations we were involved in. I was with Seal daily from 1980 until his death in 1986. Seal and I became acquainted in 1962 when he became involved with my sister and married her. His first son and daughter are my nephew and niece. He taught me how to fly. The last few years of his life we were especially close as I was one of the few people he trusted explicitly and depended on. I had many contacts at Mena who worked at the field. Had any other major events happened during our tenure they would have told us. I have conducted my own investigation into other events that may have happened at Mena which could have caused the myths to be laid on us. I have had extreme discussions with Russell Welch trying to get a grip on the allegations. Welch seems to have knowledge of events after 1987 that may have impact on this. Prior to 1986, Seal’s organization was the only thing of significance that was happening at Mena. I have complete confidence in my knowledge of these events. I also have much corroborative support.
Why did Seal choose Louisiana for a center of operations?
We all lived in Louisiana. Baton Rouge was Seal’s and my home. Also the home of the three “auto drivers” and helicopter pilot. Slidell, La. was the home of my copilot, Emile Camp.
Did you ever have any contact with Dan Lasater [a Clinton pal convicted of drug charges] or know anything about his activities?
Irrespective of Seal’s role, is there any reason to believe that Arkansas was any less involved in the drug industry than, say, Kentucky?
No. Arkansas was as likely to be involved as all states were in some form or fashion. The coastal and border states obviously had more transportation traffic. Our organization was complicit in Arkansas, specifically Mena. We didn’t bring drugs there, but a significant role in the overall operation was played out there.
Is it fair to describe you as the former pilot for the largest drug smuggler in American history? If not, who outranks Seal?
I am sure there are literally hundreds of people who brought in more drugs. Our notoriety came from two things. Our smuggling operation was probably the most sophisticated technically speaking of the time, and Seal’s significance as an informant. He singularly gave the US a case against the whole Medellin cartel in 1984. Had it not been for Ollie North, arrests would have been made then. We actually brought in about 25 loads of 300 kilos each. 7,500 kilos total approximately. Cases I worked on as a contract pilot targeted people whose operations involved many more people and the total drugs were significantly higher. The title “most notorious drug smuggler” would more likely fit.
I have always assumed that if you wanted to bring drugs into the US, one of the easiest ways to do it would be on a military plane because of the lack of controls at arrival.
Do you have any information on the role of the military in drug importation?
Not personally. I know of cases involving military aircraft, but it was not of the large conspiracy type with the government complicit. Any large company or institution operating in the area fell prey to enterprising people in the drug trade. It was very easy to get into if you became exposed even a little to the arena. XX Airlines, military aircraft, shipping industry, sailboats, tugboats, freighters, canoes…etc.
If nothing was going on at Mena, why do you suppose Welch was poisoned?
This event happened after Seal was dead and long gone. Even Welch doesn’t know what that was really associated with. I talked with him extensively about it. From what I understand, there were many corrupt officials around him and he stood out as an honest cop. It could have been simply for that reason. As I said, Welch doesn’t even know.
As I recall — although it’s not in the film — Welch pointed out to Hospicker which hangers are being used for drug ops at Mena today. Do you argue with this?
No. Not Welch’s version. I haven’t seen Hopsickers’ version, but Welch and I disagree with Daniel’s positioning. There were fairly small time drug operations at Mena before us and Welch has indicated that things picked up after we left but has not elaborated on it. Technically speaking, we did use Mena for drug operations since it was a significant part of our operation. We just didn’t take any drugs there. We had a better place to take them which was almost fail-safe.
Since by your own insistence, you were mainly involved in Louisiana I am still curious as to why you are so assertive about what did or did not happen at Mena. Is it fair to say that you have direct knowledge of what you and Seal did but that beyond that your information about Mena is limited?
Most assuredly fair to say. While we operated at Mena, It being such a small place, significant operations while we were there would have been noticed by us and our contacts. We were active at Mena, but not that active. There is no question we were the biggest thing going on at Mena at the time and we weren’t as significant as made out to be. That is not to say that nothing could have gone on without our knowledge or our contacts knowledge, or Welch’s and Hadaway’s knowledge, and other investigators, but not a good bet.
Russell Welch describes investigating someone who is now highly placed in the CIA and used to work with Southern Air Transport. Is he wrong about this?
I would take anything Welch says to the bank. The guy is the last of the John Waynes. It is highly possible that after Seal, things did pick up and that is what the smokescreen placed on Seal is all about. This is purely speculation on my part, but Welch did indicate that things picked up after us, say 1987 on. From about late 1982 till 1986 we owned Mena airport, and while it is possible, I don’t think anything else significant went on while we were there. There was activity while we were there at the other aircraft repair centers as far as aircraft retrofitting. Things could have been going on in some manner. There certainly were not large aircraft being loaded with munitions and Contra supply operations ongoing while we were there. We had an extremely reliable network of contacts and our operations involved close scrutiny of surrounding events at the airport. It appeared to us that we had a lock on Mena at the time. I will not step outside of our operations as an expert on anything. I agree that would be ludicrous. On the other hand, we were very observant and so were our contacts. My assurance comes from this thinking. It is not omnipotent. It is omnipotent as to what we did.
Welch says he was ordered not to open an investigation into a plane being used for smuggling. Do you have any reason to doubt this?
