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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.

Distracted by the drama in the cockpit, Willson said he didn’t notice as the plane made a wide U-turn above the narrow band of Mediterranean Sea below and drew nearer to a yellowed, scrubby landscape that looked, to him, just like southern Spain. The Cessna finally touched down on deserted strip of asphalt near a waterway Willson said may have been used for irrigation.

The pair exited the cockpit and the pilot flagged down a passing car. After chatting briefly with the occupants, he got in and rode away with them. Willson made what he believed to be a reasonable assumption: The pilot had gone for help.

In fact, this was the last he would see of the man, whom he knew only as Cesar. Willson said his communication with Cesar had been rudimentary; Willson spoke no Spanish, Cesar had no English, and O’Connor had handled the introduction. Feeling lucky he’d landed safely, Willson waited under the wing for aid to arrive, perching himself on one of the plane’s three tires.

About 40 minutes later, several police officers drove up. They asked questions in a language Willson didn’t understand. They confiscated his passport and wallet. Cesar was nowhere to be found.

“I had no idea what was happening or what was going on,” Willson said. “They put handcuffs on me, that was a pretty good clue.”

He was taken to a police station and questioned again. He said at least two days went by before they offered him any water, and before an English-speaker was found to interrogate him. Willson said he gave them his account of events but his captors kept responding, “That’s not what happened.”

He was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of drug trafficking and entering the country illegally. Although Moroccan authorities have not commented on the case, their version of events can be gleaned from Moroccan investigation documents, obtained in translation from the Willson family and confirmed in substance by the State Department.

Moroccan investigators believed Willson had been trying to meet up with a group of men who were later caught in the area with cars containing traces of drugs, according to the documents.

No contraband was found on Willson's plane, but Moroccan investigators said the men tried loading it with more than 600 kilos of drugs before they realized it would not start. Investigators said that, after failing to re-start the plane using a car battery, the smugglers fled with the drugs, leaving Willson behind.

One investigation document obtained by the Willson family also said the plane’s seller, Clyde O'Connor, was the owner of a Gulfstream II jet that crashed in the Mexican jungle in September 2007 with four tons of cocaine onboard. The McClatchy news service and other outlets have also identified O'Connor as the owner of the Gulfstream II.

Attempts to reach O’Conner were unsuccessful. Public records list him as a principal in several Florida businesses, including two charter flight companies. Willson said he’s had no contact with O’Connor since being arrested.

O’Connor is about the same age as Willson’s daughter and knew the family growing up in Des Plaines, Willson said. The family said O’Connor had stayed in touch intermittently in the years after he left town. “You don’t hear from him for ages, then he pops up again,” Brief said.