Last Saturday, a private plane is said by investigators to have left a Waller County airport on a trip to west Texas. It's the return flight that has federal and local authorities involved and a search underway for the pilot/owner.
On Monday evening, the plane made an unexpected landing at the airport with the nose gear down, leaving a trail of sparks along the runway.
"About seven o'clock saw sparks on the runway; it was rather dark, no moon, and so they went to check on the downed aircraft," said Andrew Perry, Executive Director of Houston Executive Airport.
When airport workers arrived to assist the pilot and any passengers, they found an empty aircraft -- except for a duffle bag or two of marijuana.
"They had a nose gear collapsed, but no pilots or passengers in the airplane," said Perry. "It's really unusual."
Maybe not that unusual, considering the cargo -- duffle bags of dope with 75 to 100 pounds of marijuana were found just outside the plane; apparently too much to carry by the pilot and any passengers who vanished into the night. It's assumed they were picked up by a waiting plane.
"We're not so sure that if there was a ground contact they had a quick pick up and would've left the area," said Waller Co. Sheriff Glen Smith.
They left behind the merchandise, plus a computer and cell phones. As of Tuesday, the private plane is grounded as part of the investigation.
The aircraft itself is a 1968 Beechcraft Duke, was put up for auction in May after the owner's death, but it didn't sell. Three weeks ago, a new buyer is said to have put down a large part of the $60,000 asking price in cash and taken possession, even flying out of this same airport on Saturday.
The airplane flew in low, under the radar so to speak, which may have contributed to the nose gear mishap.
Smith believes it may have been a "touch and go" operation, in which drug planes skim the ground, dropping shipments to associates on the ground.
The airport is in the middle of a rural area, which makes it inviting to smugglers, however, the airport is also surrounded by security fences and plenty of cameras, which even recorded the pilot fueling up this weekend.
"There is surveillance film that's being pulled now as we speak," said Smith.
Smith says it's possible more drugs may have been dropped prior to the emergency landing. No flight plans are believed to have been filed by the pilot.
The buyer is said to be from Georgia, but is originally from Jamaica, and is said by the sheriff to have a lengthy criminal drug history, including several prison sentences for drug possession on the East Coast. His name has not yet been released by authorities.
Authorities are hunting for the pilot of a small plane carrying a large amount of marijuana that skidded off a runway Monday night at the Houston Executive Airport in west Houston.
Federal investigators were going through the plane Tuesday morning checking for fingerprints and other evidence. They've already found a cell phone and iPad that were left behind.
Officials still don't know where the plane took off from, but we're told it was flying below FAA guidelines, basically very low.
The Waller County Sheriff's Office says at around 7:15pm Monday, the twin engine aircraft attempted to land at the airport when it experienced front landing gear malfunction and skidded down the runway on its nose. The plane came to a stop in a grassy area just off the runway.
This is a six-seater aircraft and authorities say there was at least one person, possibly two people on board. They abandoned the aircraft after that rough landing and must have run off.
When airport employees rushed over to see if anyone was injured, they didn't find anyone, but during their search investigators did find several large compressed bundles of marijuana outside the aircraft, in a nearby field. The Waller County Sheriff says right now there appears to be between 75-125 pounds of it, but they're still searching the plane and the area so that number could grow.
Eyewitness News spoke with the airport's executive director who believes the people on board took off carrying the bags, then ditched them when they came to a fence.
"We have a security wildlife fence around the airport; 10 foot chain link fence barbed wire. We had people on the scene pretty quick, so I'm sure it was a surprise to the occupants in the aircraft," said Andrew Perry with the Houston Executive Airport.
Investigators confirm this plane has been to this airport before and fueled up, so law enforcement is checking surveillance video at the airport to see if they can identify the pilot.
The plane's registration comes back to a gentleman who is deceased. Investigators say it appears the plane was sold at an auction six months ago and never re-registered.
The FAA and the Department of Homeland Security are investigating.
It's not clear where the pot on the plane was headed to, but a 2009 Justice Department study found that marijuana and cocaine from Mexico often moves through Houston on its way to other big cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. And then that drug money travels back to Mexico through that same route.