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Sunday, April 30 2017 @ 04:31 PM EDT

Three Die in Secret U.S. Drug Spy Mission

Drug TraffickingBy CAMERON LANGFORD - CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (CN) - A plane crash near the Columbia-Panama border killed an American, and blew the cover on a drug surveillance operation run by a U.S. government contractor, the victim's daughter claims in Federal Court.

Jennifer Moore sued the United States of America, Sierra Nevada Corporation and New Frontier Innovations LLC for the estate of her father, Ralph James Dietz.

"Decedent was employed by Sierra Nevada and/or New Frontier as a part of an intelligence operation called 'Prospector,' a privatized United States counter drug-mission based in Panama operated on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the United States of America. ... New Frontier provided pilots and crews for Sierra Nevada's 'Prospector' mission," according to the complaint.

Dietz was on Sierra Nevada's spy plane the night of Oct. 5, 2013, when the pilot lost control and crashed into mountainous jungle at the border of Panama and Columbia, Moore says in the lawsuit.

"On or before the impact, the fuselage of the airplane ignited, burning the decedent's body," the complaint states.

Dietz was 66.

Moore claims New Frontier's pilot was blind in one eye and unqualified to fly the "modified" aircraft, which was loaded with surveillance equipment.

While the complaint gives no details about Dietz's role in the operation, Moore's attorney told Courthouse News that Dietz was conducting surveillance when the plane went down.

Sierra Nevada Corp., based near Reno, Nev., did not return a phone call and email seeking comment, and nobody answered the number listed for Virginia-based New Frontier Innovations.

Two other Americans and a Panamanian died in the crash, according to investigative reporter Aram Roston.

Operation Prospector was launched by a secret branch of the U.S. Air Force called "Big Safari" that granted Sierra Nevada a no-bid contract to track drug smuggling boats leaving Columbia, Roston reported for Vocativ.com.

Moore seeks damages for wrongful death and the "eternity of pain" her father suffered in the fiery crash before he died.

She is represented by John Curney with Curney, Farmer, House and Osuna of San Antonio. (Courthouse News Service)

Editor's Comment: A couple of observations. First of all (pet peeve) - it's "Colombia" not "Columbia." Secondly, see this related article; Exclusive: A Secret Mission, a One-Eyed Pilot, a Fiery Crash in Colombia which spells out the details of the mission and the crash.

I flew on similar "secret" anti drug missions for years while on active duty in the Air Force. They are "secret" mostly because they are intelligence collection missions, and the goal is to collect information on the drug traffickers, and to pass that intelligence to surface vessels so they can conduct an interdiction, seize the drugs, and arrest the traffickers. Of course if the bad guys knew when you were going to be up, where you would be flying, and your full capabilities then they would be better able to avoid detection. It's a never ending game of cat and mouse.

But it's not really a secret that the US is collecting intelligence information against drug traffickers - but the details of the means and methods are protected. Reporters always tend to get all giddy when something has been classified by the US government - and they want to know simply because they are not supposed to know - simple curiosity. For the most part, the work is thousands of hours of boredom penetrated by moments of excitement, or - as in this case - abject terror.

The details about the modifications to the aircraft are troubling. I flew on highly modified C-130 aircraft carrying the Comfy Levi and Senior Scout SIGINT collection packages. You never want to take changes to aircraft lightly, and on the surface it looks like these guys were playing sort of "fast and loose" with the rules. The aircraft was so highly modified it was only supposed to be used for "crew training and market surveys" according to its FAA airworthiness certificate - and that's not what these guys were doing when the pilot flew them into a mountain. The one-eyed pilot survived, so I'm sure he's been debriefed to exhaustion on this crash. Now he will also be deposed as a witness to this lawsuit.

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