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Feds charge pilot after finding 180 pounds of marijuana in plane

SALT LAKE CITY — An Idaho man had been flying marijuana around the country for at least four years before his November arrest at Vernal Regional Airport, according to federal prosecutors.

Randall Patrick Watson of Meridian, was arrested Nov. 12 after members of the Uintah Basin Narcotics Strike Force said they found about 180 pounds of marijuana in four duffel bags stowed inside his Cessna 182E Skylane.

Search warrant documents obtained Friday by the Deseret News show that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had tipped off authorities in Uintah County about a "suspicious aircraft" that was expected to land at airport in Vernal.

A sheriff's deputy spoke with Watson after he landed for a refueling stop, asking him about his flight plans and where he'd flown in from, Vernal police detective Chad Watt wrote in an affidavit for a search warrant.

"Randall's story was vague to the officer," Watt wrote.

A police K-9 was called in and indicated that drugs were present in the plane, court records state.

"Randall Watson was asked if the aircraft contained illegal drugs, and he stated that we would find out soon enough," Watt wrote, adding later that Watson was allowed to call home while he was detained and told his wife he had "been 'smuggling pot' for a while and that he was with the police."

Watson, 56, was charged Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court with conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Charging documents allege that he had been engaged in marijuana trafficking since January 2009.

Investigators in Uintah County don't believe Watson owned the drugs he is accused of transporting. They will not say, however, whom the drugs belonged to, where Watson had been before he arrived in Vernal or where he was supposed to be headed next.

"He was coming from the West Coast, heading east," Assistant Vernal Police Chief Keith Campbell said the day after Watson's arrest.

A spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Salt Lake City did not return a call Friday seeking additional information about the case. Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, said she was unable to comment on whether anyone other than Watson is facing charges in Utah or elsewhere.

Watson, if convicted, could receive a sentence of up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. Federal prosecutors have also asked a judge to turn Watson's plane over to the government.

Watson's first court appearance is set for March 12.


Twitter: GeoffLiesik