A Spy Mission Gone Wrong

The telegram from the Pentagon arrived more than a year ago, but Joseph Beard Sr. doesn't want to believe his son is dead. U.S. Air Force M/Sgt. Joseph Beard Jr., 34, an A student and high-school football star, flew in spy planes in the Latin American drug war. On April 24,1992, he was reported missing off the Peruvian coast. "The government is not telling us the right story," says Beard Sr. Maybe, he hopes, his son is still alive-perhaps under CIA cover.

Sergeant Beard is dead. The government knows it. He was sucked out of a C-130H at 18,500 feet, through a hole blown in the plane by Peruvian fighter jets. Four other American crewmen were wounded. But the U.S. and Peruvian governments don't want anyone to find out why. The Pentagon has made public little about the incident, except to clear both countries of serious wrongdoing. But NEWSWEEK has obtained hundreds of pages of secret documents that raise troubling questions about a spy mission gone wrong.

The C-130H that lifted off from Howard Air Force Base in Panama on April 24, 1992, was part of Operation Furtive Bear. Crammed with cameras and sensors, the converted transport planes once spied on the Soviet military. With the cold war over, they now fly against Latin drug lords. The mission of Capt. Pete Eunice and his 13 crewmen was to secretly photograph cocaine labs and airstrips in Peru's coca-rich Upper Huallaga Valley. The crew never trusted the Peruvian military, which had shot at other U.S. aircraft. Washington had just cut off military aid to Peru after President Alberto Fujimori assumed dictatorial powers. Angry, the Peruvian military had taken over municipal airfields in the Upper Huallaga, with orders to get tough with suspicious planes.

Captain Eunice's spy plane had photographed one of the fields when two Peruvian planes scrambled to intercept the C-130H. The simple solution: land or radio the nearby counternarcotics base at Santa Lucia to call off the intercept. But under rules left over from the cold war, these air force spy planes couldn't deal with anyone on the ground. The C-130H crew quickly pulled in its cameras and infrared sensors; Eunice banked toward the west coast.

The plane's only lifeline was a tangled intelligence operation in Panama. The Furtive Bear plane first had to radio the U.S. Southern Command's Joint Reconnaissance Center, which in turn rang up the neighboring Southern Region Operations Center, which actually controlled counterdrug missions. SouthRoc radioed a joint radar station in northern Peru. But the Americans there couldn't talk to their Peruvian counterparts: the only Spanish-speaking American was a guard who was off duty. Peruvian officers at Santa Lucia radioed their Lima headquarters to warn that an unidentified cargo plane had been spotted. A U.S. sergeant was sitting in Lima headquarters, but nobody asked him about the plane. Instead, headquarters alerted the coastal defense.

Aboard the C-130H, the crew thought they were home free. Sixty miles off the Peruvian coast, Captain Eunice swung north toward Panama. He thought he was safely outside Peru's 12-mile limit. He wasn't told that Peru claimed 200 miles. At 4:58 p.m., according to a secret chronology obtained by NEWSWEEK, the C-130H was intercepted by two Peruvian Su-22 fighters. The jets roared up so close that the Americans could feel their engine vibrations and see the eyes of the Peruvian pilots. The jets rocked their wings, the standard signal for "follow me." Eunice radioed his HQ in Panama. His orders: ignore the Peruvians and head north.

As the fighters buzzed the C-130H, Sergeant Beard and his crew mate Ron Hetzel peered out a rear window. They noticed puffs of smoke from under the wings of an oncoming jet. Beard shoved Hetzel to the floor, saving his life. Several 23-mm rounds blasted a gaping hole in the Plexiglas bubble. As the cabin decompressed, Hetzel looked up to see Beard sucked out of the hole-with no parachute.

The C-130H dived and headed for the Peruvian coast. Eunice desperately searched for a place to land. "Mayday! Mayday!" his copilot screamed into the radio. The Peruvian jets swooped in for two more attacks. The rear cargo compartment exploded; rounds ripped through the plane's thin skin. Hetzel was sliced by shrapnel. Another crewman, Peter Paquette, slumped in his seat and looked down to see a round red stain growing on his flight suit. Other crewmen yanked film out of cameras to expose it and poured hydraulic fluid over electronic tapes, to erase their mission.

With the plane riddled by shells, its fuel tanks leaking, the numberthree engine destroyed and three of four tires flat, Captain Eunice made an expert landing at an airfield near Talara on the coast. Fifty Peruvian soldiers toting AK-47s quickly circled the plane. The base commander, Col. Carlos Portillo Vasquez, left "no doubt" that his pilots knew they shot at a U.S. plane, according to a secret U.S. Embassy cable. But back in Lima, Peruvian officials told a different story. The jet pilots did not know the plane was American, they said. The black USAF letters were not clearly visible; the plane did not respond to warnings. The Peruvian pilots thought it was a drug plane. U.S. Embassy officials scoffed: drug runners don't fly in C-13OHs. Some Pentagon officials speculated that the Peruvians fired because they suspected the Americans of spying on secret dealings between corrupt Peruvian military officers and traffickers.

Whatever the truth, neither side tried very hard to find it. Too much was at stake. Senior Pentagon officials had concluded that the drug war in Peru was a loser. Of 3,816 aircraft tracked out of the Andean nations during the six months before the attack on the C-130H, only 11 were forced down, according to a secret report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But drugs are the Southern Command's new war, and hope springs eternal among its top officers. Gen. George Joulwan insisted to NEWSWEEK that SouthCom could cut off the cocaine flow by the end of the decade. The Drug Enforcement Administration doesn't want to lose its counternarcotics base at Santa Lucia-and Peru doesn't want to lose U.S. largesse.

So what should have been a serious probe became a joke. Each side refused to let the other interview its pilots. When a U.S. officer went to recover the C-130H, he was presented with a $20,000 bill-Peruvian expenses for attacking the plane. When the American objected, the Peruvians parked a truck across the runway to prevent a takeoff. The Peruvian pilots who opened fire were awarded commendations.

U.S. protests got the plane freed and the commendations withdrawn. But some officials remain unsatisfied. Under pressure from the Pentagon, the State Department sent a mild letter asking Peru to compensate Beard's family-and was ignored. The crew sounded out the Pentagon about medals for saving the plane and for combat wounds. They'll get a trophy instead. Air force officers first promised that Beard's two children in Michigan would receive $467 a month in death benefits, but the Veterans Affairs Department later ruled they were eligible for only $194 a month. Beard's mother, Ruth, received a form letter from the White House expressing thanks from "a grateful nation." Disgusted, she shoved it into a dresser drawer.