The unquiet death of Jennifer Odom

The Pentagon says the Army pilot's crash in Colombia last July was a "mishap," but her family believes she was shot down -- the first of many soldiers likely to die in our undeclared war.

Published July 5, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Only hours before she taxied down a dark runway for her last fateful flight over the Colombian mountains on July 23, U.S. Army pilot Jennifer Odom had a worried, agitated conversation with her husband in El Paso, Texas.

U.S. efforts to stop the flow of Colombian cocaine, she complained, including her own nighttime electronic spying missions, hadnt amounted to "even a speed bump" against the surging illicit traffic. The flow of drugs north had doubled in the past year.

More worrisome, she said, her four-engine turboprop, crammed with sophisticated electronic gear to eavesdrop on cellphones and take infrared photos of cocaine factories, had been "lit up" -- tracked -- by hostile missile radar on recent flights.

That meant only one thing to Odom and her husband, retired Army Lt. Col. Charles Odom, an officer who'd had top secret clearances: Narco-guerrillas in the jungle below had obtained advanced ground-to-air missiles, the kind that emit pre-launch signals a plane like Odom's could pick up. The war in Colombia, the Odoms agreed, had entered a new stage, and Jennifer believed her plane could be blown out of the air at any time.

Sometime after 3 a.m. that same night, Odom failed to make her regularly scheduled contact with an Army Intelligence communications base in Key West, Fla. She and her crew of four Americans and two Colombian liaison personnel had crashed on the side of a steep, unmapped mountain near the border with Ecuador. All were dead.

Thus did Jennifer Shafer Odom, 29, a slim, motorcyle-riding brunet and top graduate of West Point, become the first U.S. military casualty of Washington's "war against drugs" in Colombia. Now, a year later, Congress is sending $1.3 billion in direct military aid to Bogota, raising the stakes even higher. The measure includes an untold increase in U.S. military and civilian "advisors," on top of the several hundred DEA agents and Green Berets already there, ensuring that Odom wont be the last to disappear into the Colombian maelstrom.

Indeed, the U.S. is likely to plunge even deeper into the bottomless civil wars of the Andes, where the differences among cocaine traffickers, left-wing guerillas, right-wing death squads and corrupt government troops have become increasingly blurred, and every element -- even the U.S. military, apparently -- has been corrupted by drugs.

As Congress debated the aid package, a Colombian rebel leader said the escalation of military assistance would "throw fuel on the fire" of the nations civil war, and threatened to launch missiles against U.S. aircraft. But the family of Jennifer Odom believes that already happened. The Pentagon just didnt want anyone to know.

Almost a year after Odom died, her family is still seeking answers about what really happened that moonless night in southeast Colombia. The Army classified her death as a "mishap," saying she unwittingly flew the plane into an uncharted mountain even though she was an experienced pilot flying in good weather conditions, in a plane equipped with state-of-the-art, forward-looking radar and navigational aides. Her family suspects she was shot down.

No such evidence can be found in the Armys thick, three-pound report on the incident, although so much of it was blacked out by censors that answers to the hard questions can't be found in it.

Most disturbing to the family, Odom reported to Col. James Hiett, the top U.S. counter-narcotics official in Colombia. Hiett meanwhile was helping his wife launder the proceeeds of her cocaine smuggling through the U.S. embassy with the help of his chauffeur. The arrest of the Hietts five months after Odoms death shocked the family and left it wondering whether Hiett or other U.S. officials responsible for sensitive drug interdiction missions could be trusted.

"Jennifer briefed Hiett on her mission on July 14th. Nine days later the crew was dead," says her grief-stricken mother, Janie Shafer.

No evidence has surfaced that Hiett had anything to do with Odom's death. But if the U.S. chief of counter-narcotics in Colombia cant be trusted, Shafer wonders, who can?

Hiett, who is scheduled to be sentenced in mid-July, could not be reached for comment. His wife is serving a five-year prison term.

Few Americans even realized Jennifer Odom and four other soldiers had died in Colombia on July 23. The media's attention was riveted on the disappearance of another small plane, this one piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. near the posh Martha's Vineyard resort off Cape Cod. Indeed, the Pentagon deployed a virtual armada to search for Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law, at a cost of untold millions. Navy divers eventually recovered their remains, and a solemn funeral followed at sea.

In stark contrast, no U.S. military planes could be found to look for Odom and her crew mates in Colombia. Two days passed before their crash site was even located by a Colombian plane, and four more days passed before U.S. Embassy personnel rappeled down from hovering helicopters to pick through the wreckage and retrieve the bodies.

Through all this, the families waited in agony for definite word of their loved ones' fate. When it finally came, low-ranking officers called. The Pentagon, meanwhile, tightly held the names and addresses of the crew from the media.

