SALT LAKE CITY — An Idaho man pleaded guilty Wednesday to flying planeloads of marijuana around the country for at least three years before his November arrest at Vernal Regional Airport.
Randall Patrick Watson, of Meridian, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana during a brief court appearance before U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Brooke C. Wells.
In court documents filed as part of his plea, Watson admitted that he transported marijuana from a farm in California to distribution points in Utah and other states.
Watson, 56, was arrested Nov. 12 after U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents tipped off authorities in Uintah County about a "suspicious aircraft" that was expected to land at the airport in Vernal, court records show.
A sheriff's deputy made contact with Watson when he landed and a police K-9 was called in. The dog indicated that drugs were in the plane, court records state. Uintah Basin Narcotics Strike Force agents later found about 180 pounds of marijuana in four duffel bags stowed inside Watson's Cessna 182E Skylane.
Federal charging documents indicate that Watson was working with "others known or unknown" to distribute marijuana. Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, confirmed Wednesday that only Watson has been named publicly as a defendant in the case.
As part of his plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Watson forfeited his interest in the plane he was flying. Prosecutors told the judge they would recommend a sentence at lower end of the federal guidelines based on Watson's continued willingness to accept responsibility for his actions.
The maximum sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana is 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine; however, federal prosecutors said, it's unlikely Watson will receive such a severe penalty when he is sentenced July 21.