Helicopter Crash Foils Drug Smuggler's Prison Escape

Times Staff Writer

A helicopter swooped inside a prison yard near here on Monday and a marijuana smuggler with a life sentence leaped aboard, but the breakout was foiled when the chopper hit a fence and crashed.

Instead of a flight to freedom, Ben Kramer--once a world champion powerboat racer--received a fractured ankle. His novice pilot, identified as Charles Clayton Stevens, broke both of his legs.

"They gave it a try, but they sure made a mess of it," said John Clark, warden at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center, southwest of Miami.

This is what happened during the dreary, overcast morning, prison officials said. Kramer, 34, was out for a walk in the recreation yard. Only about half a dozen other inmates were nearby, playing cards or shooting baskets.

The helicopter appeared from the south, hugging the tree line. It lowered inside the perimeter. It was a tight squeeze. The yard is but 50 feet across.

The small two-seater hovered inches from the ground. Kramer made his run, then grasped one of the skids. But when the aircraft tried to lift away, it suddenly listed to the right.

One of the rotors tangled in the concertina wire that curls above the 14-foot fence. The rotor split, and chunks of blade flew hundreds of feet.

For a time, the helicopter teetered in the mesh, like a fly caught in a spider web. Then it finally fell, face down.

Two inmates got to the crash first. Some witnesses, according to Clark, say these other prisoners were actually trying to join the escape.

"But the main version--and I believe this one--is that they were trying to help," Clark said. "Obviously, too many people weren't going to get away in a two-seater."

In minutes, armed guards circled the area. Fuel leaked from the aircraft. A few prison officials ran toward the wreckage.

Larry Bullard was among them. "Ooh, that pilot was moaning," he said. "He was yelling about the pain: 'Oh, my side' and 'Oh, my legs.' "

The prison has nearly 1,000 inmates. About 100 are classified as low-security and are used as a work force. Most of the rest are awaiting trial or placement in another facility.

Kramer was being kept in a special high-security area. He was soon to stand trial on a marijuana-smuggling charge in Ft. Lauderdale. He was already locked up for life with no chance of parole.

Last October, he and auto racer Randy Lanier were convicted of masterminding a drug ring that distributed more than half a million pounds of marijuana nationwide from 1980 to 1987.

During those same years, the brash, hot-tempered Kramer also was becoming a champion powerboat driver, steering in ocean races at speeds of 120 m.p.h. "He was an aggressive, very competitive guy," said another racer, Bob Kaiser.

Kramer won the U.S. Open Class Offshore Powerboat Championship in 1986 and the world title in 1984. He also owned a Miami marina and boat works.

"I'm sorry to say he has really put bad light on the sport, just like when those pro football players get caught dealing drugs," racer John D'Elia said.

Kramer was brought to the correctional center from a federal prison at Ray Brook, N.Y., in December to face another marijuana-smuggling indictment in Ft. Lauderdale and a Miami gun charge on which he already has been convicted.

U.S. Marshal John Horgan said Kramer will also be charged with attempted escape, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and the pilot will face charges of aiding an escape.

Late Monday, U.S. Marshals were still trying to find out how Kramer made a connection with Stevens, the pilot--and if anyone else was involved. Stevens took his lessons at a small private airport outside Miami. He told his instructors he wanted to be a crop-duster.

He "had taken flying lessons just over the past five-six months, and he really wasn't an experienced enough pilot yet to attempt this kind of thing," said Darrell Williams, of the marshal's office.

Stevens is believed to be from Oregon, Williams said. In fact, the Bell 47D-1 helicopter, built in 1952, was reported sold in January to C. Stevens of Oregon, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Using a helicopter as an escape vehicle has now been tried with varying success more than a dozen times.

One effort, involving a love story, was made into a recent TV movie, "Outside Woman." Another incident, in Mexico, inspired the 1975 movie "Breakout."

Most prisons have contingency plans to deal with helicopter escapes.

"I won't tell you everything, but if we have a clear shot at an inmate boarding, we'll take the shot," Clark said.

"But there are all sorts of other problems where discretion is advised. What can you do if the helicopter pilot is a civilian hostage who has been hijacked? It gets tricky.

"Fortunately, in this case, it all sort of worked itself out on its own."

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