The families of Odom and the other casualties were also given constantly conflicting dates and times for when the caskets would arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Only the last-minute intervention of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, who represents Odom's rural western Maryland district, allowed her husband and family to get there on time.

No senior White House officials were on hand to greet the arrival of the crew's flag-draped coffins at 1:30 a.m., in sharp contrast to the high-profile, prime-time attendance of U.S. presidents when other American personnel have been killed in service abroad. Attorney General Janet Reno, a civilian, did attend. The solemn ceremony was closed to the media.

"It was almost as if they didn't want us to be there," Odoms grieving mother said last week as she sat in a living room darkened by drawn shades and filled with mementos of her only daughter's achievements in 4-H Club, high school and West Point, where she graduated in the top quarter of her 1992 class. Outside, a searing hot breeze ruffled the family's corn fields.

There is no joy in this house, a plain white clapboard bungalow in the rolling farmland of Maryland. The Shafers are simple people, farmers, American Gothic. They don't understand why their daughter was mixed up in Colombia, an undeclared war. They can't fathom why they were treated in such a dismissive, even hush-hush way by the Pentagon.

Shafer and her son-in-law, Charles Odom, suspect that the White House and Pentagon deliberately played down the crash of Jennifer's top-secret "Dash-7" to dampen speculation about the full extent of U.S. military intervention in Colombia's civil war, which is "much bigger" than commonly thought, Odom asserted, with "hundreds of Special Forces people running all over the country."

"We're pretty involved down there," Odom said, "and we don't want to let people know how deeply we're involved. And that FARC" -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the main Marxist guerrilla group fighting the government -- "may have shot that plane down."

"Every time they came back from a mission," Odom recounted, "there'd be small-arms bullet holes on the fuselage or the tail. I asked her about it, and she said, 'It's a dangerous place. We're always getting shot at and lit up (by guerrilla radar).'

"It wasn't Colombian government radar," Odom declared. "It was a missile lock."

In congressional testimony last March, the commander of U.S. forces in Latin America, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, said intelligence sources were reporting the presence of ground-to-air missiles in the rebels' inventory, including U.S.-made Redeyes and Stingers and Russian Sam-16s, all available on the black market. Only the newest models emit pre-launch signals that a target plane can pick up.

That was alarming enough. But a bigger point went unremarked: If Jennifer Odom's DeHaviland-7RC aircraft was detecting missiles, that meant the U.S. Army had either drifted over the line from tracking narcotics to gathering intelligence on the rebels, or that the cocaine cartels and the guerrillas had now become inseperable. Either way, the U.S. was taking sides in Colombia's civil war, a shooting war, without the American public's knowledge, understanding or approval.

"We have no choice right now but to believe that they crashed," says Adam Isacson, who follows the drug war for the Center for International Policy, a liberal think tank in Washington. "But they were intercepting communications at night -- not your traditional counterdrug mission. And the only communications you intercept when you're flying over Putamayo are guerrilla communications."

In a statement last year, FARC's commander neither claimed credit for nor denied the rebels had shot down the plane. But he warned that the U.S. was risking more casualties if it chose to interfere in Colombia's civil war. FARC and two other leftist groups hold nearly half the country.

To maintain the appearance of noninvolvement in the civil war, U.S. Army policy mandates that intelligence on FARC not be turned over directly to their Colombian counterparts, but sent up through channels to Washington. Only then is it passed to the Colombian army.

The Central Intelligence Agency has "hundreds" of officers in Colombia, Isacson and others said. Companies like DynCorp, in Arlington, Va., have been hired by the Pentagon to deploy at least 200 more former U.S. special warfare types to Colombia, and hundreds more, along with advanced U.S. helicopters, are expected shortly with passage of the new military aid bill.

Several aspects of Odom's death inspire her family and more than a few former colleagues to doubt the Army's official verdict.

First, the recon missions were regularly flown in groups of three aircraft, they said, the better to look out for each other in the treacherous, mostly uncharted high mountains. On the night of July 23, Odom's plane was sent out alone because the unit's two other planes were in maintenance. She was also weary from many missions, her husband said, although she'd be the last officer to duck an order.

"Odom's peers and her chain of command considered her as a very competent and meticulous PC [command pilot] and a professional aviator," the Army said in its incident report.

Odom had flown helicopters and multi-engine craft on reconnaissance missions in dozens of countries, from Bosnia to Latin America, many of them classified, with 600 hours in the Dash-7 alone. She was dispatched to look for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's plane when it went down in Croatia in 1996. She was a favorite of top army commanders, known for taking her Harley-Davidson roaring down the desert highways outside El Paso, the home of Company D of the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion.

