In 1990, federal agents saw Ward's plane touch down on a landing strip near Death Valley. The ground crew unloaded 500 pounds of marijuana, and Ward flew off into the night. A government pilot gave chase with his lights out but lost him. Agents found the plane later at Banning Municipal Airport. The belly was coated with dirt, the engine still hot. But Ward was gone.

The agents caught his crew members, who fingered Ward. He faced conspiracy charges in that case and another in Riverside County. He was looking at up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

His attorney, Tom George Kontos, a former federal prosecutor from Los Angeles, negotiated a plea agreement that resulted in a year's house arrest.

Ward was forever grateful to the sharp-dressing attorney who he said was skilled at swaying judges. "He could charm the birds out of the trees," Ward said.

Kontos and Ward became close friends, attending each other's weddings and investing in a used-car business. Ward referred several traffickers to Kontos; Kontos sold Ward his house in Carlsbad, paid for with drug money.

Ward named his second son after Kontos. "He described me as the brother he never had," Ward said. "He was my hero."

'Pouring concrete'

Ward and his wife lived in a large, two-story home that backed onto an ocean-fed lagoon in Carlsbad. Neighbors would see him tinkering in his garage where he was designing an airplane-towing device. They rarely got so much as a wave hello, but they figured it was the aloof manner of an eccentric amateur inventor. They had no idea that Ward buried money in his yard or flew drugs across the country.

Ward began flying for the Sinaloa cartel in 2004, teaming with Rafael Dominguez, a racehorse breeder from Riverside County who had connections to drug distributors in Southern California.

When Dominguez had a cocaine load ready for shipment, he'd phone Ward, telling him that he had lined up another job "pouring concrete."

The cocaine was the best Ward had ever tasted, and was believed to come from a drug distribution network headed by Victor Emilio Cazares, allegedly a top cartel lieutenant in Sinaloa. The bricks were labeled with a scorpion logo.

"It was uncut … a pearly color, flaky, with a candy kind of smell to it," Ward said. "People would pull your arms off for that stuff."

Ward could carry nearly 250 pounds of cocaine per flight and he charged $450 per pound, earning about $110,000 per trip, plus $5,000 for expenses.

Truckers, some with spotty records, delivered nearly double that amount for half Ward's fee.

Ward didn't like the cost-cutting and careless behavior of the East Coast distributors to whom he delivered the drugs. He'd had words with one of them, Noe Coronado, who cultivated a Culiacan clubster look — pompadour and shiny rayon pants — that stood out in the bluejeans-and-baseball-cap world of Lancaster, Pa.

Ward worried that Coronado's lack of discretion put them both at risk. Nevertheless, it was hard to resist the tug of another deal. "It wasn't just a smuggling job. It was my career," Ward said. "I put a lot of thought into it and tried to see where others made mistakes."

When Ward got a call about another shipment, he would drop the tools in his garage, pocket his two-way radio and grab his GPS case and overnight bag. At the door, he would kiss his wife goodbye.

"Don't ask me when I'm coming home. Don't ask me where I'm going…. I'll just see you later," he would say.

Cops down below

Ward always arrived before dawn at Corona Municipal Airport, a dusty compound with a diner and flight school and a double-wide trailer for a manager's office.