Police Are Taking to the Air Courtesy of Drug Dealer

Times Staff Writer

San Diego police have the late Donald Dean Stenger, methamphetamine czar, to thank for their first-ever helicopter, an $80,000 Bell Ranger to be unveiled today at Montgomery Field.

Stenger--and a 10-year-old federal policy of divvying up drug traffickers’ spoils--has netted the Police Department the helicopter for high-speed pursuit, surveillance and support missions, and, if necessary, SWAT combat.

The city has long been reluctant to buy a helicopter, although it did chip in $175,000 toward the purchase of some county aircraft five years ago. Stenger, although he probably didn’t plan on it, has come to the rescue and given the city this helicopter, one just like it undergoing repairs, and a twin-engine Cessna plane already on board.


Arrest of Fugitive

The story begins with the San Diego arrest of Fred Earl Stenger, 27, the drug lord’s brother, on Sept. 16, 1985. A fugitive from federal and state authorities, he was carrying 7 pounds of methamphetamine, several guns and $10,000 in cash, said Police Cmdr. Skip DiCerchio.

The next day, Fred Stenger’s 31-year-old brother bailed him out with $200,000 in cash, triggering an investigation that led four months later to a raid on Donald Stenger’s $20-million drug lab in Riverside County and the indictments of five men, including the brothers.

One month before the raid, the federal Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, using Drug Enforcement Administration and San Diego Police Department personnel, discovered that Donald Stenger kept one of the helicopters and the plane under an alias at an airport in Douglas, Ariz.

They recovered the aircraft but lost the elder Stenger in the desert after a high-speed chase. Stenger later told officers he walked and ran 60 miles to the Mexican border to escape police, DiCerchio said.

They traced the second helicopter and seized it at the Utah shop where it was being repaired, then finally caught up with Stenger on March 22, 1986, at his home in Teller County, Colo.

After his surrender to San Diego Officer James Clem, police searching the house found $12,000 in cash, blank Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, and several automatic weapons, including one rigged up to operate from inside a closed briefcase.


Stenger also owned a mobile home and four gold mines in Mexico, DiCerchio said, adding: “This guy was nationwide.”

Stenger died while in San Diego for a court appearance this spring. Police said he obtained and swallowed several balloons of methamphetamine with the intention of passing them through his system for his use or sale.

Died of Overdose

Instead, one of them burst, killing Stenger with a massive overdose.

On Tuesday, as San Diego police displayed Stenger’s repaired and re-equipped helicopter for photographers, it was immediately apparent how useful ABLE (for Airborne Law Enforcement), as they are calling the aircraft, will be.

Pilots Donald Wendt and Raymond Albright, who had expected to fly only for the television cameras, got a call to help evacuate workers near a natural-gas leak triggered during construction of the San Diego convention center.

A false alarm, as it turned out: The leak was shut off and repaired quickly.

But Sgt. Joseph Ayala, the Police Department’s head of air support, was clearly pleased at having more to work with than rented planes and the one Cessna donated in 1980.

“We could have used this a long time ago,” he said.

The salaries for the flight and maintenance crews, as well as the $170,000 repair and equipment bill, will be paid by income from the federal task force’s assets seizure program.

The National City office of the task force--staffed with 22 San Diego police officers under DiCerchio, 12 DEA agents, 17 county sheriff’s deputies and 8 other officers from local police departments--has retrieved about $170 million in cash, property, vehicles and valuables since its inception in 1981, a DEA spokesman said.

Most of that haul, including $27.5 million of the $30 million in recovered cash, has stayed in federal hands because federal agencies initiated the bulk of the cases, the spokesman said.

But, in cases like Stenger’s, where local law enforcement plays a vital role, the DEA can award up to 90% of the spoils to a city, he said.

“For once, the federal government is able to assist local law enforcement, and in an area going right to the problem of narcotics we have in our communities,” said the agent, who asked not to be identified.

“This is not taxpayer money, and that’s a key thing.”