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Thrown into a Moroccan jail

The story of an American held for 13 months on drug trafficking charges after vacationing in Spain.

Suspects arrive for a trial in Sale, near Rabat June 29, 2007. An American man was held in a Moroccan jail for 13 months on drug trafficking charges. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — When Moroccan guards came to release Illinois retiree James Douglas Willson from prison, he believed that they’d come to shoot him. 

Willson, described by family as a church-going Cub Scout leader, had been charged and convicted of drug trafficking in Morocco. His troubles began when a sightseeing flight in Spain was diverted, delivering him into one of international travel’s nightmare scenarios: imprisonment abroad.

He was set free 13 months later — a pardon from Moroccan King Mohammed VI giving a final, bizarre twist to his ordeal. What follows is based on accounts by Willson and his family of his May 7, 2008 arrest and subsequent captivity. Morocco’s justice ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the case.

Willson’s story is strange, but not because of the charges themselves. This nation sits poised on the threshold between North Africa’s cannabis fields and Europe’s drug market. Scores of people are arrested for smuggling drugs from Morocco each year. But the background of this 68-year-old former pilot seems a poor match for the allegations he faced. No evidence suggests that Willson had been to Morocco before his arrest in May 2008 and he speaks neither Arabic nor French, the nation’s two official languages. Willson lives with his wife, Jean, in a modest house in his hometown of Des Plaines, where family members said he regularly attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

“He mows everybody’s lawns, shovels everybody’s walks,” said one of Willson’s two children, Marilyn Brief, 45, of Green Oaks, Ill. “He’s not a crime guy.”

“My parents are middle America,” Brief continued in the flattened, earnest accent of Chicago and its satellite towns. “They’re retired, typical Americans. They’re not drug dealers.”

Since retiring from a career in commercial flying, Willson said he had been an avid traveler. In May last year, he took a sightseeing trip alone in Spain, planning to meet up with his wife a week or so later in Scotland.

When he reached Seville, in southern Spain, Willson said he met up with an old friend from his hometown with whom he’d had only fleeting contact in recent years, Clyde O’Connor, 44, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. O’Connor had just flown from the U.S. in a Cessna 337, a two-engine plane often configured with six seats, which he was selling to new owners in Spain.

Willson spent much of his career flying larger jets like 747s, 737s and DC9s, but he said he had some experience piloting this kind of Cessna. O’Connor invited Willson to take a quick flight as the new pilot’s passenger, to give pointers and maybe determine why it was running a little rough. Willson said he hadn’t planned on it but, since the ride also meant getting an aerial tour of southern Spain, he accepted.

After takeoff, the plane climbed to 6,500 feet and had been aloft about an hour when, flying westbound along the coast, several mechanical systems failed at once. One engine stopped working, as did the plane’s electricity and the vacuum system controlling its instruments, Willson said.