Book Review - "Chasing the Squirrel"
by Jack E. Call, Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, E-mail: email@example.com
The Wally Thrasher Saga
In 2018, Ron Peterson, Jr., published his first book, UNDER THE TRESTLE. That book tells the story of the investigation of the presumed murder of Gina Renee Hall, a Radford University student who disappeared in June of 1980 after leaving a dance in Blacksburg, Virginia. That investigation resulted in the prosecution and ultimate conviction of Stephen Epperly for Gina’s murder, even though Gina’s body has still not been found.
Peterson’s latest book is also set in the New River Valley of Virginia. As suggested by the subtitle of the book, CHASING THE SQUIRREL: THE PURSUIT OF NOTORIOUS DRUG SMUGGLER WALLY THRASHER, Peterson’s book tells the story of Pulaski native, Wallace Thrasher. The book falls neatly into two distinct segments – Wally’s life before his disappearance and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance in November of 1984 and its aftermath. While both segments are interesting, the circumstances surrounding Wally’s disappearance are extremely compelling.
Wally Thrasher was the All-American high school boy – athletic, good-looking, and charming. After serving an enlistment in the Navy, Wally took flying lessons on a whim and became hooked. One of his flying buddies introduced Wally to a man who was in the marijuana-smuggling business. Wally’s reputation as an outstanding pilot resulted in an offer to fly marijuana from South America to the United States. The combination of earning big money and experiencing the thrills that came from flying so as to elude law enforcement was all the enticement Wally needed. Soon he was making regular smuggling flights.
Although Wally’s good looks and charming personality meant that he never lacked for female companionship, when he met Olga Wright in 1977, he was immediately smitten and eventually persuaded her to marry him in December of that year. By all accounts he was a loving husband and father.
Drug smuggling was obviously a risky business. On two occasions, Wally had to conduct emergency landings of his plane. In 1974, Wally and his co-pilot had to land their plane on a road in Mexico because they had been given a tank of bad fuel and their engines gave out. That episode resulted in his capture by Mexican soldiers and imprisonment for a little over two years. In 1982, Wally crash landed another plane loaded with marijuana in the Everglades when the airport he was heading to was fogged in and he ran out fuel. That same year, he narrowly avoided serious injury when his landing gear broke off in a muddy landing strip near Miami. In 1981, two Cuban fighter jets forced Wally to land at an airport in Bimini, in the Bahama Islands. That incident required payment of a substantial bounty to corrupt government officials to effect Wally’s release.
These events, as well as the constant fear of being caught, caused Wally and Olga to make a couple of aborted attempts at going straight. Wally obtained a real estate license in Florida and on another occasion, he and Olga opened a furniture store in Florida. However, neither of these operations were particularly lucrative, especially compared to the substantial fees Wally was paid to transport marijuana. After each of these attempts at a making a legitimate living, Wally was pulled back into the drug-smuggling business.
Wally managed to elude American law enforcement officials, though, in spite of the fact he was on the law enforcement radar screens (figuratively speaking). This was due to several factors. First, Wally generally avoided the transportation of drugs other than marijuana. He thought that law enforcement’s efforts at catching marijuana smugglers were likely to be less extensive than their efforts to catch smugglers of harder drugs. Plus, somewhat oddly perhaps, he saw much less harm in people using marijuana than he saw in the consumption of harder drugs, including cocaine. Second, he avoided transporting very large shipments of even marijuana, based on a similar sort of logic. Third, for most of his career, he was involved in smuggling operations as the pilot only – no involvement in planning.
In addition, Wally was an extremely capable pilot who could engage in tactics designed to avoid detection that might have led to the demise of less capable pilots. At times, he would fly at extremely low altitudes over the ocean to avoid radar detection. He would also sometimes engage in a tactic where he would fly so close to another plane with a legitimate flight plan that the two displayed as one target on radar. And last, but certainly not least, Wally seemed to have an almost sixth sense about when a plane or a business relationship had become “hot” and needed to be changed or terminated.
The turning point in Wally’s career came when he developed a relationship with Nelson King in 1984. Wally had just begun an affiliation with a new head of a drug operation, Doug Griffin. Griffin knew that Wally needed a co-pilot and recommended King. Wally and King hit it off, and Wally took him on, teaching him about flying as they went along. Around the same time, Wally began flying marijuana out of a new location – Belize. In October of 1984, Wally had a scheduled pick-up in Belize. Just before he was to depart, he received word that a favorite aunt had died and that the family wanted Wally to be a pall-bearer at her funeral. Rather than re-schedule the pickup, Wally let King persuade him that he was capable of handling the flight with another co-pilot, Mark Bailey.
