2 pilots home in Houston after Panama drops case
HOUSTON -- Two Texas pilots who were released after being arrested in Panama on suspicion of money laundering arrived home Wednesday in Houston.
American Jet International pilots Carl Moody and Kenneth Chonoski were greeted at George Bush Intercontinental Airport by a crowd of family, friends and co-workers that included company CEO Roger Woolsey and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson.
"We've missed you all, missed everybody," Moody told the crowd. "Nice thing is we're home and we don't have to go back."
"There was a lot of cheering, back-slapping, hugs and tears," company spokesman Bruce Hicks said.
The pilots were arrested after landing in Panama in May 2011. Inspectors found $2.3 million in the bags of one of their passengers, a Honduran traveler.
"We had just finished a concert in Central America and were flying the promoters back to their home country and the passengers actually had a suitcase full of cash," American Jet President Robert Woolsey said.
"Then they (customs officials) immediately asked whose bags are these, and the passengers quickly said they didn't know," Woolsey said.
The pilots were imprisoned without charges. Except for leaves to renew their pilots' licenses in the United States, they remained in detention until a judge in Panama City dismissed the case against them last week.
"These were two guys just doing their job (and) got caught up with something," Hicks said. "They have lost 18 months of their lives in the process."
Moody said of the prison in which they were detained: "It's a very dirty, dangerous, violent place and we're very, very happy to be out of there."
They were allowed to return to the U.S. twice to renew their pilot's licenses.
"They were allowed to leave Panama on their word that they would return, and they did," Hicks said. "These are two solid, stand-up guys who got caught up in somebody else's problem."
Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the pilots' plight at a congressional hearing earlier this year, denying claims they were part of a U.S. undercover operation.
Moody, who had been with American Jet International only a month before his arrest, has missed much while away, including his son's graduation from Army Ranger school and deployment to Afghanistan. Chonoski, who had been with the company seven years, had to postpone his wedding.
"It's a cumbersome system," Chonoski said, "and it takes a while to work your way through it. But we got through it, and innocence prevailed and we're home and we're ready to go back to our lives."
American Jet International has been paying salaries, legal costs, housing and other expenses for the two men during the ordeal.
"Joann and I are going to get in our motor home and we're going to tour around in the bus and see some people," Moody said. "And if we still have a job, go back to work."