I believe this passage relates to the C-123. There were stages to the protection of our aircraft. While the stings were ongoing, the feds would not let anyone seize our aircraft as they were being used in the stings. After the Nicaraguan sting and the Norman Saunders sting, the IRS seized all of Seals’ assets. The feds wanted the equipment and the money it would bring from auction. They surely didn’t want the state of Arkansas to get them. There is much detail to this story as all of the stories, but the idea is presented. Hadaway was going to seize the C-123 and he was told by Bob Joura that if he did, the feds would just get it back immediately. I don’t remember Welch actually trying to seize any aircraft.
Welch says that FBI agents told him to lay off an investigation. Do you doubt this?
No. Seal was the single most important witness against the Medellin Cartel. He was the governments case against them solely at the time. He was performing high level sting operations. These were top secret operations and no state level or other federal investigation would have been allowed to interfere. There were other federal agencies besides Louisiana who wanted a piece of the action. They were all lockhed out. One really has to understand how the heirarchies work within federal enforcement to completely understand this. There is a lot of push and pull.
According to the information you sent me, you have been cooperating with federal officials since 1985. Why does the thought that you and/or Seal cooperated with CIA bother you so much?
It doesn’t “bother” me as such. It simply isn’t true.
Where were you the night that Seal was killed? Were you meant to be guarding him that night?
No. Seal was ordered by a federal judge to the halfway house and specifically stripped of any opportunity by decree for bodyguards. Especially armed bodyguards. I was trying to get to Seal by six p.m. as we had an escape planned the next day. I was about 3 minutes from him in heavy traffic at the time and had to stop and call him and tell him I couldn’t get there in time. Normally, Ellis McKenzie accompanied Seal to the halfway house, but this night he was in the Caymen Islands awaiting me in a money movement for the escape. The allegation by Chip Tatum is false as many of his allegations are. [Neither] Tatum nor Reed were a part of our operations to any degree. I think I have notes on this escape plan, I will look for it and send it.
What were you doing in Saudi Arabia prior to the Gulf War and why did you have to leave?
I was a pilot for the oil company there flying oil company personnel to the network of sites they had. My mother had contracted hepatitis and was dying. When I went home on vacation after a year in Saudi, she was skin and bones to my shock and the doctors were giving her a limited time of life. I went back to Saudi and resigned by letter for personal family reasons. This is fact. She died after horrible convalescence.
A Louisiana police lieutenant says he caught Seal red-handed but was told to let him go by DEA and CIA agents. Do you doubt this?
Nobody caught Seal red handed. I was involved with every one of the operations. I was the one who brought the drugs here. I certainly would have known about this. Seal was caught in an unrelated operation actually before we began operating together. Operation Screamer. The indictments didn’t come down for two years. In those two years we made the great majority of the cocaine flight basically. In Screamer Seal sold some fake Quaaludes to an undercover officer in Florida. These were from a “bad” trip just before we began operating together. He wanted to know if I had any contacts who we could unload them on and I told him I didn’t. We dumped a great majority of them in the Amite river. He had a friend in Florida who had gotten in trouble, unbeknownst to Seal, who said he knew somebody who would buy them. Zap. This is the only event where Seal was caught red handed, except for the 1972 explosives thing. No one else got close. There was an event in Baton Rouge near our communications shack in the swamps where thestate police arrested Steve Plata and they were surveilling Seal quite boisterously, but Seal was involved in ongoing stings for the feds at the time and nothing came of it. Certainly the state people were frustrated.
In the documentary, lawyer Sam Dalton says the government claims Seal brought eight freight car loads of drugs into the US. Comment?
Sam Dalton is hallucinating. He is trying to gain fame from the Seal bandwagon. Not new behavior. We averaged a little less than once a month for two years of high activity. The third year, Operation Screamer indictments threw a major wrench in our operations. We may have made three to four trips during that year. One trip may have even been in the first month of 1984. That was the last of our illegal activity. There is a six month period between mid1983 and early 1984 where the last three smuggling flights took place. I am not sure as to the exact dates of them.
How did you and Seal avoid radar and other observation while bringing 25 plane loads of drugs into the US?
We had ample knowledge of the radar system and capabilities. I probably made 30 plus trips into the US clandestinely. The first five trips we made together were not very successful. Once we got the right connections, things changed. At the time, with the techniques we used, it was not difficult at all to enter the US undetected. An expert could still do it today.
Did Seal have an air/sea rescue operation for his shipments?
We maintained two-way HF encrypted communications the whole trip. I would make hourly position reports. I have survival equipment and had I crashed in the ocean, Seal would have mounted a search and rescue. I had survival radio equipment, and armed with the knowledge of my last position report, he would have easily been able to get into radio range and locate me.
Did he purchase a minesweeper? If so why?
Yes. He purchased what was basically a hull without an engine. It was moored at a California Marina and never left. Monthly storage payments were made. The harbormaster can attest to this. We planned to move the ship to the Cocos Islands and turn it into a floating “hotel”. Had things turned out different, we were planning to continue operations on a larger scale and base out of there. We never got around to enacting any of this as things esculated out of control legally and problematically.
If you were president, how would you handle the drug issue?
Decriminalize drugs. Take the profit out of it. Deal with the social problems. The criminal element would disappear. Alcohol is legal. Are you an alcoholic? I am not. Do we have problems with alcohol…yes. We would no matter what.