Thrown into a Moroccan jail

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.

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.

Willson said he learned of allegations against O’Connor only after being detained in Morocco. Willson insists he never saw drugs nor heard them discussed, and that what happened to him in Morocco was a monumental and perilous misunderstanding.

A U.S. State Department official familiar with the matter said that soon after Willson’s arrest, the department received a copy of a Moroccan investigation report containing the allegations against him and the details about O'Connor, but as a matter of practice, it cannot “investigate or otherwise intervene in foreign judicial processes.”

“The Department of State defers to Mr. Willson to provide an accurate account as to what took place,” said the official, who responded to questions via email. “We cannot speak to the accuracy of a story that we were not involved in.” It’s a story Willson said he hopes to forget. He was never abused in the prisons where he spent 13 months, he said, but food was terribly scarce. Inmates ate only what their families brought to the jail, he said. Willson at first survived off occasional potatoes or carrots fellow prisoners could spare, he said, until care packages from his family occasionally made it through. His daughter said he lost more than 50 pounds in jail.

“When I ate it was out of the kindness of other people,” Willson said. “I’d like to tell you I hate the Moroccans, but I don’t.”

The worst part of his confinement, Willson said, was the solitude imposed by language. “You can be in a group but, if you can’t communicate, you’re isolated,” he said. “The whole time I was there, I was not able to talk to, or hear, or understand anything anybody said.”

That may partly explain why his pardon and release came as such a shock. “They just opened the door and they said go,” Willson said. “I didn’t think they were really releasing me. I thought they were going to shoot me, to tell you the truth.”

In Casablanca, Willson was issued a temporary passport and he rejoined his family, who said he is slowly recovering.

“He’s still horribly, horribly thin,” Brief said. She said Willson suffers from diabetes and a disrupted balance condition that forced him to retire from flying in 2000 — illnesses she said were aggravated in prison.

Willson’s criminal record in Morocco has been seemingly wiped clean, but what the pardon says about Willson’s conviction is hard to know. The justice ministry isn’t talking and pardons are far from rare.

Morocco’s king pardoned nearly 25,000 prisoners last week in the run-up to a nationwide celebration marking his 10th year on the throne. Even at less festive times, the number of royal pardons issued in Morocco “can come to many hundreds per year,” said Larbi Ben Othmane, a law professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, the capital.

Ben Othmane said it’s likely someone intervened on a high level to spur Willson’s release. The State Department said it did nothing of the sort, and Willson’s family has another explanation: their relentless prodding of Moroccan officials.

Brief describes turning up at the Moroccan Embassy in Washington in May, lugging boxes full of exculpatory evidence. “They would not take our calls, they would not take our packages,” she said. “So I carried 70 pounds of information, my mother had another 20, 25 pounds.”

They and the State Department credit this meeting with helping set the pardon in motion. At the outset of what turned into a long sit-down, Brief said Morocco’s ambassador to the United States initially said he was pressed for time. She recalled telling him, “Sir with all due respect, this is going to take more than five minutes.”