On the night she died, she'd been flying over the Andes for 13 months and was scheduled to take command of her company the following week.

The forecast for her flight path that moonless night was generally clear, with scattered and broken clouds at 10,000 feet and winds variable at 5 mph, according to mission records. The weather report heightens many people's doubts that an accomplished pilot, aided by advanced radar, could have flown dead-on into a mountain.

Of course, accidents are always possible. "You can't predict what can happen," said one soldier with experience flying the missions, echoing a common view. "The winds and fog and rain come out of nowhere. There can be a quick downdraft or wind shear that knocks you off course."

But inexplicably, the Army report says Odom had turned off the instrument radar (IFR) in favor of visual navigation (VFR) while flying through a 10,000-foot high moutain range in the pitch black night.

If that's true, how the Army knows it is another mystery. Curiously, and against tremendous odds, neither the aircraft's voice cockpit or flight data recorder were working that night, according to the Army's report, further eliminating any chance of gathering objective evidence on what caused the crash.

Additionally, maintenance records for the recorders "were not made available" to the accident investigating team, and the full-page conclusion of its findings on the recorders was also kept classified.

The Army says Odom flew into the mountain "at cruise airspeed," pulverizing the aircraft and crew. But the entire "Finding" section of the report, released to her family, is blacked out by Army censors.

"Why is that blacked out?" Chuck Odom asks. "Does that have something to do with national security?"

There's yet another troubling aspect to the incident: A U.S. Special Forces team was dispatched to blow up the remains of the aircraft. Its rationale was to destroy remnants of the classified electronic intelligence gear that had been on board, but photographs of the crash site show that that the aircraft already had been smashed to bits by hitting the ground at a force of 200 Gs.

An eyewitness called Chuck Odom to tell him that "he was deeply upset by that decision, and he was having trouble sleeping and so on," because it was so obviously unnecessary to set explosives to the wreckage. There had to be another reason, the eyewitness source told Odom, such as obliterating "traces of a missile hit."

Why? To obscure the clear and present danger of the flights, Odom says, and the fact that U.S. military personnel were involved in an undeclared war.

Finally, the corruption of Army Col. James Hiett, the top U.S. counter-narcotics official, and his drug-dealing wife, Laurie, upset the family tremendously.

The Hiett scandal obscures a more common -- and deadly -- reality, says Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador: the subversion of local narcotics-fighting agencies that the U.S. must work with.

"Cocaine is now Colombia's leading export," White says, ridiculing "the idea that an operation of that magnitude can take place without the cooperation of business, banking, transportation executives and the government, civil as well as military."

Now the corruption has spread to a top American official. With the U.S. working hand-in-hand with local authorities, the leak of sensitive information, like the flight paths of U.S. surveillance plane, is inevitable, White suggests.

"There's always been a fear of this by sensible people in the Pentagon," White said. "You know, the legend is that the United States military is incorruptible, but that has proven not to be the case. There are quite a few instances of this corruption."

A group of U.S. Army sergeants were corrupted by the Noriega regime in Panama, a handful of local and federal prosecutors have succumbed, and customs agents are regularly arrested for taking bribes, but there's been nothing like the arrest of Hiett and his wife to surface -- yet.

Shafer can't help but wonder whether the corruption tied to Hiett had anything to do with her daughter's death. But no evidence of that has surfaced.

"It's been very, very hard on her," Chuck Odom says gently of his mother-in-law. "The bottom line," he says of his late wife, "is that she was a great gal, a great soldier, a great wife and no one in this family will ever get over this loss. We just go on numbly each day."

In a morbid coincidence, he notes, she died on their seventh wedding anniversary. The family will gather for a memorial ceremony next month in her hometown of Brunswick, Md., where she is buried.

Beneath Odom's grief, however, is a steady, quiet determination to get to the bottom of his wife's death, about which there remain so many unanswered questions. Odom, who has had sensitive intelligence assignments himself, says he will not give up until he gets all the facts.

Jennifer's mother, meanwhile, says she's a long way from being over her daughter's death. She still thinks about the day, weeks after Odom died, when the doorbell rang unexpectedly. When Shafer opened the door, she saw a UPS truck driving away, and found a small cardboard box at her feet. She opened it up. Inside were a handful of her daughter's personal effects, unceremoniously shipped home to Maryland with no condolence message from her Army superiors or colleagues.

"You get up every day feeling sick, and there's nothing you can take for it," said Shafer, lines of unending sadness etched in her face.

At the very least, she wants the Clinton administration to come clean about how deep it's involved in South America's drug wars, now that Congress is about to add $1.3 billion in direct military aid to Colombias army.

"What are we hiding here?" she asks. "If that happens to be our cause, let's be upfront about it."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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