The Mountain State’s TRUSTED news source.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

Learn more about HD Media

As I read “Final Approach,” I found myself casting a young Owen Wilson as the easy-going, wise-cracking Jerome Lill.

For surely there has to be a movie, or at least a Netflix series, on the drug smuggling career of Lill, who has written a memoir about his adventures and misadventures, including the pot plane crash 42 years ago at Kanawha Airport.

As a Gazette reporter, I covered the trial and plea hearings of the dozen men initially indicted in the scheme to import 26,000 pounds of marijuana into the United States from Col. I read an earlier version of “Final Approach,” and suggested some changes to Lill for his book. He accepted a few.

One he rejected was adding a cast of characters. I had trouble keeping his various friends and associates straight. Finally, I gave up and just enjoyed the ride as Lill recounts his rollercoaster life.

Lill began using and selling drugs in high school in Detroit. A miserable stint in a juvenile facility didn’t deter him. At one point, he writes, “I wanted to smuggle. I enjoyed the thrill, the position it put me in.”

At age 22, he had $1.2 million buried in his mother’s backyard in Florida.

I was stashing my cash, drinking, partying — acting like a big shot pot smuggler.”

But like the refrain in the song “House of the Rising Sun,” he pleads with readers “not to do as I have done.”

Lill is graphic in his language and description of addiction — the terrors of having the DTs — a severe kind of withdrawal, the humiliation of losing control over bodily functions, the self loathing that emerges from not being able to stop. He has only been sober for five years — off alcohol and drugs except for marijuana.

It was never a fair fight between alcohol and Lill. At age 6, his grandmother gave him alcohol for a toothache. He remembers liking the warmth that spread through his body. Alcohol made him feel good.

His father was a successful bank executive, who Lill says was an alcoholic who regularly beat young Lill. By sixth grade, Lill says he was drinking heavily.

Over the decades, he continued to drink, despite the growing number of friends dying from alcohol abuse and his many stays in rehab centers. After a two-year stint in prison with no alcohol, all Lill can think about is getting drunk upon release.

He buys vodka and beer for the 10-hour bus trip to the halfway house he has been assigned. He drinks lots of water, eats food and manages to pass the breathalyzer. Failing would have sent him back to prison.

Stories you might like

Through out “Final Approach,” Lill urges readers to give up alcohol and drugs, if addicted, or never to start. He has the zeal of a true missionary. Although his exhortations are frequent, they are brief. Then he is off describing another harrowing episode in his life.

And one of those scary times was, of course, the 1979 crash of the DC 6 loaded with pot. Lill managed to crawl out a plane window, struggling to stay upright, only, ironically, to keep getting knocked down by bales of marijuana rolling down the steep hillside.

Lill offers an insider view of the planning of a major drug deal, such as how they got their hands on such a huge aircraft. But he leaves a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, who is Frito?

Lill credits him with finding the plane and the landing site. Frito was not among the men arrested who were on the plane or the men who were waiting in three rental trucks to unload the plane and depart to separate parts of the country.

He mentions earlier in his book about drug deals he carried out with Frito and his partner Tito, who Lill believes used a delicious lamb stew to steal $500,000 from Lill.

Yet, he neglects to mention that Tito is Shane Zarintash, a wealthy Iranian who attended West Virginia Tech and was close friends with the father and son deputy sheriffs accused of providing security for the plane’s landing. Zarintash and Lill were convicted. The Kanawha County deputies were not.

(In 1982, Jeoffrey Devor was named as a mastermind of the pot plane escapade in a federal indictment. He is cited as the one who obtained the plane, negotiated the purchase of the pot and directed its loading in Columbia. Frito, I presume.)

Lill writes about his girlfriend Christine, a Pan Am stewardess, whose apartment is where money transactions occurred when planning the crime. He omits the fact that he married her while out on bond after the crash.

There were several other quick marriages among the defendants, which prosecutors labeled as scams to prevent their girlfriends from testifying against them.

After he and others were convicted in the case, they were free on bond for about seven years as their appeal made its way eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, Lill continued to deal in marijuana.

He buys 160 acres in Kentucky where he says he and Steve Riddle, who was also convicted in the pot plane case, grow marijuana. Lill writes that he got help from Marshall Mechanic, another defendant in the case, who was already proficient at growing marijuana and reportedly showed Lill how.

But before they can harvest the 1,300 huge — “as big as Christmas trees”—marijuana plants, a Kentucky state trooper is shot and killed by the man guarding the patch. Lill is the main suspect. His description of watching the lights of dozens of police cars inching their way toward his house is chilling. His arrest and his help in capturing the killer is, well, captivating.

In reading Lill’s book, my editing fingers were twitching. I wanted to bring some order to his story as he ricochets from preaching to entertaining. Overall, though, Lill is a good storyteller, and he recounts his life as he remembers it, warts and all. Someplace, he writes that most of the druggies, drunks and criminals he knew were basically good people. I feel the same way about Lill.

Recommended for you