MIAMI (AP) — Federal drug agents are investigating a Florida aircraft leasing business operated by two former champion race drivers who are suspected of providing airplanes to South American drug traffickers, according to court documents and interviews.
Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI and Homeland Security Department raided the Fort Lauderdale offices Monday of World Jet Inc., which is controlled by brothers Don and Bill Whittington. They raced in the Indianapolis 500 and other tracks, teaming up with a third driver to win the France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1979.
Later, both brothers pleaded guilty for their roles in a $73 million marijuana smuggling ring that authorities said financed their racing careers.
Now, according to a DEA search warrant affidavit that relies on several confidential informants, the Whittingtons are suspected of illegally leasing aircraft from Florida to cocaine cartels and laundering drug-related profits through a hot springs resort hotel and a ranch in Colorado.
Mia Ro, a DEA spokeswoman in Miami, confirmed her agency is leading the investigation but declined to provide details. Agents were seen carrying boxes of records and other items from World Jet’s offices at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport on Monday.
No charges have been filed. An employee at World Jet hung up Tuesday when telephoned for comment, and the Whittingtons did not respond to email messages. It wasn’t clear if they had attorneys related to the DEA probe.
The resort involved in the investigation is the Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs, Colo., according to the DEA. Bill Whittington’s daughters, Nerissa and Keely Whittington, are identified as the resort’s operators, and the resort itself lists a Florida corporate address that is the same as World Jet’s.
The Whittington brothers are no strangers to illegal drugs. They were sentenced to prison in 1987 after pleading guilty for their roles in a large-scale marijuana smuggling operation and Bill Whittington was forced to forfeit race cars, boats, planes, a mobile home park in Lakeland and $7 million in currency to the government.
Prosecutors said at the time that the Whittingtons were using drug sales profits to finance their racing team. In addition to the 1979 Le Mans, Don Whittington also raced on the NASCAR circuit in the early 1980s and — along with Bill Whittington and a third brother, Dale — raced in the Indianapolis 500. In 1982, Don Whittington finished sixth in that race, the best of the trio.
Don and Bill Whittington also raced P-51 Mustang airplanes at the Reno Air Races in Nevada.