Wally made this decision against his better judgement, but he didn’t want to upset the people in Belize, with whom he was just beginning to develop a strong relationship. What’s more, King had flown this route with Wally several times, and the weather forecast looked good, making the flight appear to be relatively low-risk.
Wally knew that one of the risks associated with any flight into the New River Valley was the possibility of fog on Fancy Gap Mountain, just north of the Virginia-North Carolina border. Fancy Gap Mountain is notorious for the frequency of fog and high winds there, so Wally spent some time explaining to King that if he did encounter fog, he should be careful to fly “over the weather” and avoid flying “under” it.
King ended up making some very bad decisions. First, when he arrived in Belize, he told the suppliers there that Wally wanted this load “fronted,” with payment to be made later, even though Wally had given him $250,000 in cash to pay for the shipment. (Peterson is uncertain as to whether this was the result of some misunderstanding or because King intended to steal the $250,000). King’s second bad decision occurred when he encountered fog on Fancy Gap Mountain and chose to fly “under the weather,” in spite of Wally’s firm instructions not to do that.
As visibility continued to deteriorate, King made another bad decision. He decided that it would be wise to let Bailey take control of the plane while King attempted to navigate the plane. While King was sorting out the navigation situation, the plane flew into the side of Fancy Gap Mountain at 175 miles an hour. The crash killed Bailey and set the plane on fire. Miraculously, King was thrown out of the plane during the crash. He suffered serious lacerations and fractured his leg in several places, but somehow he survived the crash.
For Wally Thrasher, things went steadily downhill from this point on. King managed to reach a pay phone and call Wally, who drove immediately from Dublin, Virginia, to a restaurant in Fancy Gap to pick up King. They devised a plan to make it appear that King had been injured in a motorcycle crash and decided to take King to Florida to get him the medical attention he needed. Wally knew he was in a bad way now and needed money. When he contacted his Belize contacts to see about making another run to raise some money, he discovered that King had not paid the Belize suppliers the money that Wally had given King for that purpose.
The money situation was now getting more desperate. Wally had about a thousand pounds of marijuana stored in a self-storage facility near his home in Virginia. He contacted an acquaintance named Joe Selby in New York about purchasing the marijuana. Selby agreed but insisted that Wally help drive the marijuana to New York. During an overnight stop on that trip, Selby absconded with the marijuana.
Peterson sums up well where Wally stood at this point. “He had lost his favorite airplane and a load of marijuana. A man he had mentored stole a quarter of a million in cash from him. Wally owed money to a kingpin in Belize. Another guy he never should have trusted had just stolen $300,000 worth of weed. He’d just had his life threatened [by the people in Belize], the cops were on his ass, and he was stranded in New Jersey. October had not been a good month for the squirrel.” (Page 180)
What happened at this point is the subject of some conjecture. What is known is that Wally borrowed a plane from a friend with whom he had had dealings in the past. He flew to Belize, apparently in an effort to deal with the threats he was receiving from his Belize suppliers about the $250,000 that Wally owed them.
Two days later, on November 7, Olga received a phone call from a friend and business associate of Wally’s, Dickie Sinnott. Sinnott indicated that he had received a call from one of the Belize suppliers with a report that Wally had crashed on take-off from Belize with a load of marijuana and had died in the ensuing fire. Sinnott had sent a pilot to Belize, who had witnessed the crash site and reported that Wally’s body had been burned to ashes. Some time later, Wally’s wedding ring was delivered to Olga, as a kind of confirmation of Wally’s death.
However, no other real evidence of Wally’s death has ever surfaced. Peterson concludes the book with a chapter that discusses whether it is possible that Wally Thrasher did not die in Belize. He cites an “accident report” in Belize that documents a fiery crash of a plane piloted by Wally Thrasher (although Peterson does not make clear either the source of the report or its authorship). Olga is convinced that Wally is dead. She is certain that if he did not die in 1984 in Belize, his love for her and his family would have motivated him to contact her in some way. On the other hand, Wally’s attorney at the time of his disappearance, Max Jenkins, was always of the opinion that Wally did not die in Belize. Don Lincoln, the DEA agent who was most involved in the investigation of the Thrasher drug ring, also doubts that Wally died in Belize.
Although the story of Wally Thrasher is spell-binding, the story of his disappearance and possible death is the most intriguing aspect of his story. A fascinating cast of characters join the story at this point. After Wally became aware of the crash of his plane and Nelson King’s survival of that crash, he reached out to Max Jenkins, a Radford attorney, for legal assistance. (The fact that Wally contacted Jenkins based on a phone call recommendation from a local judge is another strange aspect to the story). Jenkins was something of a local legend in the New River Valley, the “go to” criminal defense attorney in the area in his day. When Olga called on Jenkins for assistance in proving Wally’s death so she could collect on his life insurance, Jenkins brought Carl McAfee of Norton, Virginia, into the case. McAfee had become nationally known for his involvement in the successful efforts to obtain the release of Gary Powers from Russian custody. Powers was shot down in Russian airspace while flying a U-2 spy plane for the CIA. He was released as the result of a prisoner exchange with Russia.
McAfee arranged for the production of a fraudulent death certificate to document Wally’s death from Jamaican authorities. Although McAfee was never prosecuted for doing this, he was later prosecuted and convicted on drug conspiracy and racketeering charges and served several months in a federal prison. Nevertheless, his license to practice law was restored in 1990.
Another interesting character who comes along late in the Wally Thrasher story is Keith Neely. Max Jenkins became concerned that the time necessary to attend to Olga Thrasher’s legal needs was interfering with his ability to attend to the demands of his other clients. As a result, he persuaded Olga to engage Keith Neely to assist in his representation of Olga. Neely was a talented local attorney who was almost in as much demand as a criminal defense attorney as Jenkins. Rumors quickly began to circulate that Olga and Neely had developed a romantic relationship (rumors that both strongly denied). What is known for certain is that Neely lived a flashy lifestyle, became involved in the use of drugs himself, and later spent several years in prison on drug and money laundering charges.
This book tells a number of interesting stories and tells them well. There are occasional misstatements. For example, in Peterson’s discussion of Nelson King’s state trial for felony murder (of Mark Bailey), he indicates that following King’s conviction, the presiding judge, Duane Mink, imposed the jury-recommended sentence of six years even though federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of five to twenty years. (Page 310) However, federal sentencing guidelines do not apply in state cases. On another occasion, Peterson indicates that the federal judge who sentenced Carl McAfee in his drug and money laundering case “pardoned” McAfee. (Page 324) However, judges do not pardon federally-convicted defendants; only the President of the United States possesses that authority. Rather, the judge in McAfee’s case exercised his power to reduce McAfee’s sentence.
These mistakes are relatively minor, though, and they do not detract from the readability of the book. More bothersome is a shortcoming noted in Peterson’s first book as well – the failure to cite sources. If anything, that shortcoming is even more noticeable and problematic in CHASING THE SQUIRREL than it was in UNDER THE TRESTLE. In UNDER THE TRESTLE, there were at least some footnotes; there are none in CHASING THE SQUIRREL. Peterson does include an acknowledgements section at the end of the book, which makes it clear that Olga Thrasher was a significant, if not his primary, source. Occasionally, the text indicates that information came from “federal documents” or the transcript of a conversation recorded by law enforcement officers, but for the most part, the reader has no idea where Peterson obtained his information. Sometimes, he has material in conversations in quotation marks where it appears highly unlikely that Peterson knows exactly what was said.
Even with these criticisms, this is a book worth reading. It is interesting that both of Peterson’s books have been set in the New River Valley and both include a significant mystery as a central feature of the book. In UNDER THE TRESTLE, the mystery is where Gina Hall’s body was disposed of. In CHASING THE SQUIRREL, the mystery is whether Wally Thrasher really died in 1984. Will Ron Peterson’s next book also focus on an unsolved mystery?
 This episode is the basis for the Tom Hanks movie “Bridge of Spies,” although McAfee is not portrayed in the movie.
 Peterson also does not point out that King’s felony murder conviction was overturned on appeal. Given that Peterson clearly intended this book to appeal to the general public, it is perhaps understandable that he fails to mention this fact. However, the decision of the Virginia Court of Appeals in King’s case is very significant in legal circles because it established a significant limitation on the scope of the felony murder rule (368 S.E. 2d, 1988).